I have not known a life without HIV. In the era of U=U and PrEP, I feel myself navigating the stigma of HIV at an increased volume. The more people living with HIV attempt to escape the stigmas through messaging of scientific advances, the more we deal with a heightened level of stigma. Education is a tool used to curb ignorance, but it can be a driver of willful ignorance. Let's dissect "willful", the definition being, intentional, or deliberate. Ignorance, meaning the lack of knowledge or information. Willful ignorance is the intentional and deliberate act of disregarding, avoiding or disagreeing with facts and/or empirical evidence because they oppose and/or contradict your own personal beliefs.
I struggle with the child in me - the teenager that separated herself from HIV, so much so that she would place her pills in her mouth, but never swallow them. The young adult that sent her friend to 'Out of the Closet' to be tested using my government issued ID. So that I could prove to someone I was dating at the time that I didn't have the HIV that I in fact was born with. The addict inside of me is crying out, remembering the nights I would drink too much and pop pills to escape my truth. I struggled initially, balancing the feelings I have about myself, with the scientific advances in HIV. How do I feel about myself, while pushing U=U, and PrEP? The little person in me that begged to be accepted, rearing her head, ready to push those messages to the next level, only to be met with a new, seemingly "educated" stigma.
My fear is that we continue to teach those not living with HIV how to be flexible in their stigma. And that we will continue to create a divide within our own community that is identifying a "healthy" version of those of us living with HIV, and those that don't fit the messaging. I don't want to feel as I did 10 years ago, as if I'm begging to fit in, to be liked or tolerated living with HIV. No, I don't want to transmit the virus but how do I stand proudly behind messaging that makes me feel as if I am begging to be tolerated or liked? I am in fact undetectable, but is that the only measure that makes me worthy of inclusion, moral treatment, compassion, or a good night's worth of sex? Do I worry about my sister or brother that is not undetectable, or who is resistant to the ingredients found in PrEP? Do I think about the people that disregard the messages? Do I see the questions and comments in many of the HIV groups that further create a divide within the HIV community? The divisive questions and comments from those who are navigating their own internalized stigmas, that latch on to U=U and PrEP, and use it as their ticket to feel one with the rest of society. I have watched the messaging being turned into weapons and I ask myself how to feel? How to deal? How to voice my concerns without damaging the movements? So, here I am.
Now, we live through COVID. Many of us, feeling stigmatized x2. Surviving two pandemics simultaneously, while trying to prove that we are not infectious and due fair treatment, general concern, and care to a society that chooses to think and/or feel otherwise despite scientific facts. But, if I don't have the privilege of being undetectable and/or I am resistant to tenofivir which disqualifies my partners from effective use of PrEP, how do I feel during 2020 stigma?