April 21, 2009
HIV-related stigma drives many people to keep their serostatus secret and feel ashamed, and this seems especially true in the black community, according to a recent study by Susan W. Gaskins, a professor at the University of Alabama's Capstone College of Nursing, and Dr. Pamela Payne Foster.
The researchers polled 24 HIV-positive black residents of Central Alabama over age 50. Three-fourths said they did not feel they could be open with others about having HIV. Depending on the strength of the relationships, some participants confided to one or two family members, often to mothers or sisters, Gaskins said.
Being secretive is how the study participants protect themselves, but this can breed shame and fear, Gaskins said. African Americans have traditionally relied on churches for spiritual support during trying times, but all the study participants said they would never mention their HIV status at church. "People are ashamed of their disease not because of how people have treated them but because of how they feel, or they worry that people would look down on them," Gaskins said.
I don't think we'll ever be able to get rid of the stigma until people talk about HIV as a disease rather than some moral problem," said Kathie Hiers, CEO of AIDS Alabama. Upon hearing someone disclose they are HIV-positive, many want to know how the person got the virus, she said. "We need to get to the point where that's not the first question that pops into everybody's mind."
Still, Hiers believes HIV stigma has diminished somewhat. "We have more clients now that are willing to talk to people than I've ever had before," she said. Now when HIV/AIDS policy issues are on the Legislature's agenda, up to 200 people living with the disease are willing to travel to the state Capitol to lobby "a far cry" from the situation 12-13 years ago, she said.