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HIV/AIDS Blog Central

The Dark Side of "Poz Envy"

By David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.

September 13, 2012

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.

The men in this group are thoughtful and community-minded, yet nearly every one of them believed that the quantity of services for HIV-positive individuals was out of balance with the greater needs of the gay community. As in any discussion that combines social issues with strong emotion, there was a mixture of fact, speculation and outright distortion. It was reminiscent of the "welfare queen" concept that has once again emerged in the national dialogue, which asserts that many of those receiving government benefits do so excessively and opportunistically or worse, through fraud or deception.

"I hear that many guys become positive so they don't have to work and can just spend all day at the gym or the beach."

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"I've seen the cars in the parking lot at the HIV food bank ... they're all Cadillacs and BMWs."

"Who wouldn't want to get all the steroids they want and get real ripped?"

I interrupted the complaints, had everyone breathe deeply and then asked them to do a reality check. I described clients of mine who struggle to survive on disability payments, forced to work under the table, dependent on a shrinking safety net and unable to afford a car to get them to their various medical and social service appointments. I clarified the reality, despite pharmaceutical propaganda, of the complications of living with HIV, including medication side effects and overt stigma. I reminded them that HIV/AIDS is characterized by isolation and that the people most often impacted are largely invisible, even in a small, close-knit community like our own.

Are there people taking advantage? Yes, of course. I shared my own indignant feelings when I saw a very muscular man I know to be HIV positive utilize his handicapped tag to park in a space for the disabled and stride into the gym for his workout. And I have had clients who willingly seek out, to their own long-term detriment, the few physicians in the area who are "generous" in overprescribing certain medications. However, I noted, those cases in no way represent the norm or even a significant percentage of persons living with HIV, and portraying them as such does great harm to the thousands with the virus who struggle daily simply to survive.

The anger in the room that night underscored a need for greater services for everyone regardless of HIV status. Many in the entire community -- including, of course, negative men and women -- are dealing with medical concerns, housing, employment, and are seeking opportunities for healthy social connection. For me, the solution lies not in resenting those that receive the services, but in advocating for increased opportunities for everyone. And as we have seen with the history of the AIDS epidemic, griping is not enough. Advocacy followed by action, including working together as a community to build these services, will be necessary.

Beyond this resentment, however, lies a deeper and more disconcerting trend in our community: the divide between positive and negative gay men. I asked the negative members of the group how many included someone living with HIV in their close social circle. Few hands were raised. I've posed the same question to groups of positive men and got the same response. Is a subtle form of social serosorting taking place?

Perhaps it is natural for people to choose to spend more time with those with whom they have an affinity. For positive men, there is the shared experience in living with HIV: constantly balancing various powerful emotions, handling stigma, the numbing routine of doctor visits and medications. For negative men as well, not sharing such life events can result in an entirely different life path, void of the momentous and ongoing impact of an HIV diagnosis. Generational factors are also significant in shaping social connections. For example, many younger men have not suffered the loss of the majority of their friends in the prime of their lives.

More practical elements also contribute to this gap between positive and negative. Something as simple as socializing together can be impacted. People living with HIV often don't have regular employment and may not have the money to go out to restaurants with their negative friends. Over time, such factors can lead to a widening gulf that becomes a fertile breeding ground for misunderstanding and stigma.

This "envy," then, is really anger and, consciously or not, results in gay-on-gay stigma against men living with HIV. While this tension is no newcomer to our communities, it has only recently begun to be quantified. An article called "HIV-related stigma within communities of gay men: a literature review" (in the journal AIDS Care in 2011), found "a growing division between HIV-positive and HIV-negative gay men, and a fragmentation of gay communities based along lines of perceived or actual HIV status." That study was sponsored by the Men2Men Collective, an organization working to reduce stigma against gay men living with HIV in Europe and Canada.

This same community-level tension can also get very personal, right into the bedroom. Serodiscordant couples, where one is HIV negative and one positive, have to consciously work at balancing their needs and can be hard-pressed to find much support. I am proud to be part of a clinical team at Fort Lauderdale's Pride Center which has just developed a program for such couples. The goal is to teach skills for increased communication and safer health practices. Sadly, there are few such services available anywhere in the nation.

We need to heal the fissures that are emerging in our gay communities. It can be tempting to succumb to the emotional rush of outrage, but to do so comes with a cost. Stereotypes and stigma develop; a passive, victim mindset evolves; and instead of finding common ground, we begin to only see how someone is "different" from us. Even worse, our divisions can be exploited by those who have no use for any of us.

There are legitimate needs among all members of our communities. Let's come together, advocate for what we believe, and follow through with creativity and action to get the results we all need.

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See Also
More Viewpoints Related to HIV/AIDS Among Gay Men

Reader Comments:

Comment by: fogcityjohn (San Francisco, CA) Mon., Oct. 22, 2012 at 2:33 am EDT
I'm not really sure why you felt the need to validate at all this idea that there are people "taking advantage" of their HIV status. You come up with a single example of a guy who once abused his disabled parking tag, which is pretty thin gruel to my mind. If that's all a person with HIV has to do to "take advantage" of being positive, then I think you have an extremely expansive definition of that phrase.

But I guess you had to come up with something to make those men in your group look a little less bad, something to justify -- if only in a very small way -- their incredibly ignorant view of us poz men. It's a shame you didn't want to speak the simple truth to them, which is that they're just as guilty of HIV stigma as straight society is. I hope next time you'll find the courage to give them the kind of scolding they deserve.

Because you know, sometimes there just aren't two sides to the story. This is one of those times. Those guys in your group should be ashamed of themselves, and you ought to have told them so.
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Comment by: P (Perth, Australia) Tue., Oct. 2, 2012 at 9:36 pm EDT
Interesting article David & one that is being tackled through the "Positive + Negative = One Community" Campaign initiated & re-invigorated by the Western Australian AIDS Council here in Perth. One of the many issues facing any gay community is the internal discrimination that constantly raises its ugly head within our community. You only have to look at the "selective criteria" that so many men attach to their profiles on hook-up websites. It seems we still suffer from that general "bitchy or selective" mentality towards the diversity within our community. As a man that has been HIV+ for over 26 years and continued to work, I'm one of the lucky ones, but there are many of my colleagues who have suffered the indignity of becoming very ill, fought back & continue to amaze me with their strength and tenacity to push through their health difficulties. This, of course, does not happen in isolation, but through supportive friends, peers, families, community-based organisations & networks. Yes, there are issues facing the wider GLBTI community regarding assistance, but that's a completely different matter altogether. I can honestly tell your readers that if I had my time over again, getting HIV in the mid-80's would have been absolutely avoided, if I had known more about it at the time. It is a journey that has been emotionally draining & not without its extreme challenges. None more so than being open about my status when negotiating any new relationship and being a long-term survivor. However, there are always going to be people who complain & scream out "what about me?". I've been there and it isn't a great state of mind to be in. It's a fact of life that you can't please all of the people all of the time, so you make the best of what you have and get on with it. Being a victim takes up too much energy and there are far better and more life affirming things to be doing with that energy.
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Comment by: Charles (New Jersey) Wed., Sep. 26, 2012 at 11:48 am EDT
Wow......Any of the Non-Poz men in your group can get services for all the issues noted in your post because they are citizens of the USA. Why do they feel slighted because the services aren't being provided by the gay community? HIV services provided by the gay community will also assist non-gay poz people too.....The notion that someone would get infected to obtain these services is mind-blowing....If I could get rid of my hiv i would....The men in your group should count themselves lucky they aren't living with HIV. To be honest...my dealings with living with hiv have been very manageable. I guess I am lucky...No side effects from the medication. I am working...exercise everday(park far away from the gym and walk in)...have alot a family support. I thank God everyday that I am doing well in the HIV world....and pray everyday for a cure.....While the Poz/Neg friction in the gay community is definitely there the Stigma of the overall disease is much worse than between Poz/Neg gay men.....Get a grip guys!
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Comment by: Gaby (GA) Fri., Sep. 21, 2012 at 4:36 am EDT
Seems just the opposite for me, I always wondered why the men always had the most resources,etc. I am an lesbian and I did not contract this by consensual sex with a man nor have I ever used inter venous drugs. I am just amazed that gay men still think it's nice to have HIV cause you get benefits..I'd give this up in a minute to have something of a life back.
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Comment by: Jason (Vancouver, BC (land of the hiv free loaders)) Fri., Sep. 21, 2012 at 4:35 am EDT
I would like to slap each and every one of those group members that made those comments. I'm actually speechless that people would think that life is somehow easier with hiv. You can tell them all to F@#K off!
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Comment by: brian (Palm Springs, California United States) Thu., Sep. 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm EDT
i would gladly relinquish all my "perks" to not have AIDS
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Comment by: Vauban (Salt Lake City, Utah) Thu., Sep. 20, 2012 at 2:57 pm EDT
Great point about the drug companies propaganda vis a vis "HIV is a Chronic but Manageble Disease," HIV for me has been a daily struggle and the side effects of their drugs almost killed me-more than once.
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Comment by: ohiopositive (Atlanta, GA) Thu., Sep. 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm EDT
I guess my first inclination was to make a comment on people feeling "entitled" to stuff. This is a sad comment on the general state of our society. Instead of thanking their stars that they are't Poz they feeling like they are missing out. Shaking my head.
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Comment by: Mario F. (Indian Rocks Beach, FL) Sat., Sep. 15, 2012 at 7:12 pm EDT
Thank you David for bringing up this very thorny issue and shedding some light. Sadly, too many times I have heard these same "complaints" often giving rise to a justification for acquiring HIV -- so that they too could "enjoy" those "benefits". Of course I am not going to say "I'll trade places anytime" because I don't wish HIV on anyone,yet on hearing those "arguments" I just want to scream! Education still remains the key in bridging this "envy". Knowledge is of the essence.
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Comment by: starshipcaptain (Chicago, IL) Thu., Sep. 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm EDT
When we see someone getting something we don't have, human nature often descends to envy and jealousy. It kinda brings to mind a folk tale about two farmers who were neighbors. One farmer was poor; the other had a cow that gave milk and helped the farmer make a good living. One day a fairy appeared to the poor farmer and offered to grant the farmer one wish. The poor farmer told the fairy, "Kill my neighbor's cow."
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David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., is a social worker, certified sex therapist and clinical hypnotherapist. He has worked in the areas of mental health and substance abuse for more than 25 years.

Diagnosed with HIV in 1988, David is dedicated to promoting physical and emotional resilience in his own life and in the lives of his psychotherapy clients. Like the Hindu goddess Durga, he strives to live fearlessly and patiently, never losing his sense of humor even in battles of epic proportions.

David's blog entries have appeared on LifeLube and The Bilerico Project, Florida. He's also a contributor to TheBodyPRO.com's blog for health care providers, HIV Care Today. He answers questions about Mental Health and Substance Use in two separate "Ask the Experts" forums on TheBody.com. David resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with his partner.


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