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How HIV Stigma Affects LGBTQ Teens

By , 19, Staff Writer Originally Published: April 30, 2021 Revised: April 30, 2021

Young people in the U.S. today were not around a few decades ago to see the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic at its peak. Since then, there have been advances in the prevention and treatment of HIV. (If left untreated, HIV damages the immune system and leads to a late-stage HIV infection that is called AIDS.) However, the stigma surrounding HIV still affects teens, especially those who are LGBTQ.

Homophobia and transphobia persist and result in a lack of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, a lack of adequate health care for LGBTQ teens and, too often, homelessness.

Homophobia and transphobia persist and result in a lack of LGBTQ-inclusive sex education, a lack of adequate health care for LGBTQ teens and, too often, homelessness. This means there are LGBTQ teens who don’t get accurate information about HIV, don’t get tested and don’t get treated for HIV if they need it. As someone who is part of the LGBTQ community and someone who wants to end discrimination and the spread of misinformation, I was curious to explore what HIV/AIDS means when you’re an LGBTQ teen.

Understanding the History

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. started in the early 1980s. During that time, LGBTQ people, especially gay men, were associated with the illness in a discriminatory way. AIDS was briefly referred to as “gay-related immunity deficiency” and by some, as a “gay plague.” At the time, a common misconception, which some people still believe, was that only gay men could get HIV. There were other myths, too, such as the belief that you could get HIV just by standing next to someone who was HIV positive. This led to gay men being ostracized even further. Some people used homophobia as an excuse to blame gay men for contracting the virus.

Even though progress has been made in our understanding and treatment of HIV, LGBTQ people continue to feel the effects of this history. “HIV/AIDS has such a huge impact on the world and in particular the LGBTQ community,” says Iris, 17, of Raleigh, NC. “We have never really recovered from the impact… So many people have died from AIDS, but while it was happening, our government and other governments did nothing close to what they needed to do. HIV/AIDS is something that haunts our community.” It’s awful that so many people got sick and died without proper medical attention and that they weren’t seen as equal.

Misinformation and Discrimination Today

Today there is still plenty of discrimination against those who are HIV positive and a lot of misinformation about HIV. This may be because not enough students learn about the history of HIV/AIDS, and sometimes students are actually given inaccurate information in sex ed. “I learned that condoms can’t stop HIV—from my health teacher,” says Alex, 17, of Lawrenceville, GA. This is 100 percent false. When used properly, condoms are highly effective at preventing the transmission of HIV. But if young people aren’t being told this—or if they’re being told the opposite, like Alex was—they may not practice safer sex. Only 29 states and the District of Columbia require that sex education be taught. And in 15 states, education about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases doesn’t have to be medically accurate, according to SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change. So it’s no surprise that many of us aren’t getting the medically accurate education we need to understand how to prevent HIV and what the treatment options are if we do contract it.

Many young people are also still being told that HIV is something that affects just gay men. Jenna, 19, of Lewisburg, PA, has been told that “only gay men can get it.” And Lily, 17, of Lawrence, NJ, says she has been told “that HIV only affects gay people, specifically gay men.” This is not true. It’s possible for anyone to contract HIV. If one partner in any couple is HIV positive, it is possible for the other partner to contract HIV through unprotected sex.

Homophobia and Transphobia

It is true that there are higher rates of HIV among gay and bisexual men, who made up 70 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But there are specific reasons why this is the case. The CDC notes that stigma, discrimination, lack of health care and access to partners in a community with a higher proportion of HIV infection puts gay and bisexual men at greater risk for HIV. While gay and bisexual men are at risk for HIV, the idea that only gay men can get HIV is inaccurate and can lead people to further discriminate against them.

People can be at risk for HIV regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Some gender identities are particularly vulnerable. The rate of new HIV diagnoses among transgender people was three times higher than the national average, according to the CDC. There is not much research on transgender young people and HIV testing and prevention. But a study in AIDS and Behavior found that discrimination from health care providers who do not affirm trans young people’s gender identity is one factor that keeps HIV positive trans young people from seeking out testing and continuing treatment.

More Vulnerable

A lot of us LGBTQ teens have grown up being told indirectly or directly that there’s something wrong with us. Homophobia and transphobia can make us feel bad or broken. Indeed, LGBTQ teens are often abused or bullied by others. The stress of homophobic or transphobic bullying and violence and/or a lack of family or peer support can lead to mental distress and engagement in behaviors associated with HIV, according to the CDC.

Homophobia and transphobia can also make it harder to trust people, including health care providers. LGBTQ teens are sometimes isolated and either forced to or voluntarily leave unsafe, unsupportive home environments. All of these things can make us less likely to seek out testing and care for health issues, including HIV.

Ending the Stigma

To further complicate things, HIV/AIDS is sometimes treated like a joke. There are “that gave me AIDS” memes that use the stigma and fear of HIV/AIDS as a joke. I’ve even heard students at my high school say that something annoying “gave them AIDS.” Not only is that incorrect because you can’t get AIDS (it develops from HIV), it’s also ignorant and insensitive. Even more disturbing is that once you turn HIV/AIDS into a joke, it can make it even harder for teens to gather the courage to talk about it with partners. It could become another reason why we don’t get tested.

It won’t be easy to break down decades of built-up homophobia, transphobia and stigma. What we can do, though, is take little steps to challenge one misconception or discriminatory comment at a time. Even if it’s just speaking up to someone who makes a “that gave me AIDS” joke, that’s better than not saying anything at all. Another not-so-little step in reducing shame and stigma is making sure our schools are educating us about the important history of HIV/AIDS—history everyone should be aware of. Schools should also be providing medically accurate information about prevention, testing and treatment, so we can all be healthy and avoid spreading discrimination, hate and misinformation.

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