Advocate Peter Staley's "Gay-on-Gay Shaming: The New HIV War" was published in The Huffington Post on Friday. In it, the founder of the Treatment Action Group (TAG) reflects on how the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS has changed over the years. He cites, specifically, the contemporary phenomenon of stigma on the rise within the gay community. Peter writes:
It breaks my heart that the worst of this stigma comes from my own community: gay men. It wasn't always this way. It might surprise today's younger gay men to learn that there was very little HIV-related stigma between us during the early years of the crisis. If anything, I felt the opposite of stigma when I publicly disclosed my status in the late '80s. Gay men with HIV received communal love and support. Once the gospel of safe sex was firmly entrenched, even sexual shunning became rare. Maybe it was our numbers, with upwards of half of New York's and San Francisco's gay men being HIV-positive by 1985. Maybe it was because many of us couldn't hide it, as our HIV painfully manifested as AIDS. Maybe it was our communal fighting back, as we rose up against a government that was ignoring our suffering.
Regardless of the reasons, we felt like one community. We were all living with HIV, regardless of status. I realize this view is skewed. I lived in a city where the social norms were being heavily influenced by ACT UP and other community responses to the crisis. The beginnings of gay-on-gay HIV-related stigma could be easily found in other cities and towns back then. But now it seems to be the norm, regardless of location.
Now that you can take your pills and hide it, and now that we've had at least one generation of gay men who never witnessed AIDS, the sense that we're all living with HIV is long gone. A culture of safe sex, where you always presume the person you're sleeping with is positive, has been replaced with a culture of barebacking, where risk is magically reduced by deeply flawed attempts at serosorting. The flaws are hidden because HIV is now hidden, by inadequate testing, or the very crowded HIV closet in which many now choose to live.
The result is a vicious cycle where HIV-related stigma leads to more HIV while hiding its damage by instilling fear and shame in the newly infected. Their resulting silence makes HIV seem rare and avoidable, giving space for the next generation's stigma. AIDS activists have been trying to break this cycle for years now, to seemingly little effect. There have been countless ad campaigns, online and otherwise, but they fall on deaf ears. Avoiding HIV also seems to mean avoiding a discussion about HIV, turning the page, not bothering to click on a graphic or link that even hints at that plague fought long ago. The stigma protects itself.
Peter concludes by emphasizing the importance of public health intervention and funding in fighting against both the stigma and virus. With a word of encouragement, he states:
We need to plow through the continued apathy, ignorance, and stigma. While the gay men who moralize and finger-wag will most definitely slow us down, AIDS activists and their public health allies will ultimately win this war. So if you're fighting the good fight and getting any stigmatizing pushback, then push ahead even harder. Give a good smack to that finger in your face, ignore the moralizing idiots online, and find strength from your allies in this fight. And know this: When this crisis is finally over, there will be two kinds of people remembered: those who fought to end it, and those who slowed us down.