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Moving the Humanity of People With HIV Out of the Equation: How HIV Surveillance Traumatized Me

January 3, 2017

Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad

Abdul-Aliy A Muhammad (Credit: Credit: Clint Steib/

Bodily and environmental autonomy has been elusive for black and brown communities for hundreds of years. The targeting of our bodies is the history of our nation and the world, really. I can't remember not thinking about my movement through any space, what I should say and how I should dress as prerequisites for feeling safe(r), because I realize that attaining safety is a privilege I don't have. This is something that was not a major adjustment for me when I found out my serostatus was positive. I was used to being ogled at by the non-black community or targeted for who I am. The policing of my sexuality was also not something I had not known to be a norm. I remember having to find creative ways to either deflect or answer questions about my sexuality.

After I became poz, there was yet another form of surveillance that I had to encounter. This time it was community efforts, the clinicians and processes that intend to reduce community viral load by staying on top of those who are poz to stay undetectable or achieve undetectability when it comes to their HIV. Here in Philadelphia, there is already a culture of fear around DIS (disease intervention specialists) employing less than affirming practices to find someone who may be exposed to an sexually transmitted infection. Now, there is a new research initiative in Philadelphia that expects to relink to care HIV-positive individuals who have been out of care for six months to a year and may not be undetectable. This intervention is a collaborative effort between care providers and Philadelphia's Health Department, and it involves the use of DIS.

I experienced something that was humiliating as someone who is poz. I heard a knock on my door on this particular Thursday around noon and two people asked for me by name. I asked what this was all about, and they said it pertained to a confidential health matter. They wanted to come inside, which I resisted, asking what this was all about until eventually one of them explained it was about my serostatus.


When the two people entered, they explained that they had been given my information from my care provider, and they were concerned about me. I was a bit flabbergasted that no initial mailing or phone contact had happened prior to this visit to my home. A close friend and I had been working, and they heard details of this communication between the public health workers and me. Luckily, this person already knew my status, but this felt overwhelming and like contact with law enforcement, though this pertained more clearly to my body and my health.

I felt alarmed that not one notice or attempt at contact had happened prior to the knock on my door. It was also challenging for the workers to listen to me. I told them how uncomfortable this felt, and I made clear how traumatic it was to be forced to navigate this conversation in my home.

At this moment, it became immensely clear to me that surveillance alongside HIV criminalization presents the same problem: The root of these efforts is moving the humanity of people living with HIV out of the equation.

Unbeknownst to you, you become a part of a collective that will forever be accountable for new infections whenever someone seroconverts after you. City health professionals will come to your most sacred place to declare that their intrusion is meaningful to the community first, even if it causes you discomfort or trauma. It is your responsibility to shoulder the burden and guilt of HIV for the rest of your life.

Read Abdul-Aliy's blog, Chanting From the Margins: When Blackness, Queerness and HIV Intersect.

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This article was provided by TheBody.


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