Many individuals with HIV/AIDS don’t want your pity. But self-pity isn’t as easy to dismiss.
According to the CDC, many individuals with HIV/AIDS struggle with how the disease makes them feel about themselves; 1 in 4 say it makes them feel dirty or worthless, 1 in 3 say they feel guilty or ashamed about their status, 2 out of 3 say it’s difficult to reveal their infection to others, 8 out of 10 report some kind of feeling of internalized-stigma.
That internalized-stigma was the focus at a recent meeting of POZitive Attitudes, a topic-driven support group for men and women with HIV/AIDS which meets in Wilton Manors.
Susan Mintz, whose husband, Jeffrey Mintz, a gay man, died of AIDS in 1994, spoke to POZitive Attitudes of the stigma she faced when she first started answering questions about how he died. “Get it out of your brain and out of your heart,” she told POZitive Attitudes. “I can’t give you internalized-stigma. Only you can.”
There’s an estimated 300 members in the group, some of whom have had the disease since it first became widely-known in the early 1980s. What drives much of the stigma, say members, some of whom did not provide their names for publication, are outside circumstances and pressures. One man said he doesn’t advertise he has AIDS, but he’s not shy about revealing his status when it comes up. “I share when I’m asked.”
Dating, and the rejection that ensues because of an HIV/AIDS status, was cited by more than one person in the group. One man talked about revealing his HIV status on dates. “I just feel overwhelmed by the stigma. You tell them and they walk out the back door.” One woman said that’s how the stigma gets internalized. “Now that I’m single, the stigma is right in my face.”
Steve Stagon, facilitator of the group since 2006, said the name, POZitive Attitudes, is a reflection of the positive status of each member as well as the positive attitude members are encouraged to adopt. “You just have to let the water roll over your back, like a duck,” said Stagon.
But much of that proverbial water comes from members of the LGBT community who don’t have HIV/AIDS, say some members.
“Sometimes, non-gay people are more understanding than gay people,” said one man. “Wilton Manors is exactly like he said,” commented another. For all its flaws though, Wilton Manors and South Florida, said another man, are far more accepting than many other areas, including many cities generally thought of as progressive when it comes to the LGBT community or HIV/AIDS.
“Coming here from New York, it was like Nirvana. There’s a lot less stigma here than almost anywhere else,” he said.
Dan Drennen said “white suburban housewives” and some other heterosexuals are much more likely to be less stigmatizing because they don’t fear getting the disease from gay men. Drennen said fear about HIV/AIDS “is not always logical.”
But talking about the problems faced by individuals with HIV/AIDS isn’t the only purpose of the group. It’s also a place to socialize outside of meetings, including movie nights, parties, and fundraisers for HIV/AIDS causes.
“It means a lot. It’s a place where you can focus on community,” Peter Accardi said. “We enjoy these types of discussion groups. We do fun things, too.” Members take turns bringing dessert and refreshments each meeting. Another member moved here in 2004 and joined the group not long after. “That’s how I made my social life in Fort Lauderdale. It’s very important to me.”
POZitive Attitudes meets every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the World AIDS Museum, 1201 NE 26th St., Wilton Manors. Visit pozitiveattitudes.com for more information.