Living Well with HIV- My Sweet Valentine has HIV

It may or may not surprise you to know that in the USA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that among gay men the HIV prevalence is close to 20%, or one in five gay men. Amongst Inner city gay men in Sydney estimates have ranged between 8.9% and 14.2%, with the most recent HIV prevalence estimates being at the lower end of the prevalence range. These prevalence estimates are also fairly consistent with gay men living in Melbourne and Brisbane, 8% and 7% respectively. However in Perth it is estimated that the HIV prevalence rate is relatively lower, ranging between 3-5%. So if you have 500 gay men as friends on your Facebook there is a good chance that at least 5% or 25 friends will be living with HIV today.

Do you know who they are? If not, what could be the reasons for them not telling you? For some having HIV is their private health information – if they had diabetes or cancer they wouldn’t tell you either. Perhaps for others they have witnessed people with HIV being excluded or talked about in a negative way; fear of social discrimination and the consequences of the stigma attached to HIV may keep them from telling anyone. For another person their desire is to continue to be treated normally, and there is no perceived need to tell.

The broader culture we live in sometimes does not make it acceptable for men to reveal their vulnerabilities, especially if they fear that it could be exploited or used against them. It could simply be a perception of nothing to gain, everything to lose. Finally they could be managing fine on their own and don’t need the support, so why tell? Clearly responses are many and varied.

As a community what could be the lost benefit from not having HIV communicated? The most obvious is that the diminished visibility of people living with HIV encourages the mind set out of sight out of mind, which could lead to increases of unprotected sex and rises in new infections. Unchallenged HIV stigma could lead those who have unprotected sex to avoid regularly testing, to avoid the negative social consequences of HIV. This means that people not knowing that they have HIV could increase, again driving potential HIV infection rates higher. Less acknowledged is the notion that when we fail to support people in vulnerable circumstances, we ultimately fail ourselves because eventually we all experience vulnerability in our lives.

So how do we best respond in 2011? Drop the judgment. Appreciate the courage required to communicate HIV status. Publicly challenge HIV gossip and stigma. This creates a cultural norm that it’s not ok to unnecessarily run down any minority. Understand that being visible about HIV or talking about it isn’t sexy but there are a significant number of people that we mix with daily that are living with HIV. To conclude if your sweet valentine tells you they have HIV, believe that you can work through the concerns and still love them for who they are. Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!