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A Place Called Home

By William Ching

November 17, 2010

For our World AIDS Day 2010 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- mostly those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.

William Ching

William Ching

Searching for a new place is never easy. After spending several fruitless months looking for a bedroom to rent in San Francisco, I stumbled upon my first real prospect. This particular room viewing began ordinarily enough: We exchanged pleasantries, made small talk and soon found that we went to the same college and held many similar interests. He worked as a nonprofit consultant and spent the previous summer in India volunteering with HIV-positive clients. I was in my last year of college and eager to become more involved with HIV/AIDS social justice work.

We were both young, socially conscious and the apartment had a great balance of affordability and convenience. I wasn't just looking for a roof over my head or a bed to sleep on; I was looking for a place to call my own. I thought we had hit it off and I was becoming more and more convinced that this would be a good match.

Seeing that I was enrolled as a full-time student, he asked how I would be able to pay for rent. At the time, I was receiving a partial housing subsidy for young people, which helped defray the high cost of living in the city. Apparently unsatisfied with the fact that I would have the funds to make rent, he inquired further, asking for the amount of the subsidy, its purpose and even the name of sponsoring organization. He then began asking more personal questions, particularly about the HIV/AIDS stigma and education project I was formulating. As I was volunteering the information, I didn't seem to notice him retreating further and further away from the conversation. As soon as we hit a lull, he pointedly asks, "Are you HIV-positive?"

And I froze.

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I have always struggled with disclosure, whether it is with friends, family or potential partners. But I never really paid much attention to whether my HIV status would, or should, have any bearing in renting a room. So when he questioned my status, I made the snap judgment to err on the side of honesty, thinking that if I were a courteous roommate who paid rent on time everything would pan out. The change was immediate and palpable. He became more withdrawn and what started off as a pleasant exchange was fraying with tension. In the end, he said that he would get back to me within the next few days and I left the apartment with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I went back home only to replay the scene over and over again in my head. I was perplexed, wondering if disclosing that I was positive was a wise decision. He wrote back a day or two later, saying he was "uncomfortable" with the idea of being roommates. While we would be occupying different rooms, he was concerned about shared spaces, namely the bathroom. He was worried of contracting HIV through residual body fluids.

It was an outrageous and ignorant assumption, flying in the face of years of research that clearly shows there is no risk of transmission whatsoever. The initial shock slowly gave way to anger. I felt he had no business in asking me that personal of a question. The anger then turned to shame. I wondered why didn't I say anything and why didn't I push back and ask him what role, if any, does my HIV-status play in renting the room. I felt alone and embarrassed not only because I lacked basic knowledge about my legal rights, but because I didn't make a stand.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibit housing discrimination against persons with disabilities, including persons with HIV/AIDS. These acts make it illegal for landlords to deny housing solely based on HIV-status, real or perceived. Unfortunately, because stigma is so widely prevalent, there are no reliable statistics to gauge the level and the extent of discrimination that still occurs today.

Finding stable, secure and affordable housing is part and parcel of maintaining the continuum of care for individuals not only living with HIV/AIDS, but those struggling with other chronic conditions. Having a place to call home not only provides someone with a sense of security and comfort, it also strengthens a person's overall sense of well-being, increasing the likelihood of making doctor's appointments and adhering to strict medication regimens.

Housing is a pillar of health care.

Finding a place to call home takes many forms. As a queer person of color, I sometimes feel uncomfortable in my own skin. We all strive for, and indeed deserve, a sense of belonging. But what happens when our communities remain silent, indifferent or even hostile to those who do not fit neatly within predefined boxes?

In light of World AIDS Day, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders can do much more to address the epidemic. We must be willing to embrace those who may deviate from the arbitrarily-defined norm, we must redefine the boundaries and parameters of our imagined communities and we must approach others with the same level of compassion and open-mindedness that we expect in return. HIV/AIDS discriminates because we discriminate. By further marginalizing those already at the margins -- people of color, transgendered folks, the differently-abled and the queer-identified -- we continue to perpetuate the relentless cycle of discrimination and hostility.

Over time, I am finding my voice and courage that I lacked then. With the support of loved ones and allies, I feel more empowered to take a stand against both structural inequalities and day-to-day injustices. I am no longer satisfied with merely finding a place to call home. Now, I am no longer afraid of creating a place to call home.

William Ching resides in San Francisco, California, and was diagnosed in 2007.




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