Since the start of this semester, I have been interning at the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN). Thanks to an Elton John AIDS Foundation internship secured by Point Foundation, I can assist NCAAN without a cost to this nonprofit organization.
After accepting my sexuality as a gay man, one of my biggest fears became contracting HIV. I come from a low-income, Latino household, one that used to be undocumented; there were many barriers that existed for my family and me to have access to information that would destigmatize HIV and its intersection with queerness in our communities. I had this idea that because I was gay, I would contract HIV, and then my family members and loved ones would disown me. The culmination of this fear was that love with another man would be unattainable.
I have been very lucky to befriend people that have helped me destigmatize HIV, both in the community and in myself, and I have reached a level of comfort where I can speak on how I can reduce my risk of contracting HIV. This is not because being HIV positive would be a lapse in my moral character, but because the working systems of society have made it difficult for people with HIV to live fulfilling lives.
While working at the few Pride events across the state with NCAAN, I’ve gotten to interact with both HIV positive and negative individuals. These interactions included me working at booths and passing out information, but what has been the most moving for me has been the times people have shared their status with me, unsolicited. One of the particular handouts we give at these booths includes a small booklet from a pharmaceutical company that has thirty quotes, each for a day of the month, of people with HIV that give insight into a part of how that individual’s life has changed since they knew their status. It was one of the pieces of information that moved me the most. It held genuine pieces of people’s stories. It told me about their fight for survival in a society that attempted to disown their humanity and push them further into the shadows, while also letting that person with their newly discovered status know that they would be okay.
One of the goals that we have at NCAAN is to increase the accessibility of HIV preventative services to individuals across the state. We also relay information about how to stay “safe,” and we do all of our work to decrease the spread of HIV across North Carolina.
While talking to Matt Martin, one of my supervisors, one of the most difficult things that we encounter is a way to amplify preventative information and services, while also working to discontinue the stigmatization that being HIV positive is a mark of death – stereotypes that have harmed the personal relationships and whole lives of individuals in our LGBTQ communities. Simultaneously, we tell people to be safe and how to prevent the contraction of HIV, while we also tell them that it’s okay to be HIV positive, and that a full, healthy life is possible.
The most important voice in the act to destigmatize HIV is the voice of the same people that are being shunned from society. When people with HIV speak of their experiences, they implicitly push the taboo of HIV into the light of everyday life. We have all probably met someone with HIV, whether they know it or not, and whether we know it or not – they deserve the same respect and love that we would expect.
In a society that has consistently made HIV positive individuals feel wrong and embarrassed about their status, these individuals fight to speak up. Even though the burden is being placed on those that are already burdened, the weight of that voice allows people like me to feel comfortable to reach out and reside in an environment that will allow me to live with health and with love – something that was so far from reach as a closeted child.
Erick is studying International Comparative Studies, Public Policy Studies, and Economics at Duke University. Erick dedicates his personal life to advocate for marginalized communities. He hopes to continue to create safer environments for queer people of color at Duke University and in the Durham community. Read more about Erick here.