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The Power of Stigma and Fear

The Power of Stigma and Fear

How Marginalized Communities Continue to Marginalize Others

This speech was written for an event held by the City of El Paso Department of Public Health in observance of National Latino AIDS Awareness Day. In this speech I examine the issue of stigma and fear of HIV and AIDS through the lens of sexuality and race. I have subsequently given this same same speech through the lens of religion and readings from the Bible. I have combined both speeches and edited them to present in this blog entry.

 

I will argue that when we stigmatize a person or community, we develop a narrative about them. This is how stereotypes start to manifest themselves. I will also argue that stigmas, similar as stereotypes, develop out of a lack of knowledge and wider and more complex stories.

For example: When I moved to Oregon from El Paso, TX, the fact that I am Hispanic was not the most salient identity for me. But when I moved to Oregon, that definitely changed, along with the relationship I had with my ethnic identity. In El Paso, Brown people come in all shapes, sizes and more importantly narratives. We have people who have recently immigrated to the country, we have rich people form Mexico who conduct business, we have 4th generation Hispanics who don't speak a lick of Spanish (put me in that category), and so on. It's harder to narrow "what a Mexican is" in El Paso, because we have so many variations on what that might mean. In Oregon, the majority of Mexican-Americans I met were primarily 1st generation, low income, where Spanish was their first language, and there was a strong tie to the migrant farm worker community. So when I came to Oregon, White people (and other Mexicans) developed a narrative about me based on their own reality, and limited stories that have been told about Latinos. This, I argue, is how stereotypes and stigmas get formed.

If the only storyline or narrative about Hispanics is that they work in the fields, are recent immigrants and speak Spanish as their first language, then you make sense of the world or what you are given. Retired professor, Dr. Lani Roberts, came up with the concept of the "null-curriculum." The premise behind the null-curriculum is that you fill in information that you are not given with other ideas and/or other information that may or may not be accurate.

 Here's a test to gauge your reaction: "Given the opportunity, would you date someone with HIV or AIDS?

 What was the first reaction you had? Where does that reaction come from? What education do you have when it comes to dating people living with HIV or AIDS?

Within the gay community, arguably the community hit hardest by the AIDS pandemic, there is stigma and fear about the disease even 30 years after we were introduced to it.

 I remember preparing for the speech I gave on this topic, I was even fearful about telling my coworkers about the topic. My fear about, "What if they think I am HIV+ or have AIDS just because I am giving a speech on stigma at an AIDS event?" I didn't want to be labeled a stereotype. I didn't want others to think that even though I am a gay man in my 30s, that doesn't mean we all are HIV+. The fear about being stigmatized was so engrained, that I reduced my speech to "something about health."

I had a friend in Oregon who openly talked about how if people become infected with HIV, they deserve it, and she had no sympathy or empathy for them because they were stupid to become infected given all the preventative information that is out there. Comments like these just make me sad.

 When we stigmatize we reduce a person' humanity, making it easier to make them an "other." If somebody is an "other," they no longer are human and thus makes it easier to marginalize.

Within the Latin@ community, there are many issues that create barriers to not only issues of healthy sexuality, but also serve to demonize things we don't fully understand, or have built morality around. This is by no way a Latin@ specific phenomenon

One example of the ramifications of not being able to talk about sex in a healthy way was my time at Body Positive. I was an outreach worker and tested people for HIV. One woman came in because she had developed symptoms. I tested her, and she tested positive. We talked about her sex life (under much duress), and came to find out that the only sexual partner she had was her husband. When her husband came in to get tested (also tested positive), he refused to  talk about where he may have come into contact with the disease, and that men don't get HIV, and it must have been his whore of a wife who got it.

 So I get back to my original question, "Given the opportunity, would you date someone with HIV/AIDS?"

Why or why not? Most people would say no, given their fear, morality and/or judgement about the disease and who has it. Remember, if you are engaged in sexual behavior with anyone (doesn't matter if its your partner of 50 years), you are at risk for contracting HIV. As plain and simple as that.

I try to remember this quote by Lao Tzu when it comes to stigma and fear:

"Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny."

How do our thoughts and fears around HIV/AIDS develop into words and actions?

In communities where stigmas and stereotypes are abound with what mainstream society says about us, I struggle to wrap my head around why we do the same thing to others in "otherising" them.Marginalized communities have developed around being "otherised". Through shame (lack of education in the Latin@ community), stigma (people with AIDS did something to deserve it), and fear (gay men are predatory), the dominant groups have allowed us to divide ourselves among the "good" ones and "bad" ones. If we are truly to move communities forward, we must embrace each and every member of our communities, and live past our own sense of stigma and fear of others.

2 comments (Add your own)

1. Boxs wrote:
Grace, I am happy that you are receiving meiadcl treatment for TB, that is not an easy disease to conquer. I know it must be hurtful to you when your friends and relatives talk about you negatively, but you must stay positive. Your positive spirit will help you get well. Also, I don't know what stigma being HIV+ must have in your village, but there are many people in America that are HIV+ and lead normal lives. It saddens me to know that people who need love and support the most are being neglected. But you are a beautiful person, and are on the road to good health, and you can be the one to offer support to others in need! Share your wonderful strength and spirit with them, and know that there are people all over the world that support you!

Fri, April 10, 2015 @ 2:07 AM

2. reinerquotes.com wrote:
Grace, I am happy that you are receiving medical treatment for TB, that is not an easy disease to conquer. I know it must be hurtful to you when your friends and relatives talk about you negatively, but you must stay positive. Your positive spirit will help you get well. Also, I don t know what stigma being HIV+ must have in your village, but there are many people in America that are HIV+ and lead normal lives. It saddens me to know that people who need love and support the most are being neglected. But you are a beautiful person, and are on the road to good health, and you can be the one to offer support to others in need! Share your wonderful strength and spirit with them, and know that there are people all over the world that support you!

Thu, April 16, 2015 @ 11:11 AM

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Diversity Talks | Victor Santana-Melgoza | Ph: (541) 231-4768 | victor@diversitytalks.com