• December 29, 2014

Fight against HIV: Some say stigma contributes to its spread

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Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2014 4:30 am

Back in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic first appeared, the disease was a sure death sentence for those who contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, most commonly known as HIV.

Three decades later, there is still no immunization for HIV or a cure for AIDS, the immunodeficiency syndrome that often results from the virus.

But medical research discovered ways to manage the disease and extend the lives of its victims and many years of awareness and education campaigns reduced widespread panic over the disease and significantly slowed the spread of the virus.

However, HIV is still a serious problem, especially in Bell County, where the HIV infection rate continues to climb. Of Texas counties, Bell County ranked No. 12 for new HIV infection cases in 2012, up from No. 14 in 2011, according to the most recent Texas Department of Health Services report. Of Texas cities, Killeen ranked No. 17 for new HIV cases.

In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having sex with or sharing drug injection equipment with someone infected with the virus. Although most commonly associated with the gay community, the virus does not discriminate. All segments of the population, all age groups, races, genders and socioeconomic groups, are at risk of contracting HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, gay and bisexual populations, including men who claim to be heterosexual but still have sex with other men, are still the most seriously affected by HIV. According to a state report, homophobia and HIV stigmas are contributing factors in the spread of the virus.

Those factors could account for the increase in HIV cases in Central Texas, where homophobia and stigmas are alive and well, according to several Killeen men who are homosexual and chose not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Speaking out

One man, however, was not afraid to speak his mind or give his name.

Belton native Louie Minor Jr., 34, is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in District 31. As a gay man, he acknowledged the discrimination and social stigma that exist in the greater Killeen area and Central Texas. He said it all stems from one thing: fear.

“People are afraid of the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community because they don’t know about us,” he said. “The stigmas are due to too many religious misunderstandings of biblical texts. There are lots of misinterpretations, which is why you can’t cherry-pick one issue and stand on it as valid.”

A church-going man himself, Minor said his pastor knows he’s gay and still supports him.

Regardless of the homophobia that exists in Central Texas, Minor attributes the rise in HIV cases to another factor.

“The higher numbers we see with HIV is due in part to the growth of minorities,” he said, referring to the population hit hardest by the spread of HIV.

Fighting stigma

Joseph Solomon, executive director of the Refuge Corporation, a nonprofit outreach program of Christian House of Prayer in Killeen, said HIV is “not a gay person’s disease” but agreed with Minor’s fear assessment, especially regarding HIV. He said denial is prevalent in Central Texas, as many people just don’t want to know about the virus.

“It’s the elephant in the room and a lot of it stems from fear.”

Solomon said the stigma of having HIV is present today. As a result, many people with HIV don’t reveal their status openly in the community for fear of judgment and rejection, much like the fear expressed by the Killeen men who did not want to be identified.

“I personally know people with HIV and I don’t treat them any differently,” Solomon said. “We need to do that on a broader basis. There’s a lack of knowledge about this illness.”

Although his church doesn’t agree with the gay and lesbian lifestyle, Solomon said it doesn’t dislike homosexuals.

“The church will never say they’re not welcomed, but at the same time we have convictions and believe in righteous and in what the Bible says,” he said.

Minor and Solomon may not see eye to eye on some things, but they both agreed HIV is no longer a virus isolated in the gay community. It can spread to anyone at any time, a fact both men also agreed needs to be communicated more.

Spread awareness

The Refuge Corporation is making plans to spread HIV awareness through an abstinence program, Solomon said.

“We’ll take the same approach of education, newsletters and workshop to help people understand the disease,” he said.

Because HIV and homosexuality are still taboo subjects in many circles, Minor said people aren’t having the dialogue necessary to spread awareness and education. And education is paramount because HIV is not just in the gay community.

“If it’s preventable, people need to do what they must,” Minor said. “It’s like me; diabetes runs in my family, so I eat well and exercise and take it seriously to avoid it.”

Keisha Martinez, clinical services director of Out Youth in Austin, echoed the importance of education. Out Youth outreach program teaches Central Texas lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “questioning” youths ages 12 to 19 how to discuss sexuality and safe sex and explore the importance of empowerment in relationships and how to create healthy boundaries.

Martinez attributes the rise in HIV cases to a lack of proper safe-sex education, an inability of individuals to negotiate condom use in a confident manner, inaccessibility to barrier protection and a new wave of thinking that

HIV is no longer a death sentence. Everyone participating in high-risk behavior, from sharing needles to having unprotected sex with multiple partners, needs to be educated about the dangers of HIV, and targeting the gay community does not send the correct message, she said.

“In fact, all it does is further the stigma that it is a ‘gay disease,’” Martinez said. “Social inequality and messages of shame have a tremendous impact on young gay and transgender teens. They are constantly receiving messages that they should be ashamed of who they are and that shame drives secretive behavior which contributes to poor decision making.”

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