ELEVATE the Conversation: Fighting the stigma and campaign against HIV Testing

Given my fundamentalist background, I’m especially aware of the barriers posed by sex-negative, stigmatizing, false assumptions and beliefs about HIV testing. Beliefs that AIDS is a “gay disease,” even a punishment from God for a “homosexual lifestyle.” Abstinence-only programs that teach young women that that the only protection they need from pregnancy or STIs is “purity” and “self-control” before marriage – loading the language in a way that suggests that only immoral people who can’t control themselves need sexual or reproductive health services.

These messages stigmatize sexuality in general, by making it out to be something dirty, and especially stigmatize queer and female sexuality. They lull people into a false sense of safety by implying that being (or behaving) straight, or only having sex with one’s spouse, are some sort of protection against HIV. They discourage people from getting tested.

We need to elevate the conversation around HIV by combating these false and dangerous stereotypes. Thetruth is that HIV can be transmitted in a variety of ways, and testing is important for anyone who is sexually active, regardless of sexual behaviors or orientation. Furthermore, heterosexual contact is now the primary mode of infection in the general population, and among black women specifically.

We also need to elevate the conversation around HIV testing by promoting positive messages about sexuality and sexual health. That sexual expression is a normal part of most people’s lives, and that it can and should be enjoyable, empowering and, safe. That taking care of our sexual health is part of taking care of our general health. That sexual health services are basic health care, period, no more shameful and no less necessary than vaccinations or physicals (in fact, the CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13-64 be tested at least once as part of their routine care). That getting tested for HIV is an act of self-care and self-empowerment.

It’s particularly crucial to intentionally and aggressively promote these messages at a time when women’s health, especially Black women’s health, is under intense attack. Conservatives have escalated efforts at the national and state levels to defund programs and organizations like Title IX and Planned Parenthood, which disproportionately serve women of color and women in under-served communities. These attacks are undertaken under the false pretext of preventing taxpayer money from being spent on abortions, already illegal in most cases. What these attacks really do is strip funding from programs that give Black women access to sexual and reproductive health services that save lives and are indispensable to women’s health – like HIV testing.

Further, in the past year Black women (and now Latina women) have been the targets of misogynist and racist ad campaigns that paint abortion as a tool of racial “genocide,” implicitly painting Black women as the greatest threat to their own communities:

Creating a perfect storm of race, class, and gender-baiting in the midst of the abortion and health care debate, these ads imply that Black women are either ignorant dupes of racist, profiteering abortion providers, or uncaring enemies of their people, willing to make Black children an ‘endangered species’ to further their own selfish goals. – Eleanor Hinton Hoytt

These ads demonize Black women for making use of reproductive health services. Their anti-woman, anti-Black rhetoric is a full-on assault on Black women’s health as a whole, and on Black communities.We need to push back and send a loud and clear message with the truth about Black women’s health. The truth is that when we’re in the dark about our HIV status, we’re in the dark about how best to take care of ourselves. The truth is that when we get tested, we take charge of our own health, and we help our communities. The truth is that when we have access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health care, we are healthier, and our communities are healthier.

Never been tested? Do it today, this week, do it as soon as possible. It doesn’t take long, and all it takes is a cheek swab (no needles!). Check out the Elevate Campaign Website to find a center near you.