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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
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Denied Service Because of His Status, Nikko Briteramos Wants to End HIV Stigma in Barbershops and Beyond

August 30, 2018

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SS: Who cuts your hair now?

NB: I got a couple people. I jump around to different places, but I will say the consequences have been bad haircuts. I'm probably going to invest in a set of clippers soon.

SS: You have been thrust into this spotlight involving HIV and stigma, but you mentioned there are other things that matter more to you. What are those things?

NB: The irony of a lot of this stuff is, the first thing that people think about with respect to someone being diagnosed HIV positive, they think about the health side of it. But the first thing I thought of, even back then, was my career [as a basketball player]. The economic side and the financial side. I truly feel that we get distracted from the more important issues that HIV relates to but doesn't really address. It's that health care in general has to be addressed; economic situations in general have to be addressed.

There's a real cost that's beyond going to the barbershop or beyond day-to-day operations. It expands to society with respect to health care and things on a larger economic scale, and it expands to the personal life to just surviving and enjoying life and having personal relationships. I think that's what people kind of overlook. Anything looking at HIV as an issue would be better off looking at a broader sense of health in general.


SS: I know that you may not be able to talk about particulars of this case and the barbershop, but I'm assuming that you were denied service because of a misconception folks have about HIV. Are there any common misconceptions that, at this point, annoy you a little bit or disappoint you a little bit when people make them over and over again?

NB: There's a very deep misconception that continues -- and it started from the beginning -- that it's immoral or irrational for persons who are positive to engage in sexual relationships. That's a fundamental misconception of morality or rationality because, that was the beginning of one of the first areas of discrimination that I experienced, and it's been the most impactful on my personal life.

There are all these lingering misconceptions about your sexual decisions in the past, or maybe your sexual identity. That's still connected to HIV. There's the misconception of, I think, malice: that people are bad persons. Those two, the sexuality and the sort of malice misconception is a big issue. I think it was one of those things that was kind of marketed or promoted historically for utilitarian reasons that kind of backfired.

Besides that, there's the misconception of transmission. That lingers, as well. I think the misconception mostly is that people think that incidental or superficial blood contact is sufficient to transmit HIV. People are going to want to know exactly what I mean by that. If I'm playing a sport and someone scratches me or something, or if there's superficial contact, then there's not going to be a transmission -- even less so if someone is taking [antiretroviral] drugs.

Now, at this point in history, we're accepting something that many of us knew way before everyone else, which is now persons taking drugs who are undetectable are not even contagious at the level of sexual contact. That was a misconception the whole time until people admitted it was true. This was known 20 years ago by many.

SS: What do you hope the outcome will be? I'm assuming that you hope that you will persevere, but beyond that, what do you hope the outcome will be?

NB: Of course I want it such that no barbershops can discriminate against anybody, period. First of all, the practices are in place and should be in place across America so that you're not actively following the mandates in your license unless you're following safety protocols. The next thing that needs to be fixed is that we need to start getting a bit more frank about these other areas of discrimination, whether it's incidental contact or close contact. And that's not something we've been very easily able to address because you're starting to penetrate the personal lives of people.

It's easy for someone to say, "I don't discriminate against someone who is HIV positive," when the HIV-positive person is on the other side of the room. That's something you really can't commend. We need to get to the point where the close contact, the incidental contacts, don't become an issue for discrimination either. That's something that has yet to be addressed completely. The [undetectable equals untransmittable] (U=U) campaign and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC) accepting that sexual contact isn't necessarily a health liability, maybe that's a step, but it's not complete.

SS: The complaint states that HIV stigma is an issue that's prominent in the African-American community. Do you agree with that, and why?

NB: Yeah, I do agree. The issue is prominent everywhere, but maybe it's addressed differently or experienced differently in different communities. It is expressed as prominently in the African-American community as elsewhere, but it's experienced in a particular way, and there's a particular set of variables which are unique to these different communities.

That's something I appreciate about this [Cut the Stigma] campaign: It's attempting to address something that maybe would not have been addressed. People are not absorbing the message, or the message isn't catered to [their] different circumstances. And I think the main different in circumstances is that, in the African-American community -- and I'm not an expert necessarily -- but in African-American communities, there's an economic situation. Many persons don't have health insurance. Many persons have been exposed to different media, and different media have exposed different sorts of prejudices.

I think one of the major prejudices more common in African-American communities is the myth that that HIV is connected to sexuality or gay persons, or women who have sex with people who are bisexual. It's not necessarily exclusive to the African-American community, but that's just getting toward [that] there's a different sort of prejudicing taking place in different communities [that] leads to different media exposure. And that was a big issue with respect to a lot of the urban periodicals and literature throughout the 2000s.

There are a lot of nuanced differences among different communities that have to be addressed on their own terms.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Sony Salzman is a freelance journalist reporting on health care and medicine, who has won awards in both narrative writing and radio journalism. Follow Salzman on Twitter: @sonysalz.

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