LGBTQ+ Pride month is about a person being proud in their own skin in a world that wants to tear that skin to shreds because of their gender or sexuality. But when you're gay and HIV positive, there's an added layer of stigma to face. This stigma is born out of our fears about what it is like to live with HIV, from our life expectancy to our quality of life, which is not easy in itself when one is part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Being gay is often equated with "dying of AIDS." AIDS was even called GRID -- gay-related immune deficiency -- before it was called AIDS. And so while the contexts of the U.S. and South African HIV/AIDS epidemics may differ, that commonality is there and it remains.
When I made a concerted effort to come out as gay several years ago, I received pushback from people in South Africa, where I have lived for all 22 years of my life. I've seen the effects of a country unwilling to reckon with apartheid's legacy. It left many people disillusioned and angry at not being afforded opportunities to be equal. This inevitably led people towards violence, both in their words and in their actions, as an outlet for their anger. I do not pretend to know exactly why this violence manifested itself as homophobia and misogyny, but these perceived inferiorities and black people's real oppression led to me being told that I was a waste of skin who would end up dying of AIDS. And so I lived each day of my life with an unrelenting fear, a harsh paranoia that assured me the virus would be my demise. I was judgmental. I was smug. I breathed a silent, self-congratulatory sigh of relief when I tested and my results came out negative. I thought I would subvert expectations and forever be the "clean" kind of gay.
I thought I lived by "the rules." I insisted on condom use every time I had sex -- until the day I ran out of condoms and decided to have sex anyway. Fast forward to a debilitating fever a few months later, and I'd discovered that it was that one unprotected dalliance that gave me HIV.
By this time, my views had evolved a bit. What I realized, more sharply than anything else, was that the stigma surrounding LGBTQ+ people and the stigma surrounding HIV-positive people was intertwined and predicated on shame surrounding sex. While homophobia is meant to shame non-heterosexual people into performing a more socially accepted script of sex, HIV-related stigma is meant to shame people living with HIV for having the audacity to have sex on their own terms. When people are shamed for their sexual orientation or for living with HIV, the result is the same: Shame seeps into every part of their lives. Instead of feeling free within their bodies, the restrictions seem infinite because an essential part of themselves has been shunned.
In South African Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron's book, Justice: A Personal Account, he makes reference to the sexual overtones of both forms of stigma. "Almost everywhere the nature and practice of sex remains contentious. We still debate who should have it, when, how, and on what terms." It is this desire to control and regulate the practice of sex that informs homophobia, and it is the very same desire that informs stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS.
One of my first thoughts post-diagnosis was that my family would secretly rejoice at my status because, in their minds, they had "told me so." Eventually, I realized that to truly be free, I had to come out once again. I had to reveal my HIV status to find my freedom and live in my complexity -- the complexity that makes gay people push HIV-positive people away, the complexity that is bigotry rooted in a fear of being the "other" in yet another sense.
HIV is not just a virus, it is a manifestation and byproduct of all our collective stigmas. HIV stigma shows both our misogyny -- our attitudes about women's sexuality -- and our homophobia -- when we equate queer people with dirty sex. When I came out as HIV positive, I faced a similar ostracism from the LGBTQ+ community as I did within the heterosexual community when I came out as gay.
Did I understand that it came from a place of stigma, and therefore an unfounded fear? Yes. Did it hurt any less? No.
After I revealed my status, many people came to me and secretly told me their statuses or their fears about living with HIV. The fact that I was able to spark that inkling of openness gave me hope to break the entire wall of stigma and shame that separates LGBTQ+ people and their friends, family, and loved ones who also live with HIV.
There have been numerous campaigns surrounding the spread of HIV in South Africa. Free condoms are available almost everywhere. So, too, is information surrounding the virus. We do not suffer from a lack of clinical fact-based information about HIV and AIDS. Yet about 7.2 million South Africans live with HIV, and for all those people, only a handful are willing to publicly speak about their status. Part of this is the implication that HIV only affects people with multiple sexual partners, and so coming out as positive also means coming out as somebody who "sleeps around." LGBTQ+ people already get this label by virtue of their sexual orientation, so when a gay man reveals his HIV-positive diagnosis, society is likely to cheer for the person's impending death rather than listen to his story.
The LGBTQ+ community needs to read from a new script this Pride month: one that includes support, inclusiveness, unconditional love, and freedom from stigma, especially the stigma we internalize. It includes joy. It includes bopping our asses to Beyoncé's timeless hits.
HIV has ceased being a death sentence, and I will be on this planet a few more decades still. I choose to spend those decades as a liberated man, in every way imaginable. Those decades must be free of the stigma that has continuously tied us down to a destiny we did not choose for ourselves. Whether HIV is in our blood or not, it forms part of our reality. Just as we did 50 years ago during the Stonewall riots, let us riot against the stigma that dignifies some and desecrates others. Let us infuse our community with the acceptance and love it so desperately yearns for, and use that to make our Pride that much more engaging.