ALERT: The following piece contains spoilers for season 3 of "How to Get Away with Murder."
I remember watching an episode of "How to Get Away with Murder" in the first season, where the character Connor Walsh and his boyfriend Oliver Hampton went for HIV tests together before continuing with their relationship. Connor was the more promiscuous of the two, so if the writers were to write into all the stereotypes around HIV, his results would have come back positive. They didn't do that, and Connor wasn't positive. But Oliver was and his partner stayed with him, with Connor taking Pre-Exposure Phrophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill to prevent himself from getting HIV during the relationship. The two hardly mentioned Oliver's status, until after they broke up in season three and Oliver was worried about who would accept him with his status. Connor was the first guy he dated with full knowledge of his status and it was so easy he didn't have to worry.
An FYI: in South Africa, PrEP is available in the private sector, but it is still in trial phase in the public sector.
We're all liberal, mature and educated about HIV until it becomes personal. Conduct a quick experiment. Send a question in all your friendship groups on WhatsApp and ask them: "Would you date someone with HIV?" The reactions will range from "Hell no," to "I want to have children," to "I'm not sure". Trust me, I did this overnight and it was an interesting experiment.
Before I did it, I thought about it myself and I remembered sitting and watching that "HTGAWM" results episode and thinking "Wow," when Connor barely flinched about Oliver's status. It was in that moment that I realised I had always thought of HIV stigma as something violent, something that was imposed in an overt way, like beating someone, alienating a person from your community, or disowning a family member. The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that asking myself that question is an indication of my othering of people with HIV. It's an indication of my seeing someone who is positive as undesirable.
We are not having honest conversations about HIV, nor are we having casual and comfortable conversations. This is why every time we go for a test we are overcome with fear. We still think of HIV as a death sentence, we still fear what ill will come to us if we have it. Who will date us? How will we have children? How will we tell our families? HIV is not normalised in our society and this is regardless of which circles we operate in.
"We," the HIV-negative, discuss sex in our vacuums. "They," the HIV-positive, discuss it in theirs. And then the activists are left to deal with "their cause," and we just deal with the threat of this virus when we change partners or if we are super responsible, going for check-ups every three to six months whether we are in a committed relationship or with multiple partners; never mind that HIV medication is constantly becoming better and the risks of getting infected by a partner are lower than ever before. We have begun a clinical vaccination trial that has been described as the "final nail in the coffin" for HIV but we're not progressing as a society when it comes to how we discuss HIV.
In 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting an amazing HIV activist, Phindile Sithole-Spong. We're the same age and she found out about her status at 19. She was born with HIV but had had no idea about it until then. When we spoke, she told me about how difficult it had been to date as an openly positive woman. She told me about a man she dated who googled her and found out about her status, pretended he was cool with it, and then ghosted her. She held no resentment, she understood that many people are not open enough to date someone who has HIV, especially so openly.
This hadbeen the case with most of her experiences until she met someone on Tinder. (As a quick aside, this story is the only reason I believe in that damn app). She and her friend had both swiped right for this person but her friend and he were unable to meet. She met him and they hit it off. Because of her previous experience, she told him about her status very soon after they met. He was from a France and he wasn't very educated on the virus, so she had to educate him about what her status meant for her sex life, her diet, her plans for kids etc. He was a willing learner and she was more than willing to share. He was only meant to be in South Africa for a couple of months so they started off as friends but soon started dating and now, three years later, he's still in the country and they are engaged to be married.
It was through her story that I first started to open my mind to thinking differently about HIV, but unlearning can be a long process. In 2014, I listened to an episode of "Power Life" with Masechaba Ndlovu where she had guests talking about inter-status relationships. I thought more about opening up to the idea then but it wasn't until Connor and Oliver broke up that I revisited the issue. Oliver was alone now and had to get back into the dating scene but was terrified to do so. He had to open up himself to rejection based on his status, something he had never had to do before. I realised that if I was HIV-positive, I would also want a Connor in my life, who would accept me regardless of my status. But in order for that to happen, I would need to be willing to be a Connor too. I now think I'm at the point where I am not the "Hell no" response in the WhatsApp group, but more a "Yes, I would." I would need a lot of education, but I would.
How we actually discuss issues concerning HIV will determine how we evolve from the conversations we are having now. Every year, there's an awareness campaign here and there, and then we go back to our negative circles where we question things like using a condom or dental dam for the rest of our lives. We need to normalise conversations about being HIV-positive. If we are to get past HIV stigma, we need to talk about the daily experiences people have, like we do with any other illness.
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