James Brown Shares His Story on Living with HIV, Discrimination and an Urgent Call for LGBTQ Protections

By Communications Team • March 25, 2022 • 9:20 am

By James Brown (alias)

I was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. Nothing prepared me for that moment. I went to the doctor thinking I was having a flare-up of lupus, so when my doctor told me I was HIV positive I was shocked and devastated. The diagnosis felt like a death sentence at that time. This was before many of the treatment advancements we have now. Today I take only one pill a day, but back then – like most people living with HIV in the 2000s – I took a cocktail of medications. 

I didn’t tell my family at first. With all the miseducation and stigma that exists around HIV, I was afraid of how they’d react. But soon enough a family member found my medications and Googled them. They approached me with love and told me they knew what the medications were for. They embraced me.

Their choice to support me was powerful. I have a life I love – I live in Washington, D.C., I enjoy my work as a property manager, I have a circle of chosen family and friends. This life would have been there for me even if my parents and extended family weren’t. But losing them over my health status would have been heartbreaking. 

The lack of understanding around HIV paired with the fact that our country does not have an explicit federal law prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination makes it challenging for those of us with the virus to live our lives freely. More than 1 in 3 LGBTQ Americans reported facing discrimination in their everyday lives, and for people living with HIV, the chance of experiencing anti-LGBTQ discrimination is unfortunately even more likely. 

Right now, 50 percent of LGBTQ people live in the 29 states that lack statewide laws that protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces. No one should be discriminated against because of who they are, who they love, or their health status. A federal nondiscrimination law would help all Americans regardless of their HIV status to thrive. 

I’m a Black, gay man. Discrimination is not new to me, and it is not something I would like to invite more of. So I am very careful with who I tell about my HIV status. I have no shame about my diagnosis, but I am not naive about others’ biases and misplaced fears. So I tightly control who has access to that information.

There is still a lot of miseducation around HIV/AIDS, even in the LGBTQ community. I find the stigma frustrating on many levels, especially with all of the medications and advancements that have been achieved. I’m lucky to live in an area of the country where discrimination is illegal and there are more resources for people living with HIV. 

I also count myself fortunate to have access to good medical care. I’ve worked with the same medical provider for over ten years and am lucky to have medical providers that are culturally and HIV competent. There are many areas of the U.S. where support systems like support groups, medical access, advocacy groups, and government support are minimal to non-existent for people living with HIV.

People with HIV often face barriers to receiving preventative care due to anti-LGBTQ discrimination and stigma. That leads to health complications and other illnesses. According to a recent research report by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, 44 percent of Black LGBTQ adults have either never been tested, tested when they felt at risk, or once every two years or less. It’s an alarming statistic that falls far too short from the CDC recommendation for testing frequency for HIV, which is at least once a year or more frequently.

Watching the world react with urgency to the COVID pandemic has been a bittersweet experience. While I’m glad we are making progress on COVID, it’s hurtful to see the government and the medical community react with such seriousness and force to this virus, when there was so much neglect in the response to HIV/AIDS. The same groups that ensured the COVID vaccine was developed and in testing within months took years to even start a small amount of testing for HIV. So many people died waiting for the government and medical community to take AIDs seriously. How many of them would have been saved if a similar response to COVID had occurred at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic?

It isn’t too late to increase our efforts into HIV research. Governments can help by increasing funding and education. And if we wholeheartedly want to end the HIV epidemic in the United States, we must seize the moral high ground and ensure LGBTQ Americans are provided with equal rights, better access to care, and increased secure housing.

Federal nondiscrimination legislation will help us get there. 

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