Like the Mark of Cain, we carry stigma with us.
Michael Yoder: "... I wonder if, in some ways, we perpetuate stigma by trying to diminish it."
"Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him"
I see a lot of campaigns about reducing stigma and each time I see a new one there's a little knot in my stomach that makes me uncomfortable. While I strongly believe that we need to reduce HIV stigma and discrimination, I wonder if, in some ways, we perpetuate stigma by trying to diminish it.
Here some people's heads will be exploding, but nonetheless, every time we talk about how we're stigmatized, I think there's a mirror in which we see only our own reflections. The people we need to reach are the ones who don't and/or won't hear the message. Not only will they not hear it - they won't internalize it and so, we are potentially just pissing in the wind.
Stigma comes from a Latin/Greek word meaning a mark of disgrace or infamy. Like the mark of Cain, we carry it around with us and it becomes ingrained in our psyche - we are dirty.
"Perhaps one way we can truly come to terms with the fact that HIV will always carry with it some amount of stigma is by just living with HIV - being authentically who we are in public and private, speaking out, acting up and doing so without fear of rejection..."
Of course, we're not and we know we're not, at least intellectually. But in the back of our heads are we so very certain of that? In the gay community, many men who are HIV-negative would just as soon that us poz guys would go away. We sero-sort, we read ads about "I'm clean U B 2", we encounter men who have no clue about how HIV is even transmitted. And yet, with all our attempts to re-direct the discussion (e.g. U=U and No Shame in Being HIV+), I think we're either preaching to the choir, or casting pearls before swine.
I was at a needle exchange many years ago, and as I was leaving I noticed a big "stop" sign near the door that read "stigma free zone"; but I think that while the workers were attempting to create a welcoming "safe" space, the sign itself simply reminded patrons that they are in fact stigmatized - and that message gets internalized over and over.
Of course, there are those people out there who are willing to listen and get the message, but my fear is that they are few and far between. Fear trumps knowledge. And a lot of that fear was born in the 80s, the dark days of Kaposi's and wasting and all the ugliness that the images of people with AIDS invoked - those images have never really gone away.
I don't have an answer about how to reduce stigma among the general population (or even targeted populations), but I think that we subconsciously wear an invisible mark of Cain every day - we are destined to wander the earth being shunned by others and by campaigning to decrease stigma we may unintentionally be reinforcing our own internalized stigma.
Perhaps one way we can truly come to terms with the fact that HIV will always carry with it some amount of stigma is by just living with HIV - being authentically who we are in public and private, speaking out, acting up and doing so without fear of rejection; and when we experience rejection we can feel that sting, pick up the pieces and move on.
Where there is a threat of imminent violence, we must protect ourselves, but there are other ways to be involved without risk. And for those of us who can, we can speak out for those who cannot and act up where we need to.
We can be like water, slowly wearing down the hard places until a path is made where all of us, and the rest of the world, begin to understand and the shadows and the marks of stigma simply go away.