Neil Genzlinger’s review of PBS’ Endgame: AIDS In Black America, demonstrates his lack of understanding of the complexities of HIV and only serves to further stigmatize HIV-positive people. In his first paragraph he wonders, “how anyone can still be cavalier or uninformed about this subject?” Sadly, he is the one who is uninformed about HIV.
HIV is complicated and HIV prevention is complex. Mr. Genzlinger thinks that delving into institutional issues of poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia, is a “play-it-safe approach.” What he really wants to know is, “With so much known about the disease and so many years of safe-sex messages out there…” how can anyone be stupid enough to still get infected?
He’s implies that people who get infected are not too bright, and he reinforces that by referring to the black women in the film as, “intelligent-sounding.” He’s asking us to look beyond their clever words and instead focus on their stupid actions.
He then sums everything up with a call for more discussion about personal irresponsibility. We’ve heard these sort of things before- “People who get HIV are irresponsible, stupid, or careless.” For Mr. Genzlinger to reduce this to an epidemic of irresponsibility demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of the issue. It’s like reducing high unemployment to laziness. This should embarrass him and it reflects badly on the New York Times.
Lots of very smart, capable and responsible people contract HIV. None of us relinquish responsibility for having acquired this disease. I made choices that put me at risk and I own that. Stigmatizing people for having contracted HIV serves no useful purpose but instead leads to more infections.
HIV-related stigma prevents people from getting tested and seeking treatment. We know that if an HIV-positive person is on medication, with a suppressed viral load, their ability to transmit the virus is reduced by 96%. On top of that, stigma can greatly reduce the quality of life of people with HIV and it completely disregards our humanity.
In addition, stigma shuts down conversation about HIV, and what we need now, more than ever, is intelligent discourse around HIV. We don’t need moralizing and accusations. We need people to think critically and try to understand the intricacies of living with HIV. We need a national conversation around HIV and all of its messy and uncomfortable elements. We need to talk about sex, gay sex, female anatomy, poverty, race and class. If we can challenge ourselves to have these kinds of conversations then we’ll be able to focus on the endgame.
Mr. Genzlinger has the perfect opportunity for such conversations as the International AIDS Conference is in Washington D.C. next week. He could travel down there and tell the scores of HIV-positive people in attendance how foolish and irresponsible they are for having contracted this disease or he can engage us in a thoughtful and nuanced conversation about life with HIV. We’d be happy to talk with him.