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To fight AIDS, we must fight its stigma

Building acceptance by society and self will help defeat disease

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On the occasion of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, I am struck by the persistence of stigma of the disease over the course of three decades. To make any progress toward the goals of this year's mantra, "Getting to Zero: zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths," we must take on the pervasive barrier of AIDS stigma and its influence on legislators, funders, public health agencies, and care providers, as well as those stigmatized. To address AIDS stigma in the United States is to address what it means and what it costs to be black or Latino, homeless, a woman of color, queer or gender nonconforming, young and sexually active — in short, to be human in a society that does not allow full human expression.

Burdened with the highest HIV infection rates, young black gay/bisexual men and transgenders live at the epicenter of the epidemic and the stigma it has coalesced. The crossfire of homophobia, racism, gender and class oppression and lack of legal protection makes it difficult for many to maintain housing and employment, achieve educational goals or sustain overall health. Outside of HIV prevention and support programs, there are few venues throughout the South designed or willing to meet their needs and accept them as they are.

In larger cities like Atlanta, many black gay and bisexual men, transgenders (and some female-born women) belong to the Ballroom community, which consists of groups, or "houses," that compete against each other at balls held throughout the year. Members find a sense of stability, understanding, and acceptance within these houses that they do not receive from their biological families.

For femme men and transgender individuals, walking to the MARTA station is itself an act of critical resistance. The day-to-day resourcefulness they demonstrate is rarely acknowledged in bulletin reports of the latest HIV infection spikes.

It is this very resilience that is featured AID Atlanta's upcoming From Where I Stand campaign, the brainchild of community organizer Charles Stephens, who points out "the stories of young black gay men cannot be told only through statistics." This anti-homophobia initiative will couple diverse images with affirming first-person testimonials. As Charles explains, "From Where I Stand aims to show each and every young gay black man his inner beauty and strength, to empower them, creating a sense of community while emphasizing individuality and diversity and to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS."

Stigma extends past individual prejudice to perpetuate the hatred and disenfranchisement of the targeted group and engender self-loathing, mutual distrust, and disunity among its members. We need visible campaigns like FWIS to uplift young black gay men and all marginalized "others," and to challenge the hearts and minds of those who discriminate against them. For this World AIDS Day, I urge you to recognize the connection between stigma and the needless new infections and AIDS-related deaths it causes. How will you stand?

Craig Washington is manager of prevention programs at AID Atlanta. He has been HIV+ since 1985.

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