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What Does HIV Stigma Look Like in the U.S. South?

March 14, 2014

The Southern Series

Stigma can be anywhere -- and sometimes, it feels like it's everywhere. We asked people -- activists, care providers and community members -- what they thought about stigma in the U.S. South, an area that is burdened with a large portion of the country's HIV diagnoses and its HIV-related deaths. Because the key to fighting HIV lies in fighting stigma, we asked these people: "What do you think HIV stigma looks like in the South and how can we break it?"

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Brandon Wollerson

Brandon Wollerson

Travis County Integral Care, Austin, Texas

I think the biggest face of stigma in the South is homophobia. And that's inherently linked to the relationship between church and social policy and it has done a lot of damage, not only to my own personal life but to a lot of people I love and talk about.

Katherine Cantrell

Katherine Cantrell

City of Austin Health and Human Services, Austin, Texas

I think homophobia is a huge part of it. In the South, there's a conservative mindset that revolves around HIV and stigma and homophobia, war on poverty, war on all kinds of things that only policy and people speaking up are going to change.

Sabina Strat

Sabina Strat

Philadelphia Center, Shreveport, La.

If you mention stigma, I mention segregation. Segregation is not only racial, it's segregation based upon anything that shows a difference between one group of people and another group of people. And the "acceptable" group of people have values that they're not ready to negotiate in any way.

Ruth Deramus

Ruth Deramus

Activist, Alabama

In the South, stigma looks so much like racism. And, living in the South all my life, I know what racism looks like. So that's what stigma looks like in the South. And the only way we're going to break stigma is that we have to learn to come together and realize that we are all human and we are all in this together.

Wayne Smith

Wayne Smith

Samaritan Ministry, Knoxville, Tenn.

I still think a large part of the stigma is based on the idea that people who get HIV are bad people. So, if you're talking about gay or bisexual men, they're doing stuff that they shouldn't be doing, and when we talk about IV drug use, we're thinking "bad people." I think a lot of the stigma has to do with, "Well, if you weren't behaving badly, you wouldn't have HIV." And that, to me, is the root of that whole thing. We just need to continue talking. It's old adage, it's trite to say, but when people have a face to this disease, they know somebody, I think the stigma part really starts to wash away, because it's not some unknown person out there who has HIV. It's Billy or Susie or Johnny, or you know, someone that they know who is HIV positive and then they start to see that person as that human being and HIV doesn't define who they are anymore.

Antwan Nicholson

Antwan Nicholson

My Brother's Keeper, Inc., Jackson, Miss.

My main thing that I probably see is lack of knowledge. And by the community having that lack of knowledge, or being afraid of HIV, they kinda say things where they've picked up on missed facts and things like that -- and they run with those myths and missing facts, so that sort of adds to the stigma and adds to the problem. So if we can get rid of the overall myths and misinformation and give them the proper information -- give them the knowledge, being in the know, is one of the things that I think can help move past the stigma. Probably won't even get rid of the stigma, because it is what it is. But we want to keep pushing and keep fighting in hopes to cover as much ground as we can to get rid of it.

Cedric Sturdevant

Cedric Sturdevant

My Brother's Keeper, Inc., Jackson, Miss.

Stigma in our area basically is no education, still, surrounding the disease. One thing that I think that we could do to kind of combat that stigma is to really start educating people. I think we need to go into the high schools. I always say somebody should go into middle schools -- into middle schools, into high schools, especially our churches, you know, in our homes, to really talk about HIV. First we need to start talking about sex; you know, then we have to talk about different lifestyles that people live. And HIV, and I think that'd eliminate a lot of the stigma, once we start doing all that. In the area that I live, in Mississippi, people just don't want to talk, period. So it we should start talking, just start having conversations -- go into the middle schools, see what they know; have the churches to really realize that you can't just talk about HIV and not talk about sex or not talk about homosexuality. So, to get all that out in the open, and start having dialogues about it, I think it would kinda eliminate some of the stigma that we have today in our community.




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