| The Fayetteville Observer
The demonstrations and protests around this country the past several weeks have helped shed a light on the disproportionate injustices and burdens that communities of color face. While much of the attention has focused on the social and economic burdens we face, our communities also must deal with major health disparities.
It has been 40 years since the first HIV patient was reported in the U.S., and the HIV epidemic took hold in America. Since that time, we have seen remarkable progress, as the number of new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths continues to decline. At the same time, it might be easy to forget how this progress is not felt by all communities equally, especially within the Latinx community.
HIV continues to disproportionately impact communities of color, including the Latinx community. In 2017, Hispanics/Latinos made up 26% of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. and 9.3% of the 1,311 in North Carolina. In addition to the collective lack of knowledge around HIV and safe sex, the stigma around HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity in our community and the general public is contributing to this disproportionate impact.
Not only do Latinx people living with HIV have to worry about how people view them through the lens of HIV when accessing services and resources, but some of them must also deal with racism, poverty, discrimination and the societal stigma around their sexual orientation and identity. The battery of judgment we navigate just to walk out the house everyday causes many in our community to create fragmented lives in which we talk about some things and not others. Latinx people living with HIV often don’t feel comfortable being their full selves to their family, friends, neighbors or service providers.
The stigma’s real impact
A new survey from GLAAD and Gilead Sciences assessed the impact of stigma on those living with HIV. After years of working in the fight against HIV, I wasn’t surprised by the findings. Nearly 9 in 10 agreed that “people are quick to judge those with HIV”, and nearly 6 in 10 Americans still believe you have to be careful around someone with HIV to avoid catching it.
The survey also demonstrated how stigma has a real impact on both the personal and professional lives of those living with HIV – almost half of respondents reported they would not be comfortable with having a partner or spouse who had HIV. From doctors to hair stylists, the survey results proved people are weary of services provided by someone living with HIV.
Moreover, stigma within the Latinx community also hinders our ability to fight the epidemic. Studies have found that Latinx communities feel less comfortable talking about HIV, and only 59% of those who have been diagnosed actually receive care. We have to break this cycle by talking about HIV safety and engaging our community leaders, service providers and government officials in a concerted effort to increase prevention education and prompt, affordable access to HIV treatment.
At the Latino Commission on AIDS, we have programs all over the country, including here in North Carolina, that are focused on enhancing the sexual health of the Latinx community. Our Latinos in the South program, originating out of Durham, aims to build local leadership, develop networks and coalitions, and enhance knowledge and cultural competency in the health care system throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
For close to two decades, the Latino Religious Leadership Project has established itself as a catalyst for providing HIV/AIDS education and capacity-building by partnering with Latino faith communities. More recently, we developed the OASIS Latino Wellness Center to address the compounded stigma around HIV, sexual orientation and gender identity that many Latinx people living with HIV face.
With the end of the HIV epidemic in sight, we must address the root causes of stigma that prevent the Latinx community from discussing sex, learning about prevention education and accessing HIV treatment. While this takes time and a concerted effort, there is a path forward. We must challenge ourselves to address stigma within our communities, demand culturally and linguistically appropriate services for Latinx, and advocate for increased HIV education and care access.
Partnerships between local advocates, community leaders, businesses, and governmental institutions must be strengthened to increase our willingness to talk about HIV.
Daniel Castellanos is Director of Research and Innovation at the Latino Commission on AIDS.