Enjoying the nice warm weather we had recently, a colleague and I headed out for an evening beer on a patio. My colleague informed me that tonight she and her husband would be meeting their new neighbours. “What are you going to tell them you do for a living?” I asked.
It’s THE question to ask when you’re meeting someone new. It is a difficult question for a lot of people to answer. When I was growing up, my father was an independent agricultural market analyst & strategist. Try explaining that to the kids at age 8. I myself have rarely found myself in positions where my job is easy to explain. For example, when I was getting my Masters degree in Sociology, I often had to explain that no, Sociology is not psychology, no I am not secretly analyzing you, and no, being a graduate student does mean I am an unemployed recent graduate.
But being in the HIV & AIDS field is a whole other ballgame, because people are really ignorant on the issues, and where ignorance looms, so does stigma. You’re never quite sure when it’s going to make an appearance.
When I was signing the lease to my new house, I received the inevitable question from my landlord - “what do you do for a living?” I knew it was coming and I had been worrying about how to answer this question. I feared that my landlord would be totally ignorant of HIV transmission methods and would have concerns that I could potentially infect him through using the toilet or you know, breathing in his house.
Even if you don’t encounter stigma, educating people can be plain exhausting. Usually you get one of two responses: complete silence, or a barrage of questions. Sometimes silence, although annoying, can be somewhat relieving. You may remember from my post Living in Two Worlds what it’s like when you’re trying to have a beer but end up lecturing someone on the difference between HIV and AIDS:
"I am happy to educate people and hope that it does some good. I’m a patient person. But I usually end up secretly wanting to smack someone, especially when their queries have subtle or not-so-subtle undertones of a judgemental attitude - or are just plain stupid. And I often end up wishing for an opportunity to drink my beer without having to explain how HIV is transmitted, or what the difference is between HIV & AIDS, or, as was in the case last week, that my – or anyone else’s - sero-status is none of their business."
I know some people who lie outright about what they do. At a vicarious trauma workshop I heard of one woman who tells people she works in “manufacturing.” Another said she calls herself a dog groomer.
So, my colleague and I hatched a plan to help her avoid having to talk about injection drug use over cocktails. Mostly it involved being honest but vague, by using broad terms like “youth” “outreach” “education” and “blood-borne diseases”.
I deduced my own plan of what to say, too. Borrowing from terms I used when I worked in a hospital, I have now prepared the following script: I’m in health care. What field? Psycho-social. Where? At a private clinic.
Okay. So it’s not really the truth but frankly, it’s close enough.
I actually used this on the weekend. When my teardrop-tattooed, 6ft 6”, all-muscle mover asked me what I did for a living, I used the “I work in health care in a private clinic” line. No further questions. Done. Believe me, I did not want to get into the HIV transmission discussion in that moment.
Am I contributing to stigma by not telling people what I do? Maybe. But in the defence of myself and others who may lie, we talk about the issues all day long and almost ceaselessly put ourselves in the role of advocates and educators. Our work doesn’t end at 5:00; it continues at the salon, the hairdresser, the dentist’s office, the auto-body shop (yeah, that one was a doozy), the bar and at the gym, and on Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.
When you work in an ASO, you don’t have to have HIV to be the recipient of stigma. Sure, many times people make assumptions that I am HIV negative because I’m a young woman, but they may easily assume I am HIV positive, and thanks to the aforementioned ignorance and stigma, that makes me fear discrimination in housing and other areas. So between fearing discrimination and simply needing a break from the role of an educator, maybe a little white lie once in a while doesn’t hurt.