The Blame Game
Five years ago I was leading a sedentary and vaguely decadent life. It was Short Term of my senior year at Bates, and between pitchers at the Goose and study sessions on the Quad, I was giving occasional thought to a post-graduation career path.It was my intention to take my B.A. in art history and seek a career in the art world. Yet, five years later, I find myself in front of my computer, recovering from a long evening of work at a Manhattan dance club where I spent several hours handing out condoms taped to bright pink cards. The cards were invitations for HIV-positive people, under the age of twenty-three, to get involved with a project called Teams Linking Care (TLC), an organization dedicated to helping young people with HIV lead healthier lives.
My work with TLC began two years ago when I was hired to help facilitate the skills-building groups that are a cornerstone of the project. The groups, composed of ten to fifteen young people who meet once a week over a period of nine months, have been a window into life histories heavy with loss and rejection, yet charged with courage, vitality, and a rebellious spirit. In sharing my experience with them, I hope to offer an opportunity for critical reflection on our attitudes toward AIDS.
Despite our knowledge that AIDS is no longer a “gay disease,” it is a diagnosis that remains shrouded in stigma. The association between AIDS, homosexuality, and drug use has functioned to legitimize prejudicial treatment toward people who are living with the disease. Societal norms that condemn gay sex and drug use are deeply ingrained and have had an indelible effect on people living with HIV/AIDS.
For example, people ask me how the young people I work with were infected. Because of powerful societal norms that dictate “proper” behavior, I realize that my answer — should I choose to give it — will frame the way the asker thinks about the person or persons in question. A person who was infected through blood transfusion is likely to be regarded very differently than a person who was exposed through injection drug use. When Magic Johnson disclosed his HIV status, it was emphatically stated that he was infected through heterosexual sex. The distinction was made because it affected how he would be received. In contrast to Magic Johnson, for example, a gay man who tests positive for HIV may be faced with coming out as gay and HIV-positive at the same time. He risks rejection from family and friends, which could have a devastating effect on his ability to manage the illness.
Of course, there are a host of social and political realities that contribute to the very behavior that puts a person at high risk for HIV infection in the first place. George Getzel, professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work, talks about AIDS as a biological analogue for discrimination. The TLC groups I facilitate, composed primarily of people of color, are living proof of this idea. Group members are primarily from poor inner-city communities inhabited largely by African American and Latino people, communities disproportionately affected by AIDS.
The same societal attitudes that contribute to the general impoverishment of inner-city communities affect our responses to people living with AIDS. We tend to divorce high-risk behavior from the environment in which it took place, making it easier to place the blame on the individual for contracting the virus. For example, a gang member who was infected through injection drug use may engender limited empathy. We can easily categorize his or her HIV-positive status as a consequence of “bad” behavior.
But if one takes the time to examine the larger picture, a very different story may emerge. I am reminded of a young TLC group member who joined a gang after running away from a home where he was severely abused. Gang membership offered him a sense of support and belonging that he did not find within his own family system. Unfortunately, it also exposed him to injection drug use, contaminated needles, and HIV. But whether the person in question is an inner-city teenager living in a world where drug use is omnipresent, or an upper-middle-class student on a New England college campus, issues around the treatment of HIV are basically the same. Medical care, emotional support, and intimacy are all needed. There is no one category of people more deserving of this support than another.
The following two case examples, drawn from a group I facilitate with Whitney Wright ’90, illustrate the variety of experiences within the HIV/AIDS community. They also offer a chance to examine our reactions with a more critical eye.
Annie, twenty-two, is a white, heterosexual woman. She has big brown eyes and thick, curly, black hair that falls down to her shoulders. Three years before she married her high-school boyfriend, Annie had sex just once with someone she met through a friend and did not continue to see. She recalls feeling pressured to have sex even though she did not want to. A year later, one week after she was married, she and her new husband went for a routine HIV test because she was considering getting pregnant. Annie’s test came back positive and her husband’s came back negative. She often refers to it as her “most memorable wedding present.”
Jody, twenty-one, is an African American person of transgender experience. She is biologically male, but lives her life as a woman. She has bleached hair, wears lots of big jewelry, and has the Chanel insignia tattooed on her shoulder. (It’s all about glamour, she says.) She left home at age fifteen and has been in and out of shelters since that time. For a period of about a year, she supported herself by having sex with strangers for money. She believes that she was exposed to HIV during this time.
Annie and Jody have become close friends with similar needs. Yet their experiences as people living with AIDS are miles apart. Annie and Jody have similar needs, yet their experiences managing their illness are miles apart. Annie has the support of her family and her husband and has disclosed her HIV status to her co-workers. Her lifestyle is consistent with “traditional” values, so she is perceived as an “innocent victim.” Although she does face stigma and discrimination every day, her situation engenders an empathic response in most people.
Jody, however, has been dealt a much different hand. Hostility, intolerance, and condemnation are more familiar to her than empathy. If Annie is perceived as “innocent,” Jody is “guilty” of several charges, namely her status as a black, gay, transgender sex worker with HIV. Unlike Annie, she lost the support of her family when she (who identified as a he at that point) was kicked out of her parents’ house after coming out as gay. In order to put food in her stomach — like 50 percent of homeless lesbian and gay youth (Hetrick-Martin Institute, 1994) — she engaged in survival sex (i.e., prostitution). She faced further alienation as she struggled with gender-identity issues that led to her ultimate identification as a woman. On top of all this, she endures discriminatory attitudes every day as a person of color and as a welfare recipient. Where Annie experiences empathy, Jody experiences blame. Where Annie is an innocent victim, Jody got what was coming to her. The comparison is not meant to minimize Annie’s experience, but rather to challenge us to confront our biases and expand our thinking.
As I witness the forging of deep relationships among these young people of varying ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation, it is clear that they have transcended their differences and found common ground in a collective human experience. In doing so, they challenge our belief system and teach us new ways to live and love.
We have a lot to learn from them.
Erik Mercer ’91 received his master’s in social work from Hunter College in May.