“Everybody hurts sometimes…”
I know I’m walking on thin ice with many people who read these blogs, but here goes nothing…
I’ve seen a few anti-HIV stigma campaigns recently and for some reason they bother me. They usually have pictures of pleasant, attractive people living with HIV and I understand the underlying message is “we’re just like you!”: shiny, happy people living shiny, happy lives.
While there is a tremendous need to battle against the stigma associated with living with HIV, the images that I’m not seeing in these campaigns are as telling as those that I do see. I don’t see the gaunt faces of those of us with lypoatrophy. I don’t see nearly enough elders. I don’t see loneliness, depression and isolation: only happiness and vibrancy.
There seems to me a kind of disregard for the gloomy side of living with HIV. I know too many people that struggle to make it through a day lost in their own dark night. I read all the positive affirmations posted on Facebook and wonder if this is some attempt to “create” happiness – or at least the air of happiness.
Stigmatization and discrimination are very real things. They assault us from the outside of ourselves and we have the option to face it and talk about it (which we most often do) or to hide ourselves away. We should not live in shame, but I think we need to be realistic that we aren’t likely to change the minds of many. In some ways these campaigns are preaching to the converted. They make us feel better, but they probably do very little to alter the landscape of fear and loathing. There was a survey not that long ago, where somewhere in the area of 40% of HIV-negative gay men wished that the positive ones would simply go away. The bad old days of
“put them on an island” are still with us.
I suppose the benefit of these campaigns really lies in comforting ourselves. The more we can be open about living with HIV and the more we talk about it, helps to create a space where at least we can feel okay, and those who are newly diagnosed can feel okay. And feeling okay is a step toward being a little healthier.
Alternately, perhaps we need to show the real effects of stigma – the fear that is instilled, the depression suffered, the loneliness and isolation that so many of us experience; we need to show that hatred destroys people. We need to show the old men and women, the people with lypoatrophy, the people who have lost mobility: with these some sense of self-esteem is lost.
If we, as people living with HIV, continue to focus only on the shiny, happy aspects of living longer and being more active we may be shooting ourselves in the collective foot. We may in fact be convincing ourselves that the only people living with HIV that are worth anything are the young, the healthy and the beautiful.
And all of them smiling in a campaign of facile picture perfection.