Women often experience it differently. Here’s a guest post from a blogger from Positive Women’s Network , B.C.
This post by Monique Desroches originally appeared in the blog of our friends at Positive Women’s Network (PWN) BC here, and is reprinted with permission.
Stigma. It’s a powerful force. We all experience it to varying degrees in our day to day existence and some experience stigma more than others. And some dish it out more than others. Personally, I have not experienced a lot of stigma in my life but when it occurs it’s almost always associated with my HIV+ status.
Most recently I encountered stigma and I almost missed it, but I saw it and called the person on his prejudice. The crummy part is that it came from a doctor.
I went to see a doctor recently, a specialist and thankfully not one I’ll need to see again. You know how it is when you see a doctor for the first time: a hundred questions about your medical history. He got to the HIV part and asked me if I knew how I’d gotten it. I do know how I was infected. I prefer to be very specific with language when speaking about HIV because it can become muddled very quickly with people using HIV & AIDS interchangeably and they’re not the same.
I told him that I do know how I was infected. I also told him that I knew within a few months of infection that I was positive and therefore had the benefit of this knowledge when making choices about my health. I wasn’t about to tell him the actual details of how I was infected because that fact had no bearing on why I was seeing him medically. He didn’t prod any further with the how question, but he then proceeded to say some other stuff about how I’m lucky I didn’t get anything else. I was tired and not paying close attention and nodded in agreement because basically I just wanted to get on with the consultation.
Wait a minute. I woke up and this is where I lost my patience. What did he just say?? I’m lucky? Lucky?!? I took the time to inform him that being HIV+ is not “lucky” and what did he mean by “anything else”? He responded with “you know, other STIs, or pregnant… you wouldn’t want to have had a baby”. Oh. Wow. It didn’t take me long to gather my thoughts and to also realize that I needed to calm down. I told him quite plainly that he had made a lot of assumptions about me and about whom I was in my younger years and that even if I had made the choices he was implying that it was none of his business and it was all irrelevant as to why I was sitting in his office. I was angry and I’m glad I was able to speak clearly.
He apologized and said he meant no offense. He may have not meant any offense but he was entirely offensive.
Speaking out in public
Around the same time as this doctor’s appointment I was also in conversation with a person who wanted to interview me about HIV status disclosure. The request came in response to a blog post I wrote about my decision to always disclose my status within a dating context. My posts on disclosure can be found here and here.
In considering the request for an interview I asked the journalist for an example of the questions we would explore. The response held two points of interest for me, as they concealed potential stigma. One point of interest was the question, “How did you become infected?” and the other was the need to contact the person who infected me to get his side of the story. There’s no way I would disclose the identity of the man who infected me because that would be a breach of confidentiality and I don’t know where he lives or even if he’s still alive.
I rarely answer the question, “How did you become infected?” because this question is inherently judgemental and directly enforces stigma. Do you see the judgment in that question? I’ve heard that asking someone how they were infected is akin to asking a rape victim what she/he was wearing when they were raped. The “how” is very rarely relevant. Sometimes “how” is relevant and in these situations a level of sensitivity is required, as is a non-judgemental context and an understanding of the very real stigmas endured by persons living with HIV.
I understand knowing how a person was infected makes for a fuller story and I’m quite free with sharing. But I am also an HIV/AIDS activist and I seek to defy stereotypes when I’m speaking about living with this virus, which is why I very rarely answer this question when asked outright; I do however try to find out why that question is being asked because it can lead to an educational discussion.
I have no doubt this journalist has the best of intentions, is genuinely curious, and is only seeking a friendly discourse. I am in no way suggesting that the offence I perceived was intentionally presented. I’m not able to go forward with the interview because we have a conflict of schedules, but I would have enjoyed launching off those two points as they provide an opportunity to expose prejudice and potentially reduce stigma. I’ll keep looking for those opportunities and I’m sure that question will come up again.