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By Brandon Lacy Campos

August 24, 2010

I am not HIV. I am HIV positive.

Do I need to repeat myself?

I AM NOT HIV! I am HIV positive.

Over the last few years, I have heard, time and time and time again the phrase/question/query, "Are you HIV?"

While I totally understand the question that the individual is attempting to ask, it is all I can do to not answer honestly, "No. I am not HIV."

Or, if I were really going to engage the smart-assery gene that I received honestly from both my Mother and my Father, I would have replied, "No. Are you herpes? Are you hepatitis? Are you cancer? Are you meningitis? Are you Chlamydia? Gonorrhea perhaps? Are you half-Syphilis on your Father's side?"

To ask someone if they are HIV or to refer to a person as being "HIV" is not only hurtful it is likely to piss off a many a person that happens to live with the HIV virus.

Recently, a man that I adore, someone that is a friend of my partner's and mine was over for wine, and we were discussing some of the blogs that were published in late spring at During the course of the conversation he used the terminology referenced above.

Since I'd been drinking, I decided that I wasn't going to address the issue in that moment. As this man is wonderful, sweet, and easy on the eyes, and I would hate to have lost his friendship (or the occasion to check out his butt in tight jeans) because I cussed him out in a wine induced verbal savagery inspired by nigh on eight years of hearing that poor use of syntax, "Are you HIV?" I chose to let it go and to write about it instead.

So, let me repeat for those of you out there that are wondering. No. People living with HIV are not HIV. You would never ever under any circumstance with any other disease use that phrase or question, so why in the hell would you use it for people that are positive?

Of course I know the answer. The psychology and basic truth of people living with HIV to many people that are not HIV positive is that, indeed, we are HIV. Because of the nature of the disease, because it is one that can only be transferred from human to human and because you can't cure it with a shot, a cup of anti-biotic powder, or a series of pills, we who live with HIV are subsumed into the identity of the disease instead of simply being human beings that carry one of a number of viruses that, once they enter your life, do not leave it. Indeed, by that same logic, I could also be Chicken Pox or Rhinovirus (Common Cold), but to ask someone if he or she is chicken pox sounds, well, rather ridiculous.

Asking someone if he or she is HIV should sound just as ridiculous. Unfortunately, it doesn't to many folks.

And to this person living with HIV, it sounds downright hateful.

I am a writer, and I understand the power of language. I know how to use language to uplift, I know how to use language to tear down, and I know how to use language to expand or marginalize those around me. Indeed, since I was a child, language has been, in my hands and mouth, a tool and weapon for my protection, joy, outrage, fear, and sadness. I have seen the damage that a carelessly used word or phrase can cause to another human being, and I carry many a spiritual and mental scar from harsh words used on ears, mind, and spirit that were too young to hear them from an adult that was loved.

As an adult, I have committed to using words carefully. The adage that the pen is mightier than the sword may sound silly to some. A sword can cut off your head. But what is worse? A few carefully chosen words that leave an individual spiritually wounded and locked in their own personal hell for thirty years or a quick stab to the chest by the sword? I'll take the quick, short pain over the long drawn out suffering any day.

Use your words wisely. Understand what you are saying before you say it. And know that no person living with HIV is reduced to, defined by, or subsumed into this disease.

We are not HIV.

Send Brandon an e-mail.

This piece originally appeared in Brandon's blog My Feet Only Walk Forward.

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See Also
Spotlight Series: HIV Stigma & Discrimination
What Does HIV/AIDS Stigma Look Like in Your Life?
More News on HIV Stigma and Discrimination

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Keith (New York) Tue., Oct. 11, 2011 at 10:59 pm UTC
I’m not “high cholesterol positive”; I have high cholesterol. If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t be “diabetes positive.” If I had hypertension, I wouldn’t be “hypertension positive.” So why if I have HIV am I labeled “HIV positive.” It’s like a stamp. I don’t like the “I am” part especially. “I am” NOT HIV! I am a fun loving, active, healthy, happy, compassionate, intelligent, handsome, caring man who has a good job, a loving family, a nice house, a partner of 14 years who has HIV – I am not it. I happen to have HIV. I am NOT HIV and it is NOT me! Maybe until this changes, the stigma will not change? I have high cholesterol and HIV. I am neither high cholesterol nor HIV. What do you think?
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Comment by: Kirk (Dallas, TX) Tue., Feb. 8, 2011 at 8:50 am UTC
The challenge of watching one's words is a great one. I too am a writer, but more correctly, a public speaker. I sometimes forget the power of words and say things that I do not mean. Yes, I am a product of how words can harm and have lasting effects for many years (for me 30 plus years). So, thanks for the adminition to "guard-my-tongue" and wait, then speak. I am not HIV but I have HIV in my body.
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Comment by: Brandon Lacy Campos (New York, NY) Thu., Sep. 16, 2010 at 6:58 pm UTC
Don: you can imagine, I am not the shiest of human beings. I think because the nature of the conversation, other than that poor use of word choice, was really heart felt, sincere, and deeply emotional...I let it slide at that moment. Other than the terminology, what he was relating was some really fierce neg ally feelings that he was having in relationship to an experience that I had with one of my softball teammates. He is, though, the type of person that I can address the topic with him, and I will.
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Comment by: don (San Francisco, CA) Sat., Sep. 11, 2010 at 3:55 am UTC
thanks for posting this. this has ALWAYS been a pet peeve of mine. i don't find it hateful, but i do find it weird, nonsensical and subtly derogatory. (i also find it shocking how many people with hiv will say, "i'm hiv". do they really consider themselves the equivalent of a disease?) what i don't understand is why you didn't feel you could address your hot friend's friend without blasting him. i NEVER let this go by unaddressed. sometimes i address it in a quick, matter-of-fact way by saying, "i'm (or he is or she is) not hiv. i'm hiv positive". usually they immediately get it, although sometimes i have to add something like, "i'm hiv-positive, i'm living with hiv, i'm hiv infected, but i am NOT hiv". a few times i have to explain to the especially clueless what i meant. i also sometimes use humor, maybe saying with a smile, "no, and i'm not cancer either, but i am hiv-positive", or something like that. perhaps it wouldn't seem so hateful if you didn't let it slide sometimes. just sayin' ...
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Comment by: Marcos Dupim (Rio de Janeiro, Brasil) Thu., Sep. 9, 2010 at 12:19 pm UTC
Hello Brandon. My name is Mark Dupim. I'm from the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I agree with you. We are no HIV, are we living with HIV. There's a difference between being and being with. While there are people just like you, with a voice to say what needs to be taken, we'll move forward. A big hug.
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Comment by: Diana (Virginia) Mon., Sep. 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm UTC
I completely agree with you, most people need to learn to use words to communicate. This is all new to me, and it is painful to see how little people sometimes know and how afraid people are to ask and become knowledgeable. Thanks for the advice.
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Comment by: Brandon Lacy Campos (New York, NY) Sun., Sep. 5, 2010 at 9:39 am UTC
Brendon: I have never in my life while texting or in any other situation used the shorthand, "I am HIV."

Stan: In this life, when most people are being too sensitive...they are dismissing the real feelings that a human being is having. How about this? I won't dismiss your feelings, and you can stay off of mine? Mutual respect is the way to go.

I am a writer, and I understand words. I know how a careless word from a loving person can hurt. I don't assume nor have I ever assumed that a person that says, "Are you HIV," has any intention of causing hurt or harm with their words. Regardless of his or her intentions, careless language can still cause harm.

And Jim, "are you clean?" is enough to make me throw a bucket of feces on someone and then say..."I am...but you aren't now."

Much love,
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Comment by: Michael I (London) Sat., Sep. 4, 2010 at 2:14 pm UTC
Thank you.
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Comment by: paul (houston,tx) Fri., Sep. 3, 2010 at 7:59 pm UTC
thanks for reminding me jim. r u clean is really atrocious and makes me sick too!!
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Comment by: paul (houston,tx) Fri., Sep. 3, 2010 at 7:57 pm UTC
i hate that phrase and what is worse is when positive people use it to describe themselves!!!
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Comment by: Brendon (New Zealand) Fri., Sep. 3, 2010 at 10:31 am UTC
Stan, I absolutely agree with you. Using "HIV" as an adjective is simply and obviously shorthand for "HIV positive". In that sense it can actually be sensitive and empathic to ask the question "Are you HIV?" rather than spell the whole thing out possibly hurtfully with "Are you HIV positive?".

I'm HIV and I have no problem accepting the reality of that. Saying "I'm HIV" simply means "I'm HIV positive". It's shorthand and that's all. I wouldn't be surprised if the writer himself doesn't use "HIV" as an adjective, particularly when he's texting. :-)

However, if the writer wishes to declare very clearly and loudly that he's "HIV positive", then that's fine. In fact, in the context of making a public announcement it would be rather ridiculous to claim "I am HIV" - for in that context the statement would mean that one IS the virus.

In discussion of the appropriate use of language, context is all.
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Comment by: Stan (Portland, OR) Fri., Sep. 3, 2010 at 1:41 am UTC
I think you are being to sensitive. I am HIV positive. All the person is doing, when they make the statement "are you HIV" is leaving off the positive. I don't think they intend any harm at all, they are just shorting the question. They could just as easily say are you positive? Get over yourself!
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Comment by: jim (boston) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm UTC
I have not encountered the phrase "Are you HIV?", however, it seems fairly benign compared to the more commonplace and considerably more evil and ignorant, "Are you clean?" No handsome face or nice butt will stop me, drunk or sober, from ripping a new one for anyone who uses that phrase within my earshot. I may not change the ahole's way of thinking, but by the time I'm finished haranguing him he's at least going to think twice before he says it again.
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Comment by: Jorge (Houston, TX) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm UTC
Brandon, Thanks for bringing awareness to this topic. Like your friend with the nice butt, I really think that most people who uses that term mean no harm and not trying to be hurtful. I applaud you for writing about it and bringing it to the attention of many.
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Comment by: Brandon Lacy Campos (New York, NY) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm UTC
Thank you all for reading! And, Enid, you made me about pee myself laughing.
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Comment by: Mark Fischer (Washington, DC) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 2:33 pm UTC
THANK YOU! THANK YOU!! THANK YOU!!! I could not agree more. I am very troubled by this poor choice of words that has become very common in certain communities . . . unfortunately, those communities are often the same communities where attitudes toward HIV and those infected are fed by ignorance and intolerance. Equating a person to a virus only makes a bad situation worse.
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Comment by: Marcio Chris (Sao Paulo Brazil) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 1:18 pm UTC
Great article. Thank you.
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Comment by: Enid Vazquez (Chicago) Thu., Sep. 2, 2010 at 1:08 pm UTC
Thanks, Brandon. This has always rubbed me the wrong way. I understand that people feel comfortable saying "I'm HIV," but I always feel like saying, "Oh, yeah?! Meet me in the park at 10, and bring your little friend AIDS too!"
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Comment by: Mike (Toronto) Thu., Aug. 26, 2010 at 5:10 pm UTC
Some people use the phrase in question as a form of slang. Not sure if they care about how it sounds(maybe they think it is sounds 'cool') or if they are thinking about the overall consequences.
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Comment by: Brandon Lacy Campos (New York, NY) Thu., Aug. 26, 2010 at 9:39 am UTC
Thanks my friends. And thank you for reading.
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Comment by: Janet (Vancouver, Canada) Wed., Aug. 25, 2010 at 12:32 pm UTC
Thanks for taking the risk to say this out loud- and bravo! It's beautifully done.
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Comment by: Alfred (Memphis, TN) Wed., Aug. 25, 2010 at 9:38 am UTC
Great blog Brandon!
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Comment by: Enrique (Tucson, AZ) Tue., Aug. 24, 2010 at 8:02 pm UTC
I LIKE your message. Bold and direct. That's how we gotta handle everyone who doesn't understand the disease. Well said man.
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Queer, Poz and Colored: The Essentials

Brandon Lacy Campos

Brandon Lacy Campos

Brandon Lacy Campos is a 32-year-old queer, poz, African-American, Afro-Puerto Rican, Ojibwe and Euro (smorgasbord) poet, playwright, blogger, journalist and novelist (that last one is slowly coming along). In 2009, named him the #2 queer, Latino blogger to watch. In 2006, the Star Tribune named him a young policy wonk for his political shenanigans. His writing and poetry have appeared in numerous anthologies including, most recently, Mariposas, edited by Emanuel Xavier and published by Floricanto Press. This fall, his work will appear in the academic text Queer Twin Cities, published by the University of Minnesota Press. And, one of these days, Summerfolk Press will be publishing his first solo book of poetry: It Ain't Truth If It Doesn't Hurt. Brandon is hard at work on his first novel, Eden Lost, and he lives in New York City with his partner, artist David Berube, and his boss, Mimzy Lacy Berube de Campos (their dog).

It's with heavy hearts that we share that Brandon passed away unexpectedly on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012. He was 35 years old. Read memorials by Brandon's friends and colleagues.

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