The “Ew” factor : The status of HIV stigma

On March 21, 1994 (back when Stephen Spielberg rocked the mullet), a fresh-faced Tom Hanks double-timed it up the steps of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A. to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading role.

Pitted against Sir Anthony Hopkins for The Remains of the Day, Daniel Day- Lewis for In the Name of the Father, Lawrence Fishburne in What’s Love Got to Do with It, and Liam Neeson for Schindler’s List, Hanks won his golden statue for his role as a gay man dying of AIDS who combats stigma and discrimination in Philadelphia.

Voice choked with emotion, Hanks ended his speech with a moving cry to action and tolerance:

“I know that my work, in this case, is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all – a healing embrace, that cools their fevers, that clears their skin and allows their eyes to see the simple, evident, common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago.”

That was the 90s. The AIDS crisis was in full swing, people were just coming to fully understand the causes and consequences of the disease, and victims were dropping like flies. It was a national health-care emergency and research priority, but in the streets, discrimination still abounded. HIV/AIDS was seen as a “gay disease.”

Today, that anxiety is all but forgotten. AIDS is a “black problem,” a curse of the African continent that seems very far removed from our daily lives.  I mean, when’s the last time you were seriously concerned about AIDS in America?

Apparently, not everyone got that memo. This past September, Paris Hilton got doused with a tidal wave of proverbial hot water after she made an offensive comment about gay people.

But, what about the rest of the population?

The National HIV/ AIDS Strategy for the United States – issued by the White House Office of National AIDS Policy in July 2010 – stated, “[t]he stigma associated with HIV remains extremely high[,] and fear of discrimination causes some Americans to avoid learning their HIV status, disclosing their status, or accessing medical care.”

According to a 2010 report by Lambda Legal, one of the oldest organizations working for the rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS, stigma against people living with HIV/AIDS remains a present factor in discrimination in employment, housing, judicial procedures, and access to health care (for individual cases, click here).

According to a 2009 Kaiser survey, 23% of people reported that they would be uncomfortable working with someone who was HIV positive. 51% reported that they would uncomfortable with someone with HIV preparing their food. Finally, 42% reported that they would be uncomfortable having a roommate with HIV.

More than 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS in the US, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost one in five (18.1%) are unaware of their infection.

One of the dangerous effects of this stigma – aside from the obvious psychological harm – is that people might be less likely to get tested if they feel they will be excluded.  According to the Lambda report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s strategic plan for reducing HIV/AIDS recognized the public health concern posed by stigma and discrimination and noted that the need “to change the community perceptions that inhibit those at risk from seeking early diagnosis and treatment and adopting healthy behaviors that inhibit the spread of HIV.

Maybe a possible solution would be to have Tom Hanks and Paris Hilton face off at the next awards show, like Glinda the Good Witch versus the Wicked Witch of the West. Just a suggestion.

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