What are the most powerful tools we have to fight HIV? You might think of some of our most typical tools – HIV care and treatment, HIV prevention methods like condoms or PEP or PrEP or needle exchange programs for people who inject drugs. What if I told you that the best tool to fight HIV is something that we are all born with? As a journalist and writer, I believe that the best tools we have to fight HIV are our mouths, our ears and our brains – everything we use to communicate.
When it comes to economic justice in the US, there’s a popular phrase: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.” It, of course, is a way of discussing the ways that economic security actually makes people safer. When it comes to HIV, nothing stops infection like a conversation. HIV thrives in silence, in the things that we don’t say to each other — and I don’t only mean our HIV statuses.
As a journalist, writer and storyteller, I think about how everyone living with HIV must become an expert storyteller. When someone discloses their HIV status to you, they are telling you their story. And a story is a gift. That person has decided that you are worthy of their story, and that must be respected.
To tell someone, “I am HIV positive,” is to tell him or her more than just a health status. Like a woman who walks around with a pregnant belly, to be openly HIV positive is to have the consequences of something private – whether it be drug use or sexual activity – made public. When someone discloses their HIV status, they’re telling you a story about a time they were vulnerable. A time they opened up their body to become the host of a virus without their knowledge. They may have been fighting an addiction or an illness, they may have been happily married, they may have been doing what it is God and our biology wanted us to do. It doesn’t really matter.
Yes, the war on HIV will be fought with our ears and what’s between them. The “AIDS-Free generation” you hear about really means a generation that will talk about HIV – a generation that will fight the silence.
Much of the history of the AIDS epidemic has been about silencing. HIV heavily affects marginalized populations, and these are populations that, by definition we do not hear from. When HIV first happened, queers, drug users and other people living with HIV had to fight to be heard. The only way to secure their life and longevity was to raise their voices, because the voices of the marginalized are usually only heard through shouting.
To tell someone, "I am HIV positive," is to tell him or her more than just a health status... they're telling you a story about a time they were vulnerable.
Part of my work at TheBody.com is asking people living with HIV to tell me their story. Very rarely have they been asked to sit down and just talk about their lives for a full hour. For that hour, the most important thing is their lived experience. An oral history of themself. And through sharing these oral histories, we get hundreds and thousands of comments and emails that this person’s story made living with HIV easier for the reader or viewer. That hearing that someone else was able to live a fully-realized life, and laugh and smile and speak openly and fill the silent void with sounds of happiness and joy and humanity saved somebody’s life.
HIV stigma is a negative feeling or attitude associated with someone living with HIV for no good reason. HIV stigma fuels HIV infections worldwide. Because stigma is fueled by silence. If we want to fight HIV infections worldwide, it’s a pretty easy evolution of thought: Silence fuels stigma, stigma fuels HIV. So, fight silence with noise, which will kill stigma, which can stop HIV infection.
I am a journalist and storyteller because I believe that the telling of stories is directly related to fighting HIV infection. When people aren’t allowed to talk about how they want to engage in sexual activity, how they want to make love and feel pleasure, we also take away their options for health and safety. When we don’t ask people to talk about their mental illness and shame them for their addictions, we leave them without any help to fight the possibility of HIV infection. When we shame women for their bodies carrying out a pregnancy the only way a human body knows how, we leave that woman and her child up life’s creek without health’s paddle.
I urge you to have a conversation about HIV tomorrow. We will not fight HIV without saying the word over and over, without typing it in our Facebook statuses or letting three of the 140 characters in our tweets be dedicated to this virus. HIV doesn’t have an agenda, it just wants to replicate. For HIV to thrive, all it has to do is stay the same. For us to fight it, we must change. And that change must start with the thing that makes us most human – our power to communicate with other people.