When I first started thinking about HIV stigma and how it relates to me, I thought that, for the most part, it doesn't affect me.
I have a pretty great life with caring friends and family and am lucky enough to live in a city where I don't feel the need to hide who I am, and my HIV status is part of that.
Then I looked up a definition of "stigma," and here's how one website defines it: "A mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one's reputation. A mental or physical mark that is characteristic of a defect or disease. A place or point on the skin that bleeds during certain mental states."
Those words hit me hard.
My eyes welled up as I felt recognition. Perhaps I've just gotten so used to those feelings that they've become a part of me, and I don't notice them unless I make myself think about them. A mark of disgrace ... a stain ... a mental mark that is characteristic of a disease, a place that bleeds.
I was diagnosed in 2003, and since then I've been healthily living with my disease, trying as I might not to let HIV define me or keep me from being me.
Once, I was having a conversation with a dear friend about dating. He's a smart, caring, terrific guy who is straight and whom I consider a brother. I was complaining to him about dating and seeing some men on gay dating websites who'd asked whether I'm "clean."
"It's completely shocking to me that grown men in this day and age can still have a problem dating someone who's HIV positive!" I said. "I mean, it's not like we're in the middle of the AIDS crisis or anything."
"Charles," he said, "no offence or anything, but I'm surprised anyone will date you. I mean, I wouldn't want to date someone who is sick with HIV."
I was flabbergasted.
He didn't mean to offend me; he was being honest. But I was terribly hurt. I had no idea that he thought of me as being sick. Hell, I work out five days a week; I eat right; I don't smoke, use drugs or drink. I'm probably healthier than he is! I remember thinking that if a dear friend thought this, how many other people in the world have this kind of prejudice?
I wish I could say that I defended myself and schooled him, but I didn't. His view sounded reasonable, so much so that I let the phrase "sick with HIV" enter my brain and twist my opinion of myself.
Before the conversation, I'd kidded myself into believing that HIV was just another part of myself, like my black hair and my great sense of humor. After that chat, I couldn't help equating my status with sickness and feeling that most people in the world see someone with HIV as diseased. It overwhelmed me.
It took me a long time to turn that around, to remind myself that I'm not a sick person. It wasn't until I took ownership of my status and realized that happiness is a choice that I was able to get the "sickness" out of my head.
Turns out, sometimes the person who stigmatizes me the most is me. But my HIV is not a disgrace; it is no mark of shame and no reason to think less of myself. I am not dirty, and I am not sick. The best way for me to combat what other people think of us HIV positives is to be healthy, strong, full of life and laughter, and to choose joy.