Stigma upon stigma adds to one man’s sentence

Twenty-two years have passed since the fateful day that inducted me into a family of those who have felt lost, alone, and rejected. Discovering that I was positive altered my life in a way that is still at times unfathomable. Understanding how to live with the stigmatization that three letters would control how I lived for the rest of my life was the hardest obstacle I would ever face. Or so I thought.

Eighteen of these years I have been incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections, where I am serving a 40-year sentence. 

Incarceration is an austere, lonely existence. Designed to create a world that is cruel, where the separation from society is a far greater punishment than that of penal servitude alone. Couple that with being positive, then compound it by being gay, and life becomes even more complicated, depressing, heartless to a point where you feel so ostracized that you’d rather die. Rejection is the worst kind of feeling for anyone to endure, even more so when you are incarcerated. 

Positive persons have previously lacked acceptance and have often been viewed negatively in the past by our society at large. Now imagine another type of society where the acceptance of being positive is practically non-existent, a world all to its own with insulting lingo, jokes, and ignorant ideas about people who happen to live with an affliction that is no different from being diabetic or diagnosed with cancer. When you are positive behind the walls there’s a great deal of branding that is nearly impossible to overcome. What little information is available falls under the direction of drug treatment courses and transition programs, where HIV is only mentioned in barely more than a paragraph. This does little to alleviate the thinking and labeling that is persistent on the inside. For as many strides toward acceptance the outside world has made, the incarcerated community lags too far behind. 

Within a few years, half of the population in Florida’s criminal justice system will be over the age of 50. By then the majority of these incarcerated persons will have been behind the walls for more than a quarter of a century, many venturing into over 40 years. With this type of population that has little or no education pertaining to the virus, their attitude about HIV is like living in the 1980s all over again. Those who are positive “got that shit,” or the “ninja” got them. We are all expected to die, and to die a horrible death. And for those gay persons who aren’t positive it’s just assumed that because they are gay, they have it also. So many jokes are cracked pertaining to the virus that this continues to heighten irrational thinking and stigma of the virus. When one is cold, “T cells are low.” If one loses weight, they’ve got “that ninja,” and on it goes to no end. As I listen to the guys around me I cannot help but wonder what they would think if they knew that I was positive. By no means do I ever lie about my status. If I am ever questioned I don’t lie or even skirt the issue, I am open and honest. I owe that to myself and everyone who is positive not to be a fraud. Rarely have I been asked; I figure that most don’t really want to know. I do fear the backlash of what could possibly happen if my positive status were to become common knowledge. It’s being rejected that causes me fear; I’ve been rejected enough in my life that I don’t want to continue down that path any longer. I’d love nothing more than to be so honest about my status that I am able to use it as a platform for education, prevention, and a living testament that you can overcome obstacles so great in your life that you will survive. At this time I cannot.

At my current camp, the stigma is so great that we nearly all live in fear of being found out. Certainly I am not the only positive person here, yet no one seems to be so open that it’s common knowledge. We do all see the same doctor, but we don’t speak of it, just a knowing nod if we happen to have an appointment the same day and then we go on about our business. In prison, when you know something, you actually never know. This is like belonging to some secret society that is taboo to speak of in public. There are days that I long to have someone to speak to about side effects, survivor’s guilt, the ups and downs of life, or just the depression that comes with it. To confide in anyone else who is positive and can understand how I feel. But I have learned to deal with these obstacles, to be resilient in the face of possible rejection.

I don’t have to deal with that horrendous feeling when someone will get up and leave the table just because they don’t want to sit with a “queer.”

Already I am ostracized to an extent by my homosexuality. The fact that I am gay is accepted by the majority of my peers but this is only to a degree. As long as I am not within the inner circle of those with issues I am of no concern to their daily life. I am simply in the background. But there are issues that can make life difficult for me at times. The showers are open with no dividers, much like a locker room setting, where people are so fearful of either my “gayness” or, if they aren’t bothered, they are worried about what others would think if they were seen in the shower with me. At times I will sit alone in the dining hall. When I enter, I automatically look for an open table. That way, I don’t have to deal with that horrendous feeling when someone will get up and leave the table just because they don’t want to sit with a “queer.” So, can you imagine the fear that I have inside if people were to find out that I am not only a homosexual, but positive? It’s unnerving to say the least, causing me a great deal of stress.

Prior to my current camp, I was housed at an institution where I was able to be extremely open and honest about my status. I came to be respected for my honesty and ability to show people that someone living with the virus is no different from any other of the incarcerated community. During that time I was able to share my struggle and story with my peers in order to educate them, doing my best to have them understand. This of course was a great stumbling block to overcome. It took me years to be comfortable enough to put myself out there. In the end I felt rewarded for my honesty, because some came to a better understanding of how the life of a positive person can be. I was even asked to address two different classes about how my life changed after diagnosis and where life has taken me since. Perhaps I made a difference in someone’s life. Not everyone succumbed to my charms, many still held on to the stereotype they have always had about positive persons. Times change, transfers occur and I am currently where I am.

It saddens me that I can no longer be that open. There are times I just want to scream that I am no different from others. Does no one understand this? Unfortunately, they cannot get beyond their own ability to stigmatize. 

Finding acceptance as a positive person is the greatest encumbrance to an incarcerated individual, one that is nearly impossible to counteract given the thinking of my peers. 

Though acceptance is an enormous obstacle, one where I’m left feeling hollow and unwanted, life as an incarcerated person isn’t completely dismal for me. As I have progressed with my virus I have also grown as an individual. Over these years I have found hope, a hope those 22 years ago I thought I would never have. With only two shots a month I am able to go about my life as if I’m as normal as anyone else, coming to a place where HIV isn’t a daily reminder.

Perhaps in the future my peers will come to a place of countenance for persons who are positive; where they too will not think of people only in terms of HIV. Anticipation for this moment is tremendous for me. We are all a part of this world; each and every one of us is different and special in some way. Being positive is simply one aspect of that uniqueness. Positive individuals have just as much to offer the world as anyone else.  

Learning and teaching

In a letter to Positively Aware, E.C. in Florida wrote: Your publication has been a part of my life and taught me so much, for a great many years. Due to the information provided in PA, clinicians speak with me as an equal. They’re rather surprised at the knowledge I have. That’s how my current clinician let me have Cabenuva without the oral lead-in. He says I’m “sophisticated.” In DOC [the Department of Corrections], they prefer the lead-in oral dosage as it’s easier for possible side effects. Life is different in here.