In queer communities especially, so much effort is made to get tested regularly and know our HIV status. These are important and necessary campaigns so that those who engage in sexual practices can make informed decisions and negotiate potential risks accordingly. There have been great efforts made to normalize STI testing, and I see the effects when my friends post about it on social media.
However, the overwhelming pattern is this: someone will make a post announcing they got tested, perhaps even posting a photograph of their results — presumably to normalize getting tested and start a conversation — yet these always seem to be people who test HIV-negative.
The underlying message seems to be, “Congratulate me, get tested so you can also test negative, and you, too, can be congratulated.” What these posts effectively do is become celebrations not of knowing your status, but of testing HIV-negative.
What this does is affirm to poz [HIV-positive] people that their status is unwanted and undesired, that not being HIV-positive is to be celebrated. What is intended as a destigmatizing gesture ultimately acts to reify the stigma they’re claiming to be working against.
While people use social media differently, and I have definitely seen more than one public announcement of a seroconversion, what appears to be more common in my experience is friends who are HIV-positive letting me know privately and on their terms — which is absolutely their choice and their right. Still, the discordance between the admission of negative and positive results is indicative of how much work needs to be done to truly be in solidarity with HIV-positive people. And this is the work of those who are HIV-negative.
Here are some strategies to use when we want to know and understand our status without further stigmatizing those who have acquired STIs, especially HIV, in the process.
1. Normalize knowing your status — but also normalize not needing to know.
We are on the right track by normalizing getting tested and talking openly about knowing our status. However, when we only do so to announce our negative statuses, we can reproduce stigma and make our friends feel less safe and trust us less. We don’t need to announce a negative status in order to say we got tested and know our status.
Not announcing a negative status might lead people to believe that we have tested positive. We should be okay with that, and maybe use the opportunity to work through another person’s assumption about what this result means. Alternatively, simply saying, “I will discuss my status with you when it becomes relevant to our relationship” can also be an effective way to remind your communication partner of boundaries and the appropriateness of disclosure.
This can be a slippery slope, however. By talking about getting tested, we also invite the assumption that we have never tested positive before. This is something to keep in mind when we choose to discuss this.
2. Talk to your friends!
If you have friends who are also having sex and are comfortable with talking to you about it, talk to them about your sex practices and habits! This is a good way to check in and ensure you’re making the best and right decisions for you. Chances are your friends care for you and want the best for you and your sexual partners and are willing to hold you accountable to make sure you’re all making informed decisions.
More Radical Reads: 10 Excuses People Give to Avoid Using Condoms — And Why That’s Unacceptable
Plus, this is a great way to skill-share and get tips and tricks for navigating asking for consent, safer sex practices, and general skills to make sex as good as possible for everyone involved.
3. Use the buddy system.
If something happens that you don’t feel comfortable with, or feel unsure or worried about, again: talk to your friends. If you feel you need to get tested, or even PEP, and are scared about going alone, ask a friend to join you. You can support each other throughout the process and through getting your results.
Alternately, if your friend is expressing anxiety or concern about their status or an experience they had, offer to go with them to get tested. You can use the opportunity to update your results and support a friend in the process.
If you need to locate your nearest testing facility, here is a good place to start. If you are in a metropolitan city, a local LGBTQ center or magazine might know more resources specific to your area.
If there is no one you feel safe or comfortable talking about these issues with in your immediate area, the internet is also a good place to turn for support. Social networking sites like LiveJournal and MySpace were vital to me in my youth, isolated from other queers in suburban Texas. Facebook groups remain wonderful ways to connect to like-minded people across the world, as well as sites like Tumblr and Twitter.
If you would like anonymous assistance, The Trevor Project has a list of resources available beyond their hotline.
4. Educate yourself and work through your own internalized stigma.
According to StopSerophobia.org, serophobia is “a manifestation of fear and aversion by certain people towards people living with HIV. Like homophobia, it manifests itself through acts of exclusion or discrimination, whether implicit or explicit.” I would also argue that, like other systems of oppression, it’s something we have passively been educated to internalize, knowingly and willingly or not.
With this in mind, it’s important to take it upon yourself to learn about the realities of an HIV diagnosis and what living with HIV means without putting this burden on the HIV-positive people you know. There are plenty of online resources geared toward educating HIV-negative people for this reason.
Think about the ways your internalized stigma and serophobia manifests in our lives and affects the choices we make. Comparable to other systems like racism and ableism, serophobia impacts who we surround ourselves with, including who we date and sleep with. Educate those around you, and advocate for an end to serophobia in the spaces you frequent.
5. Support friends and loved ones who test positive.
Learn what to say when a friend either tests positive or chooses to disclose their status to you. Become someone who actively works against HIV and STI stigma in your life so that those around you who are dealing with it can trust you to lean on when they need support.
More Radical Reads: 6 Ways to Talk About STIs (Without Being a Jerk)
Relatedly, work on cultivating friendships and relationships that can support you in the event of an STI diagnosis or seroconversion. Honesty, trust and communication are skills that are important in many areas of your life and relationships, and they’ll certainly help you around these issues.
Knowing our HIV and STI status is important knowledge for us. But we have to navigate these experiences in ways that don’t further stigmatize and ostracize those who receive positive diagnoses — and not just because “they” could one day be “us.”
[Feature Image: Photo of a person with brown skin, short black hair, and a goatee. They are wearing a pink and blue striped shirt and a silver necklace and are standing outside a graffiti-covered wall. On their face is a skeptical expression, one eye halfway closed and lips pursed to the side. Source: Pexels]