When you think of someone living with HIV, you probably don’t think of a story like mine, right?
My (poz) heterosexual community is an unheard voice, one that is often silent by choice. HIV awareness has been left to already ostracized groups within our society, such as the gay community. Although HIV affects us all, as seen in my previous blog “Straight Up: Why the Heterosexual Story Matters”, it seems others have been left to carry the weight of this epidemic.
We hear the stories of those living with HIV, but can’t help but wonder to ourselves, where are the straight men and why don’t they speak up? The answer is clear…
Stigma and shame.
Heterosexual men are climbing an uphill battle, confronted with the dilemma of facing an already stereotyped diagnosis, all the while trying to find where they fit in within society. Caught in between a rock and a hard place, many heterosexuals, especially straight men, feel alienated, both from the heterosexual community and the broader HIV positive community as a whole.
Put yourself in the shoes of a heterosexual male living with HIV for just a moment…
You’ve finally made the decision to share your story with a friend; this is a big day. You muster up the courage to repeat the three words that for so long have been reserved for gay men and IV drug users: "I am HIV-Positive."
He asks the common yet stigmatizing question, "how did you contract HIV?"
A simple question turns into what seems like an interrogation; you’ve now broken the stereotype, so deeply embedded in the minds of the world.
He seems curious, puzzled, and at a loss for words as he tries to grasp the information you are disclosing to him. Not only are you breaking down barriers in terms of his education on HIV but you are changing an image in his mind that is so deeply attached to this virus, leaving him in disbelief and you are now expected to prove your own identity.
Trying to find ‘strength in numbers’ you look around for examples of other straight men living with the virus, you come up empty handed. You want to show him that HIV doesn’t discriminate, that it’s a stereotype.
As you look through the epidemiological data and find heterosexual men often missing from the statistics, you feel more and more out of place. You look to campaigns aimed at promoting HIV awareness and prevention yet only see the stereotyped image plastered across the board. It seems straight men don’t need support either as you find yourself as the only straight man in a mostly gay male support group.
Every other person you know living with HIV isn’t like you it seems, so you begin to question yourself… Is the stereotype really a stereotype, or indeed the very essence of what it means to be HIV positive?
The illustration above paints the picture of the stigma and shame we face as HIV-positive straight men. It is a multifaceted web of discrimination that often goes unnoticed by those who don’t experience it. We are the black sheep of the epidemic, the odd men out.
The outside world labels us while our own HIV community questions us. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, many straight men simply don’t see the point in adding their voice to the crowds of those living with HIV.
Often HIV advocacy is grouped together with LGBT rights and that, in my opinion, has contributed to the stigma we face. As someone who fully supports LGBT rights, I am also someone who believes they are two distinct battles we must fight on different fronts. By lumping the two issues together we perpetuate the very stigma that we aim to defeat.
Sharing the most intimate detail in ones life, such as an HIV status. takes guts. We have to be prepared for the reactions that might result from taking that step. Straight men see the stigma that our gay brothers and lesbian sisters face simply because of who they love. The fear of being discriminated against in a similar manner often overrides the possible positive outcomes that can come from putting a face to the virus.
In addition identifying as an HIV positive straight male brings into question power, masculinity, and role as protector and provider.
Faced with the unique challenges of fatherhood and in many cases being the sole provider of the family, many straight men feel inadequate, as if they haven’t measured up to the world’s standards of what's acceptable.
Our own HIV community at times doubts us, stating men who claim to be positive and straight are simply on the down low and confused. I’ve experienced this first hand as those I previously thought to be well educated HIV advocates have stated they don’t believe female to male transmission truly exists. I must have slept with a man in my life or my ex-girlfriend must have slept with someone who was bi, they say. The act of two men having sex must have been involved somewhere along the line because that’s the general consensus.
Even in my journey to HIV advocacy I often found many HIV organizations who were not interested in sharing my story. It’s sad to say even when we speak up, whether it to be to find support or put a face to the virus, we often continue to face the same stigma.
Because of the stigma more heterosexual men are being affected by this virus. In return more heterosexual men are not getting tested and in some instances then passing the virus on to their partner(s). Also heterosexual men often do not seek support and have lower levels of adherence as a result.
In order to end this epidemic and the stigma surrounding it, straight male stigma must be addressed.
Straight men need to be more vocal and the HIV community needs to be more accepting. This will then cause a trickle down affect to reduce the stigma from the outside world. Unity is vital for the framework of humanity; we need to unify. It’s important to practice what we preach.
It’s time that "HIV doesn’t discriminate" becomes more than just a phrase said out of routine but an action we actually believe. Equality is for all, including heterosexual men living with HIV!
This article previously appeared on Joshua’s own blog Pozitive Hope here.