The ball of string came flying through the air toward me. I caught it awkwardly, stated my name, said something about myself and then held on to my section of twine while tossing it to someone else across the room. Thirty-five men, many strangers to each other, sat around the circle at this weekend retreat in the woods. The recipient of my toss announced his name and gripped the string before throwing it back across the circle. Gradually a web of twine formed to connect all thirty-five men. It was a beautifully intricate pattern of geometric shapes that graphically exhibited the interconnectedness of the men who came together for this gathering.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently revised its decades-old policy on a lifetime prohibition of gay men donating blood. This ban, rooted in the early days of the HIV epidemic when transmission was poorly understood and (full-blown crazy) levels of stigma and discrimination abounded, has long needed to change. For me, the revised guidelines represent minimal progress because they exclude any gay man who has had sex with another man in the last year.
On World AIDS Day, it is gratifying to see increased attention paid to stigma, which has a devastating impact on prevention, testing and treatment. Creative and thoughtful campaigns utilizing social media and other venues are beginning to make a difference. Some anti-stigma programs are even being mandated as part of international aid. While many programs don't yet effectively address institutional, governmental and religious power structures that perpetuate stigma, they are impacting education and skills to build empathy, each of which is extremely important.
I first heard the news that Malaysian Airlines flight 17 had been shot out of the sky at a stopover in Sydney, en route to the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne. I stared at the television in disbelief as the initial (and incorrect) coverage reported that as many as 100 conference delegates had been onboard. I felt numb even as the number of attendees on board dropped over the next few days to fifty and then, finally, to six, among them one of the world's leading HIV researchers from the Netherlands and an official of the World Health Organization.
I recently passed a major milestone: a big, round-numbered birthday that, frankly, I never expected to reach. It was odd to arrive at this point in my life because, having lived with HIV for over thirty years, I had good reason to suspect that I would not celebrate this passage, or for that matter, birthdays that occurred decades earlier.
As the old year rolls over, it's natural to review how well our lives have functioned during the past 12 months. Many of us take the opportunity to make resolutions about changing our behavior. These often concern diet, getting to the gym, or cutting back on other things that might not contribute to our health. This well-intentioned exercise often collapses, falling away within weeks (or even days) as our resolve and the routines of daily living once again intrude into our hope that this year will be different.
I have lived with HIV for so many years that the whole issue of disclosure seems moot. Every important person in my life knows my status, as do my colleagues, clients, and for that matter, anyone who comes across my postings on TheBody.com and The BodyPRO.com. I am well aware of the complexities of disclosure and work with others to address their concerns, but it has been a long time since I experienced the issue.
It began simply enough. My doctor's office called to say that he wanted to speak with me directly about follow-up lab results. When pressed, the staff said he would not discuss anything over the phone. We scheduled an office visit for the next available appointment, several days away. Over the years I have received the same summons many times. They begin with a call stating that the doctor needs to see me in person. Memories of those calls came flooding back, along with an uncomfortable heavy sensation in my stomach. Some of those calls have been devastating (cancer), others were non-events. I hung up the phone, closed my eyes and tried to center myself, with little success.
She arrived on the stage covered in colorful braids amid stylized African dancers. Drums played exotic rhythms as she unveiled herself before 800,000 people -- the largest in the history of Central Park. Dressed in a glittering orange suit with billowing fabric, Diana Ross welcomed the cheering masses as an ominous summer storm darkened the sky. She created a magic spell with song and, at one point, implored the audience to "make a wish and let it go." As dusk fell the winds picked up and sweeping veils of rain moved in over the park. Television cameras captured her soaked hair and face. Oblivious to the torrential downpour, she became one with the crowd.
It began rather insignificantly but quickly escalated. The group which I had facilitated for several years consisted of ten to twelve gay men of all ages, most of whom were HIV negative. That night I mentioned a new service for people living with HIV and one man asked, "Why do the positive guys get everything? What about us negative guys?" Another group member spoke up about poz friends who were eligible for all kinds of support. He was indignant that he had been laid off, was struggling and, unlike "them," lacked access to community services such as food banks and housing assistance. Someone else expressed annoyance, and a fourth growled his protest. A strong and divisive vein of anger within the gay community had been exposed.