10 Moments in HIV/AIDS Stigma and Bias in 2014

The earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were marked by fear, ignorance and misinformation. There were even calls to quarantine people once they tested HIV positive. Those extreme measures were never enacted, thankfully, but much of the nation began to adopt negative opinions about the epidemic and people who were positive.

Treatment has changed over the past generation, but stigma remains "pervasive and pernicious," and it's "a major barrier to accessing prevention, care and treatment services," reported one National Institutes of Health (NIH) study in 2008. Much of the present-day stigma "seeks to assign blame to people who acquire HIV," added the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS).

Unfortunately, there are many examples to choose from when it comes to modern-day HIV stigma. Here's our look at "10 Moments in HIV/AIDS Stigma in 2014."

Elisha Henson (Credit: Positive Women's Network - USA)
Elisha Henson
Positive Women's Network - USA

HIV-Positive Texas Woman Killed After Disclosing Status

Thirty-year-old Elisha Henson was brutally murdered last June in Texas. Police say Justin Welch strangled Henson, who had performed oral sex on him, when her HIV-positive status was revealed by another woman.

This is the second murder in as many years of a Texas woman allegedly due to serostatus. Twenty-eight-year-old Cicely Bolden was killed in her Dallas home in September 2012. Police say Bolden was brutally stabbed to death after she revealed her serostatus to a partner. Both cases illustrate the dangers of disclosure -- which are often exacerbated by gender-based/intimate partner violence.

The Positive Women's Network - USA released a landmark study in 2013 on gender-based stigma and violence. Seventy-two percent of positive women surveyed experienced intimate-partner violence, as opposed to a quarter of all women. And 70 percent had been sexually assaulted, compared with 20% of all women.

Criminal Charges, Lawsuits Against HIV-Positive Pastors in the U.S. South

The cases of two pastors in the U.S. South accused of "knowingly spreading" HIV to members of their congregations, or putting others at risk, has fueled outrage and vitriol across cyberspace.

Former Memphis pastor Rodney Carr was sentenced in early November to five years in prison for "criminal exposure to HIV."

"But was his sentence tough enough?" asked WMC-TV. Carr reportedly learned his serostatus in 2005 but did not inform his girlfriend who later seroconverted.

In Alabama, trustees of a Montgomery Baptist church sued to remove their pastor of 24 years, the Rev. Juan McFarland. The married pastor publicly acknowledged his HIV-positive serostatus -- and also admitted to having sex with numerous women in the congregation, using illegal drugs and misappropriating funds.

Both pastors are African American. The cases illustrated the shifting epicenter of the U.S. epidemic -- seroconversions are growing fastest among African Americans in the South.

Speaking Out Against "Gay-on-Gay Shaming" About HIV

Many long-term survivors believe that stigma is worse today -- especially among gay men. Ironically, advances in treatment have made it easier for more people to hide their serostatus. The so-called "viral divide" is probably the most evident on social networking apps and hookup sites such as Grindr, Manhunt and Adam4Adam. "Clean" and "Neg-Disease free" are among the usual descriptions of HIV-negative men advertising for the same.

Peter Staley, the veteran activist who founded the Treatment Action Group and the primary subject of How to Survive a Plague, wrote a scathing critique of "gay-on-gay shaming" for the Huffington Post in February.

"HIV-related stigma is worse than ever," he wrote. "The worst ... comes from my own community: gay men. [It's] a vicious cycle where stigma leads to more HIV while hiding its damage by instilling fear and shame in the newly infected."


Deaths in Crimea After Imposition of Russian Drug Policies Ends Access to Harm Reduction

In July, Ukraine's International AIDS Alliance relayed that at least 20 people who inject drugs had died in Crimea after Russia invaded and annexed the territory from Ukraine. Previously, Crimea offered injection drug users access to methadone and opioid substitution therapy -- and was achieving significant reductions in new infections among that population. Russia, which has become infamous for harsh drug penalties and rising HIV infections, discontinued these practices on the first day of its annexation.

Donald Sterling's Comments on Magic Johnson and HIV/AIDS

It's been more than 20 years since National Basketball Association legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson made his historic public announcement that he was HIV positive. And the stigma remains.

The NBA slapped former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling with a lifetime ban and forced the sale of the team last summer. This was in response to a series of racist and inflammatory remarks made by Sterling that were recorded, including disparaging comments of Johnson. Sterling harshly criticized Johnson for his serostatus and accused him of "spreading" the virus. "He's not a role model," Sterling said on Anderson Cooper 360. "He made love to every girl in America."

insurance claim

People With HIV Face New Kinds of Insurance Discrimination and Fees

The Affordable Care Act has been described as the most significant overhaul of the health care system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. The law offers broader health care coverage to many people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) in the U.S. and also bans discrimination based on pre-existing conditions and limitation of benefits. But unfortunately health insurance discrimination continues against PLWHA, as insurers have found ways to discourage PLWHA from signing up for their plans or to shift a larger share of the cost of HIV treatment to the insured.

Activists have taken to the press and the courts with their claims that insurers across the nation are violating state and federal laws to discriminate against PLWHA. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana and two other insurers threatened to cease accepting subsidy payments from the federal Ryan White Program for PLWHA, which could have affected thousands of low income Louisianans living with HIV/AIDS. New infections in the U.S. are rising fastest across the South -- Miami, New Orleans and Baton Rouge have the highest infection rates in the nation.

However, there have been some victories. The three Louisiana insurers agreed to continue to accept Ryan White payments. Cigna signed a consent order with Florida regulators in November that agreed to make antiretroviral medications more affordable. The agreement would reduce out-of-pocket expenses and cap monthly copays for four popular antiretrovirals -- Atripla, Complera, Fuzeon and Stribild -- at $200 per month. Previously the insurance company asked consumers to pay up to 50% of the price and up to thousands in monthly expenses.

The Stigma-Driven Sensationalization of Tiger Mandingo

Buzzfeed contributor Steven Thrasher's July 2014 report on the HIV-positive, Missouri college wrestling star Michael Johnson sparked a major online discussion on the racial implications of criminal transmission prosecutions. The wrestling star, nicknamed "Tiger Mandingo," was led away in handcuffs by police and charged with "recklessly infecting another with HIV" and four counts of "attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV."

The case became sensationalized after prosecutors say Johnson videotaped dozens of encounters on his laptop. Johnson was labeled a "predatory monster," with some Internet postings revealing racism. Johnson's sexual partners were white.

An HIV awareness campaign poster at the Ghana/Ivory Coast Border in 2007, prior to an upsurge in anti-gay backlash. (Credit: Felix Krohn)
An HIV awareness campaign poster at the Ghana/Ivory Coast Border in 2007, prior to an upsurge in anti-gay backlash.
Felix Krohn

HIV/AIDS Advocates Attacked in the Ivory Coast

Recent years have seen an escalation in anti-gay legislation, violence and rhetoric across sub-Saharan Africa. But same-sex relations have never been criminalized in Ivory Coast in Western Africa. Its commercial capital of Abidjan was even described as a mecca for gay refugees in 2011.

But since that time, a violent backlash has emerged. The homes and offices of HIV/AIDS activists were targeted by mob attacks in late January, reported the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights (RFK Center). Hundreds of protesters returned two days later and threatened to burn down the offices of Alternative Cote d'Ivoire, an HIV/AIDS service organization. "We don't want people with AIDS in our neighborhood!" shouted protesters. Luckily, the activists escaped and were not seriously injured.

"The current climate of homophobia in Côte d'Ivoire has been stoked by recent media reports that equate homosexuals with pedophiles, thereby seeking to legitimize the illegal and increasingly violent actions of anti-LGBTI mobs," the RFK Center press release explained.

The Ivory Coast has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the region at an estimated 7 percent.


Seattle Prosecutors Say HIV-Positive Man "Endangers Public Health"

A "cease and desist" court order was issued in September to stop a Seattle man from "infecting people" with HIV. King County Health Department officials sought legal action because they believe that the man "became aware of his HIV positive status in 2008 but has since infected at least eight people," according to court documents. The unidentified man faces jail time if he does not attend counseling sessions and "adopt behaviors that will protect future sexual partners."

The media reports neglected some pertinent facts, notes TheBody.com's community editor Mathew Rodriguez. There are no reports "of any phylogenetic testing ... to find out whether the eight people's HIV strains were linked with [his] strain. And he has not been charged with any crime for allegedly exposing them to HIV."

Stigma Project poster

The Stigma Project Goes Viral Against Stigma

Social media has become the most visible outlet for a number of creative and high-impact online anti-stigma campaigns. One of the most visible: The Stigma Project. The Facebook-based, graphic campaign was founded in February 2012 by Los Angeles-based Chris Richey and Scott McPherson. Richey is a marketing executive who was diagnosed with HIV in 2010. McPherson is the creative director at Here Media's The Advocate and HIV Plus magazines.

The Stigma Project has reached more than 3 million people and started 150,000+ conversations. Now that's the kind of viral transmission we like to see!