Heterosexual Identity Crisis: The Untold Story of Shame Among HIV-Positive Straight Men
When you think of someone living with HIV, you probably don't think of a story like mine, right? My heterosexual community is an unheard voice, one that is often silent by choice. HIV awareness has been left to previously ostracized groups within our society, such as the gay community. Although HIV affects us all, as seen in my previous blog "Straight Up: Why the Heterosexual Story Matters," it seems that "others" have been left to carry the weight of this epidemic.
We hear the stories of those living with HIV, but can't help but wonder to ourselves, "Where are the straight men and why don't they speak up?" The answer is clear: stigma and shame.
Heterosexual men are fighting an uphill battle, facing a stereotyped diagnosis while trying to figure out where we fit in. Caught between a rock and a hard place, many heterosexuals, especially straight men, feel alienated -- from both the heterosexual community and the broader HIV-positive community.
Put yourself in the shoes of a heterosexual male living with HIV for just a moment ...
You've finally made the decision to share your story with a friend; this is a big day. You muster up the courage to repeat the three words that for so long have been associated with gay men and intravenous drug users: "I am HIV positive."
And he asks the common yet stigmatizing question, "How did you contract HIV?"
A simple question turns into what seems like an interrogation; you've now broken the stereotype so deeply embedded in the minds of the world.
He seems curious, puzzled and at a loss for words as he tries to grasp the information you are disclosing to him. Not only are you breaking down barriers in terms of his education on HIV, but you are changing an image in his mind that is so deeply attached to this virus, leaving him in disbelief. You are now expected to prove your own identity.
Trying to find "strength in numbers," you look around for examples of other straight men living with the virus, and you come up empty handed. You want to show him that HIV doesn't discriminate and that what he has believed for so long is truly misguided.
That it's a stereotype.
As you look through the epidemiological data and find heterosexual men often missing from the statistics, you feel more and more out of place. You look to campaigns promoting HIV awareness and prevention, yet you see only stereotyped images plastered across the board. It seems that straight men don't need support either, as you find yourself the only straight man in a mostly gay male support group.
Every other person you know living with HIV isn't like you it seems, so you begin to question yourself. Is the stereotype really a stereotype, or is it indeed the very essence of what it means to be HIV positive?
The illustration above paints a picture of the stigma and shame we face as HIV-positive straight men. It is a multifaceted web of discrimination that often goes unnoticed by those who don't experience it. We are the black sheep of the epidemic, the odd men out.
The outside world labels us, while our own HIV community questions us. Damned if we do, and damned if we don't, many straight men simply don't see the point in adding their voices to the crowds of those living with HIV.
HIV advocacy is often grouped together with LGBT rights and that, in my opinion, has contributed to the stigma we face. As someone who fully supports LGBT rights, I nevertheless believe they are two distinct battles we must fight on different fronts. By lumping the two issues together, we perpetuate the very stigma we aim to defeat.
Sharing the most intimate details of one's life, such as an HIV status, takes guts. We have to be prepared for the reactions that might result from taking that step. Straight men see the stigma that our gay brothers and lesbian sisters face simply because of who they love. The fear of being discriminated against in a similar manner often overrides the possible positive outcomes that could come from putting a face to the virus.
In addition, identifying as an HIV-positive straight male brings into question power, masculinity, and the traditional role of protector and provider. Faced with the unique challenges of fatherhood and in many cases being the sole family provider, many straight men feel inadequate, as if they haven't measured up to the world's standards of what's acceptable.
Our own HIV community at times doubts us, stating that men who claim to be positive and straight are simply on the down low and confused. I've experienced this first hand when those I previously thought to be well-educated HIV advocates have stated they don't believe there is such thing as female-to-male transmission. I must have slept with a man in my life or my ex-girlfriend must have slept with someone who was bi, they say. The act of two men having sex must have been involved somewhere along the line, because that's the general consensus.
Even in my journey to HIV advocacy, I found that many HIV organizations were not interested in sharing my story. It's sad to say that, even when we speak up, whether it to be to find support or to put a face to the virus, we often continue to face the same stigma.
As a result of this stigma, the virus is affecting more heterosexual men. It's becoming a more common belief that HIV only affects high-risk groups, but never someone like me. This is contributing to heterosexual men not getting tested and in some instances passing the virus to their partner(s). It is also reducing the number of men who have the necessary support systems and increasing the lack of adherence to HIV medication.
In order to end this epidemic and the stigma surrounding it, straight male stigma must be addressed. Straight men need to be more vocal, and the HIV community needs to be more accepting; this will cause a trickle-down effect, reducing stigma from the outside world. We need to unify and practice what we preach. It's time that "HIV doesn't discriminate" becomes not just a phrase that we say, but also an action that we actually believe in!