The Hidden Truth Behind the Plus Sign +
The Hidden Truth Behind the Plus Sign +
By Alejandro Acosta, EQFL's HIV Advocacy Coordinator
I was walking down a busy Chicago street when I received the call. “Your results are back, we need you to come to the clinic,” said the counselor in his very neutral voice. In my mind I had been careful, but I always obsessed about every single thing I had done before my routine HIV tests. When I arrived at the LGBTQ Center on Halsted St., I heard the words every gay man in the world fears: “Unfortunately, your HIV results came back positive.”
Somehow these words 7 words did not affect me the way I always expected. I was not emotional. There were literally no tears. Growing up in Puerto Rico in the 1980’s at the height of the HIV epidemic had prepared me. We were constantly bombarded by PSA’s about HIV, and it was always in the news. One thing I had not considered prior to that fateful day was the fact that I was now “toxic.” That feeling of disgust with my own body lasted many months after knowing my status. The thoughts that flooded my mind were all related to the logistics of this new HIV+ life I had to live: health and life insurance, medication, doctor’s visits, even death. Not surprisingly though, there were two other words that stuck with me more than anything else: DISCLOSURE and JAIL. Yes, nothing else was as present as the thought of infecfting someone else and having to tell people about my HIV status. I was terrified of my family finding out, of losing my job, my friends, everything. Every single positive person reading this knows exactly what I am talking about - once you are HIV+ you must disclose your status to all sexual partners prior to sexual contact or you can be charged with a felony and in some cases, attempted murder. Revealing your positive HIV status can bring very negative consequences to people’s life, making disclosure universally challenging for all people living with HIV (PLWH).
HIV is not what it used to be back in the 1980’s when I was growing up. Today, advances in technology and medicine allow PLWH to live longer, healthier lives, have biological children without infection, but most importantly, to connect with our loved ones and our sex partners without the fear that if they are negative, we will ever infect them. PLWH who are in treatment become “undetectable”, which means there is no detectable virus in their body fluids and they will not be able to transmit HIV. Being undetectable makes us, HIV+ people, uninfectious. Unfortunately, these facts are not part of the national conversation about HIV. These breakthroughs have not gone viral on Facebook, there are no magazine covers of major publications, and no massive campaigns to continue educating the public. HIV has almost completely disappeared from public focus. I wish that PrEP and other HIV medications were as popular as Kim Kardashian, maybe then we could start getting rid of HIV stigma and HIV altogether.
After many years of working as an educator, I became more aware of the need to educate people on HIV and LGBTQ inclusion. Training teachers and school administrators about sexual health was really an eye-opening experience. It reaffirmed that there is a huge need to bring HIV and prevention back to the forefront. Even within our own community, stigma and misinformation continue to thrive. I was thrilled to be given my first opportunity to work directly with the LGBTQ community and HIV prevention as an HIV counselor. It was then that I experienced the problem with criminalization, and how horrible the grip of stigma continues to allow for new HIV infections.
As an HIV counselor I began to listened to the horrible stories from my clients. Stories of criminalization, fear, discrimination, oppression, abuse, and ignorance; stories that are way too specific to rewrite here. Treatment as prevention (TasP) is a successful HIV prevention method, I am a living example that it works. I was in long-term relationship with a negative partner and I did not infect him after 6 years of loving condomless sex. People question the veracity of my experience because they think is something unique to me. It’s hard to admit, but more than once I’ve heard from people “You don’t look like you are HIV+.” which always makes me cringe. Are there people out there who still think HIV is something you can tell from how someone looks? Yes there are, and many belong to our community. Part of my counseling responsibilities was to discuss Florida HIV-specific laws and to help newly diagnosed people how to deal with disclosure. Once again the word disclosure eclipsed every other thought when I read these Florida laws.
If you are unaware of what these HIV-specific laws entail, I encourage you to do a simple online search. Prepare to be surprised as to how unfair, discriminatory, and archaic they are. Joining Equality Florida under the new HIV Project Coordinator position will allow me to work in the field of HIV advocacy on a larger scale. This is a unique opportunity to educate the general public about the importance of modernizing these HIV laws so they match the current science and evidence. Education is the only way to curb the current rate of infection in the state of Florida.
The truth is being HIV+ in the state of Florida is still something that can land someone in jail very easily with minimum effort, evidence or intent to harm. HIV is used as a sentence enhancer, no proof of disclosure is needed, no actual transmission is needed to prosecute, and it disregards any efforts to prevent transmission and current medical advances. The truth is, all that needs to change.
Florida continues to lead the nation in the rates of new infections. This is the perfect moment to bring this issue to Florida residents. If not now, then when?
Our community is suffering from an unprecedented attack by the government and those who support drastic measures to silence us and continue to marginalize us as second class citizens. We cannot continue to sit on the sidelines and wait for change to just happen. We must unite and speak with one voice: that we will not allow our friends and family to suffer from discrimination at the hands of outdated laws; that HIV will not be the end of us; that we are here to stay, to belong, and to continue being proud members of our society regardless of HIV status.