Denied Service Because of His Status, Nikko Briteramos Wants to End HIV Stigma in Barbershops and Beyond

Nikko Briteramos
Lambda Legal

Nikko Briteramos just wanted a haircut. But when he showed up at his local barbershop in Los Angeles last October, he saw an unexpected face: a barber he knew from back home in Chicago. Like many people in Briteramos' hometown, the barber knew about his highly publicized HIV diagnosis and subsequent arrest when he was only 19 years old. Briteramos lost his basketball scholarship and eventually moved to Los Angeles to start anew.

Sixteen years later, Briteramos found himself standing outside an LA barbershop, exchanging pleasantries with a man who knew all about his past. As Briteramos waited for his turn, he could tell that word had spread about his HIV status within the barbershop. Finally, the owner came outside and asked Briteramos to leave. He couldn't risk cutting the hair of someone who was HIV positive because it would upset his celebrity clientele, he said. Nikko walked away feeling disappointed and dismayed -- the rejection especially acute because it had come from one of the few safe spaces he knew: the black man's barbershop.

Last month, Briteramos filed a complaint against the barbershop owner with the help of his lawyers at Lambda Legal. Simultaneously, Lambda Legal teamed up with the Black AIDS Institute to launch a public education campaign called Cut the Stigma, which they hope will correct misconceptions about HIV within black communities.

"Our hope with this case is by shining a light on this discriminatory practice in the barbershop, we can kick start a longer conversation about what does it still mean to have these persistent misconceptions about how HIV is or is not transmitted in a bevy of contexts," said Anthony Pinggera, Briteramos' attorney. "Hopefully the conversation will grow over time."

The following Q&A is Briteramos' story, in his own words.

Sony Salzman: You were refused service on October 13, 2017. Can you describe that day to me?

Nikko Briteramos: At about 6 or 7 p.m., I walked in and asked if I could be next in line to get my haircut. The barber said, "sure." There was only two guys ahead of me. Ironically, I ran into someone who had known me from Chicago. He was now in Los Angeles, working at the barbershop that I was going to. Of course, the first thing he brought up to me was, you know, "Are you still playing basketball? How have I been doing?" It wasn't really much at all.

As I was waiting for my turn, and I see [him] go inside, and it seems like he's talking to the other barber and telling the story of how he knows me. Not too long after, the barber who had agreed to cut my hair, he comes out and asks, "Is everything true about what happened to me? Am I HIV positive?"

I said, "Yes." He says, "Don't worry about the other times I cut your hair, but I can't cut your hair anymore. I have a lot of celebrity clientele." After that, he shook my hand, and I looked at him, and I just kind of walked away.

SS: I'm sorry that that happened. I really truly am. I'm wondering how [that] made you feel? Where you angry? Were you sad? What was your initial reaction?

NB: I was disappointed. I guess I was caught off guard to some degree, as well. It wasn't one of those situations where I felt there was any animus. [But] it wasn't the first time that I experienced, or perceived, some sort of discomfort of someone cutting my hair after knowing my HIV status. I can't walk around assuming that everyone is going to do the stereotypical discriminatory practice that I've experienced before. It's something I didn't assume, but it happened.

SS: I didn't realize that the barber knew about your status because of everything that happened to you in 2001. I can imagine you worked really hard to put the events of 2001 behind you. How did you react to the idea that this was coming up again?

NB: It's tough for me to kind of characterize the situation, just because it was such a big thing where I was at in South Dakota [where the HIV criminalization arrest took place]. It's probably the biggest thing that's ever happened in that city in South Dakota. And, for whatever reason, it was such a big thing in Chicago where I was from. I happen to stand out a lot being six foot seven, and being very identifiable and recognizable and having a unique first and last name.

This all happened in the beginning [of] the internet age. Everyone was looking each other up, especially if you look like you're an athlete, because people were looking up stats. Being connected to sports and looking like an athlete, they're always going to find out who I am. They kind of put me in a situation where it was always going to pop up again and again and again.

I never thought I was going to be able to put it behind me. I felt that that it would not be as relevant [today], but it continues to be relevant.

Related: Discrimination Against People With HIV Is Illegal. Here's What to Do if It Happens to You

SS: I'm really struck by the fact that you're being so open about your experience, knowing that it might invite another wave of media scrutiny into your life. Why did you feel it was important to speak up about the discrimination you faced in Los Angeles?

NB: I really have been watching issues on stigma and HIV medical advancements privately for a long time. I've known persons who are positive. A lot of persons who are positive -- but not openly positive -- have disclosed to me privately. I was in the unique positions to get opinions that are hidden from most of the public because other persons couldn't trust anyone else besides someone they know [who was outed publicly].

I developed a sense that there was a lot of misunderstanding that was becoming commonplace. Also, a lot of persons who are in the position to address some of these issues don't want to take the risk or sacrifice their own personal life or their own careers for the sake of advancing the public discourse on this issue.

I felt that someone has to do it, and I think part of the issue is that I felt that I was one of the persons who might as well do it [because] I don't have much of a luxury to live a private life. I felt I was one of the few persons who could absorb the cost and, really, was in a best position with my personal life to where it didn't affect other people as well. I'm a single person, a loner more or less. And, as a personal trainer, I didn't necessarily have a career where this will disrupt my professional environment.

SS: The complaint describes the black barbershop as a place where men can go to feel some sort of sense belonging and camaraderie. What did it mean to you to lose that service? Did you just go to another barbershop, or did it have some sort of deeper impact on your psyche?

NB: I'm an introvert naturally in many cases. A lot of this stuff people socialize about I don't necessarily vibrate with. But I will say that it's very important that I expose myself to other people and other groups and other cultures.

The barbershop is one of the best places to hear other people's opinions. I said it was a men's club. It's a neutral ground for people to talk about things that are sometimes political or economic or just entertainment: the things that make people happy. That's a very important thing to expose yourself to.

It's an experience that is, to me, vital and necessary to being part of society. I felt it was going to be a major loss, especially were that to be the case everywhere across America.

[Other] barbershops that might not even be concerned with my status or looking up sports stats are some of the barbershops where I can't get that sort of discourse. So, that's the irony of this: The very part of America that I need to expose myself to is sometimes the part that is going to be most likely to look me up and subsequently discriminate against me.

SS: And that's the basis for the campaign you all launched, Cut the Stigma?

NB: That's the basis for my contribution. It's of course bigger than me and bigger than that issue.

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.