Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Day with HIV: Walking the Walk

Maybe sometimes you wonder who I am—the person who manages much of the Stigma Action Network’s (SAN’s) social media—my name is Kirsty, and I have been the Stigma, Discrimination, and Gender Intern at the International Center for Research on Women since February 2013. Every weekday, I come to work and I sit in a cubicle where I pour over the latest in HIV and stigma, distilling that information down to posts that I think you—our SAN users—will find digestible and interesting. I learn a lot about HIV and stigma from writing these posts and from engaging with the SAN’s incredible community of #StigmaWarriors (like you!). However, I have never been so humbled by or able to empathize quite so much with this cause as when I “walked the walk” of a #StigmaWarrior—the day I went in to take my very own HIV test. 

One day shortly after I started this internship, as I was perusing my SAN newsfeed I saw that Whitman Walker would be conducting free HIV tests at my university. While I shared information about HIV testing on Facebook and Twitter,  encouraging people in the DC area to take advantage of this free and quick testing opportunity, before this moment I had never been tested for HIV or even thought about getting tested, as I had little reason to think I would be HIV positive. As soon as I shared this post I was struck by an awful sense of hypocrisy: I sit here, every day in this cubicle and encourage people to get tested, to be greater than HIV, to be greater than stigma, and I have never even been tested. I immediately grabbed my phone and set a reminder to attend the testing event on campus, determined to practice what I preach.

The day the mobile clinic was on campus, I was speaking at one of the Nursing and Health Studies School’s (NHS) events for Georgetown’s Accepted Student Weekend in a building across from where the mobile clinic was parked.  After the event, I calmly headed to the mobile truck, but as I neared, I saw one of my professors and my body went into a panicked autopilot, causing me to walk straight past the truck. I did a lap around the quad, shaking off my embarrassment and riling myself up to try again. This time, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the parents who had been talking to me after the NHS event; again I walked right by the clinic, completely overwhelmed with a mixture of fear and unwarranted, shame. This happened two more times. On the fourth, I walked 15 feet away from the truck and stopped to collect myself. 

If I ever needed a moment to personally reaffirm why it is so important to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV, this was it. I’m normally a very self-assured person, but the reality of (what turned out to be very publicly)  getting an HIV test shattered almost every shred of confidence I possessed. As I was standing 15 feet away from this clinic, trying to be inconspicuous by pretending to stare at my phone, I started to feel annoyed with the situation. I did not like feeling so afraid of being judged, especially for taking part in an activity which should be part of a person’s annual health routine. I knew what I was doing was the responsible thing to do—so who has the right to make me feel ashamed? If anyone chooses to discriminate against me for taking the test, at the end of the day that is their problem and shouldn’t be mine. 

After what I can only describe as a very fervent internal pep-talk, I turned around and briskly walked to the first volunteer and rapidly blurted out: “HiI’veneverhadanHIVtestandIwanttogetone” I didn’t want to give myself another chance to walk away. They directed me into the truck, where I nervously babbled to the volunteer as she handed me a few pages of paperwork and the HIV test that I simply had to brush along the inside of my mouth. 

After taking the test, I was nearly floored when the volunteer told me I would have to leave the truck it had taken so much out of me to enter, and then come back for my results in 30 minutes. I went to grab an iced tea to cool my nerves and kill time before I had to get my results. During this time, that nasty little part of your brain that plays devil’s advocate started to get the better of me. What if the results were positive? What would my parents think? Would my friends be supportive? My boyfriend would probably dump me before I finished telling him. 

A half hour of agonizing and “what if-ing” later, I was relieved to find out that my results were negative. But the sense of unease I had been experiencing for the past hour persisted as I reflected on my experience.

Perceiving stigma and discrimination from practical strangers and then contemplating with so much uncertainty who, if anyone, would be there to support you if those results were positive… that shouldn’t happen to anyone…ever. This experience allowed me to emphasize and truly understand just how important the work of organizations, like the SAN, to reduce HIV stigma is. 

If we want to arrive a world free of such stigma, we all must do our part. We must iterate and reiterate the message that taking charge of your health—by using protection, getting tested, or seeking treatment—is something to be proud about, not ashamed of. Showing empathy and support to all people in the global fight against HIV (even through such actions as making STD/HIV testing a routine part of your life) is a critical component to ending HIV-related stigma and discrimination

I am very proud to say I left my cubicle, and I “walked the walk”. I encourage you all to do the same and take your own steps against HIV stigma. I know I will continue to take my own.


September 21st is the "A Day with HIV" Awareness event! Take a step against stigma and send a photo to! For more details about this event click here.

Be sure to visit the SAN social media pages to see how we are taking part!

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