HIV Activist Mark S. King and The Sound of Stigma 2018
In 2013, The Sound of Stigma created quite a buzz in the gay community with its unapologetic, in-your-face, extreme look at HIV Stigma and how it has created new boundaries within our wounded community. Call it what it is: ignorant fear. Mark S. King is an AIDS advocate, an author, and a blogger living with HIV since 1985, and he wrote the essay about why HIV stigma among gay men persists.
Recently, we had the pleasure of catching up with Mark in Amsterdam during the 22nd International AIDS Conference. We were curious whether his opinions, about HIV Stigma still holds the gay community as tightly in its grasp as it did in 2013. Have we evolved, grown and moved closer toward inclusivity or are we controlled by fear and the need to fit in?
Stigma From Within Our Community
After more than a decade of losing thousands of our most creative, dear and powerful contributors – friends and family – to this awful disease, the survivors are still being ostracized. Surpizingly, and yet also not so surprizingly, the most acidic part of the stigma is found within the confines of the gay community itself. The most painful rejection is the rejection you feel from your own kind. Mark’s essay is written to, and for, the gay community.
On a very hot morning in the center of Amsterdam, we had a brief opportunity to ask Mark about what he experienced in 2013 versus what he experiences today, as an out, proud, and poz gay man. We were most interested in his comments about PrEP users, the chasm between HIV positive people, and the HIV negative people, who act as the “Morally Corrupt Police.” You can read a synopsis of his points below, or listen to the interview in its original audio format. This conversation was recorded on location in Amsterdam; there is the usual background noise of a busy cafe.
Once PrEP became introduced into the gay community, its users were treated poorly. Users were seen as traitors to “traditional safer sex” and, thus the entire gay community. They were accused of being sluts and whores. A part of our population still sees them this way. With access to more and better education, that segment is considerably smaller today than in 2013. There is still slut-shaming, though – especially on the hookup apps. People get called out as bareback whores and sluts. Some even say that they prefer someone not on that.
We’ve had thirty years of death and mortality in connection with gay sex. Gay sex = illness, sickness, and fear. Fear is powerful. It can shape reality by supporting falsehoods and ignorance. It’s going to take years – generations, decades, even – to change the human psyche towards gay sex. It will definitely take more years to change the stigma, than the short time PrEP has been on the market. It will take a generation of people seeing and knowing PrEP users and HIV undetectables living life like ‘normal’ gays, before they can be seen as trustworthy and responsible. Society needs to trust the science before the psyche can fully adapt.
The Great Unwashed
Mark says that it was difficult to write down many of these stigmas because so many had been thrown at him. He felt that it was important to be chillingly basic and transparent about what HIV stigma is. He goes into excruciating detail about how long term survivors were seen as sexually worthless – the hunchbacks of gay society wasting away at Café Disabili-tay. “We were seen as just relics. We’re here and not going anywhere soon.”
Those who carry the physical manifestations of HIV are seen as relics of this horrible war that people want to turn away from. No one wants to look like they have AIDS. The early HIV drugs took their toll. The scars can be seen for example, in facial wasting. No one wants to carry that mask of HIV around with them. Doctors and surgeons earn a ton of money helping to hide the tracks of the illness with facial fillers and testosterone injections, but the rest of us see it – we know. It’s part vanity and and part not wanting to bear the “scarlet letter A”.
Talking about HIV helps to reduce stigma.
Morally Corrupt Police
HIV negative men. Some HIV negative men feel superior because they have somehow avoided contracting the disease. Often the reality lies in the realm of just dumb luck. HIV negative men and HIV positive men usually engage in the same behavior, but often the positive men feel judged by the negative men.The negatives dare to judge those who have been infected, merely because they have somehow avoided infection.
Mark S. King knew that his opinions were vehemently extreme when he wrote them in 2013. He felt that he needed to give voice to that extremity in order to balance the silently pious propagation of HIV stigma. There are horrific thoughts that go through our heads. It’s human nature to label the ‘other’ and the ‘different’ among us and use them as a target of scorn. These HIV stigma scapegoats make us feel better about ourselves.
HIV positive men need to stand up and feel empowered. Get to understand sex positivity and how it can impact your life in a good way. Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general, is a great example of how a city and a country has embraced sex positivity. There is an ongoing campaign, aimed at actively helping to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV through activities, education, and debunking common myths. Sexuality is much more integrated in Dutch society, in contrast to the US at this time.
It may not be safe to say, and far from accurate to suggest, that HIV stigma has vanished with the last decade never to pester us again. There is still much more for everyone to learn. Mark King suggests that we become knowledgeable about alternative ways of looking at sex in general, and specifically gay sex. Sex positivity offers us an opportunity to consider sexuality without preconceived opinions or judgements. Sex positivity allows for learning about sexual options, and you get to determine your threshold. At the same time, he suggests that with time the chasm between positive and negative people will hopefully become filled in. All it takes is a little willingness and education.
Jordi is a project manager from Barcelona, he speaks to his about HIV.
NoMoreC is a sexual health project in Amsterdam that’s committed to raising awareness around hepatitis C.
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