Stigma is Very Real
When my husband and I were young, we met an extraordinary man. He was a senior executive at my husband's company and he offered my husband a promotion and an opportunity to relocate to San Francisco. We probably never would have even considered moving so far from Atlanta, our home, but somehow we innately knew that Ron was going to be instrumental in teaching my husband about business and both of us about life. About six months after moving, Ron asked us to dinner, saying that he had something important about which he wanted to talk. He proceeded to very cautiously and carefully to explain to us, this young couple born and raised in the Bible belt, that he was gay. We ended up, all of us, laughing so hard that we were crying as we explained that we had known for months. After all, for our first few months in the City, he was the only friend we had. He had referred us to a gay doctor, and a gay dentist, a gay dry cleaner and a gay accountant. I spent more time running errands in the Castro than people who lived there. Of course, we knew. But, that this exceptional man was cautious about coming out to us says a lot about how strong the fear of stigma and fear of rejection can be.
After that night, we got more and more involved in each other's lives, as good friends do. We supported Ron as he dealt with the illness and subsequent death of an ex partner. Much later, with a great deal of sadness and more than a little bit of shame, he broke the news to us that he, too, had been infected with HIV. Maybe he wasn't always as careful as he should have been. Maybe his partner wasn't always honest. We didn't know, nor did we care about the “whys” behind his infection. That Ron was once again concerned about our reactions made both of us more determined than ever to support him and do it with absolutely no judgments. We decided then and there to actively NOT allow the stigma associated with AIDS to affect our friendship.
As the disease progressed, Ron, who was a very religious person through all of his childhood and most of his adult life, reached out to his church family only to be banished. We watched in horror as Ron grappled with his own mortality without the comfort of those whose core beliefs he shared. Again, stigma was rearing its head.
By the time Ron was close to death, my husband and I had moved back to Atlanta. We kept in close contact until one day the calls stopped. I called Ron over and over again just to be told that he couldn't talk and it just wasn't the right time for a visit. After one or two months of that, I called him and said, “We're coming because we love you and it's important that we see you.” We ended up having truly special last moments with Ron that I know he treasured as much as we did, and still do. We would have missed that time with him had we allowed the stigma attached to death and dying to keep us away.
So, to me, stigma is not an abstract concept. It's very real. And there are myriad ways each and every one of us can fight it.