Sitting down to write this essay is hard. It is as hard as I knew it would be. Talking about HIV has always been a trigger for me, as it is for many African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) Canadians. Many of us navigate a culture of rampant HIV stigma. My first experience of being stigmatized happened before I even knew what HIV was, before I knew what sex was. A neighbour of mine callously weaponized the fact that my mother had dated someone who died from AIDS and that associated stigma followed my mom and her kids. So, to write this essay about my relationship with HIV, and how my experience of being Black, gay and an immigrant has shaped that relationship, is—you guessed it—hard.
I have never publicly disclosed my HIV+ status, not in any material way at least. Not even to my family. I guess that’s why it was a struggle for me to decide whether or not to include my last name or even my photo with this essay. Sure, there have been some situations with perfectly curated audiences that I have felt comfortable disclosing. However, that is usually after weighing the risk associated with disclosing to a particular person/group. That has been the nature of my relationship with HIV: always hiding or choosing to disclose in spaces and with people I’ve deemed safe. A constant battle with my own internalized stigma.
As I get older and settle into my Blackness and manhood, more and more I realize I am not alone. HIV-related trauma hinders many ACB Canadians from living our authentic truth. We hide our status from family members, potential partners and sometimes ourselves. And even with all these internal pressures, I decided it was important to share my thoughts and experiences and no longer marginalize my story. I own my story; I own my status.
My story is like any other story, a complex one that meets at several intersections to form my identity. HIV is just a piece of that story. It is merely a singular piece of who I am, yet I have spent the last six years in Toronto putting distance between myself and HIV. My personal erasure of that piece of my life has admittedly, and regrettably, fed into the silence that breeds the current HIV landscape in Canada that treats Black folks as a monolith. As if we all share the same lived experience. It is important for me to break that mould and represent a nuanced account of Black Canadians’ relationship with HIV.
As a young Black gay man living with HIV who came to Canada as a refugee, HIV is more than just a virus for me. It’s a hard-to-define, obscure terrain that I must navigate in social settings that also have legal and political implications. What that means for me is that I have an ever-present fear of being rejected or discriminated against. Fear that I could be arrested for not disclosing my status. Fear that the person I am dating will reject me if they found out I am positive, or that I’d get denied a job or entry into a master’s program if my status is ever revealed. Navigating HIV has many times stripped me of my autonomy to love and share space with potential partners and friends as freely and openly as I would like because often times it feels like the safest alternative to disclosure is silence and isolation.
After I was diagnosed with HIV during the refugee process, my first priority was to seek out community. I went in search of a Black queer HIV+ community but found there was none. Unfortunately,—though we disproportionately bear the brunt of new HIV diagnoses—many of us bear it in silence. Many of us have internalized all the nasty remarks we’ve heard hurled towards people living with HIV over the years. It has left us isolated from each other and forced us to navigate this terrain alone, with very little help from family, friends or loved ones.
HIV health care, though designed to meet our needs, is incapable of doing so because we are incapable of doing so. We are incapable of healing from our own internalized HIV stigma. The truth is, whether you are a person living with HIV or not, HIV is a piece of all our stories; it connects us. That binding connection we all have to HIV is reason enough for the ACB queer community to begin the healing process as a collective. It is time we reject the stereotype that HIV makes one dirty. It is time we release all the hurt from being stigmatized and forgive ourselves for the times we have used HIV against each other. I have personally embarked on a healing journey to heal myself physically, mentally, and emotionally from harm inflicted on me. The harm inflicted when we use HIV against each other reverberates through the generations. It is time we end HIV stigma, if not for ourselves, for future generations.
I am still working to release many of the traumas I have related to HIV—but to be honest, being diagnosed with HIV has empowered me. I’ve been encouraged to write my own narrative and use this as an opportunity to speak my truth. But it hasn’t been easy. I constantly negotiate how open I should be about my story to protect my safety, and the safety of my family, from people who would continue to use HIV to discriminate against and stigmatize us. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that fear, but to keep hiding in the shadows feels equally unsafe, and frankly, even more so.
Writing this story has allowed me to confront that fear that has been so debilitating for so long, and for the first time, I can proudly say I am a poz undetectable Black gay man and affirm that you are no cleaner than I am. I live a balanced and healthy life that is forged in the traditions of my ancestors, and I am proud of the work I do to heal myself physically and emotionally. I wish that everyone will embark on this healing journey to love who we are, truly.
Written By: Jermane