HIV Stigma: Where we are and a path forward

I was diagnosed HIV positive back in 2013 at 23 years old, and this year marks my 10-year anniversary of living with HIV. As I look back on the past decade of my life, I see just how far we’ve come when it comes to what it means to live with HIV. In honor of Zero HIV Stigma Day, which took place for the first time on July 21, I’d like to share with you some of the progress we’ve made as a community, as well as some of the ways we can move forward in making HIV stigma a thing of the past.

HIV stigma is rooted in the fear and misconceptions that surrounded the virus when it was first discovered. Through decades of education and outreach many of those ideas that were held about HIV seem to be a thing of the past. What was once a death sentence is now thought off as a treatable chronic illness. Things that seem scary like swimming pools and sharing utensils are now known to not be a cause of concern for transmission. And the virus that was once seen as a risk to our blood supply for hospitals has been neutralized thanks to the safety protocols adopted by our health care institutions. Truth be told our lives today as people living with HIV are leaps and bounds ahead of what our predecessors who marched on Washington had to face.

One significant advancement that has emerged is the understanding of “undetectable equals untransmittable” or U=U. This groundbreaking revelation has liberated countless individuals, offering hope and the reassurance that with proper treatment, their viral load can be suppressed to undetectable levels, rendering them incapable of transmitting the virus to others. With U=U, dating while living with HIV no longer carries the burden of fear or potential harm to partners. This knowledge has fostered healthier relationships and is helping to eliminate HIV stigma from the dating landscape, empowering those living with HIV to lead fulfilling love lives without fear of judgment or discrimination.

While we have made progress, HIV stigma still persists in may corners of our community. To stop HIV stigma in its tracks, we must employ diverse strategies, and the arts serve as a powerful vehicle for education and change. Through theater performances, art exhibitions, music and other creative forms, we can humanize the experiences of those living with HIV, challenging misconceptions and fostering empathy and understanding. By embracing the arts as a tool for public health education, we can amplify the voices of those impacted by HIV, encouraging open dialogues and nurturing an environment of compassion and acceptance.

Additionally, forging partnerships with LGBTQ+ inclusive churches is a crucial step in creating a network of faith-based leaders committed to educating about HIV stigma. These churches can provide safe spaces for discussions, support and guidance, leveraging their influence to dispel myths and promote empathy within their congregations. By joining hands with faith-based institutions, we can tackle HIV stigma from multiple angles, fostering a sense of unity and shared responsibility within our community. While creating open spaces for worship for LGBTQ+ people and those living with HIV, where they can access the healing power of faith.

As we continue the fight against HIV stigma, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to progress. By embracing the knowledge of U=U, increasing awareness through the arts and forming partnerships with faith-based leaders, we can create a future where HIV stigma is nothing more than a painful memory. Together, let us honor those who have bravely faced the challenges of living with HIV, ensuring that their stories are heard and that we stand united in breaking the chains of stigma once and for all.

Andres Acosta Ardila is the director of advocacy for LOUD Central Florida, an affinity group of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation that focuses on using lived experiences to advance initiatives that build up the community through education and outreach for the Latinx community. He is also the lead for the Central Florida HIV Stigma Taskforce and education program specialist for the onePULSE Foundation.

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