Write About HIV Disclosure as the Complicated Issue it Is

This is Part 5 of the five-part statement “Five Things Media Makers Can Do NOW to Stand Up to HIV Stigma.” Read the full statement as a single article


  1. A person’s choice to tell someone their HIV status is complicated. Write about HIV disclosure as the complicated issue it is.

Telling another person, especially a potential partner, that you’re living with HIV is extremely complex, and not disclosing is never simply about “selfishness” or intent to harm – emotionally or otherwise.

Important points to keep in mind when reporting on HIV nondisclosure:

a. Simply saying “I’m HIV positive” is not always a safe option. The very real threat of intimate-partner violence may keep a woman from telling a partner she is living with HIV. The cases of Cicely Bolden and Elisha Henson, murdered in Texas due to their HIV status, are two devastating examples of this reality. Because of stigma and discrimination, disclosure may also place a person at risk for losing their employment, childcare provision, and more. Further, in the presence of laws that penalize people with HIV for knowing their HIV status, disclosing won’t protect a woman in a he-said-she-said argument in court, where the person who knows their HIV-positive status usually loses. Women are often the first person in the relationship to be aware of their HIV-positive status.

b. Preventing the transmission of HIV is each partner’s responsibility, not solely the partner who’s living with HIV. But unequal power dynamics in relationships, among other factors, can block the ability of either partner – whether living with HIV or not – to take action to prevent HIV. In many relationships, negotiating use of condoms or other prevention options may be difficult or even possible. One answer to empowering individuals in their relationships and fostering healthy, safe communication is to << address the root causes of inequities that impact our lives and relationships, and drive the HIV epidemic – and to ensure comprehensive, medically accurate sex education. The solutions is not to blame people for having HIV, or cast their sexual partners as “victims.” Where there is a victim, there must be a perpetrator, and having HIV is not a crime.

c. HIV stigma does not operate alone; for many women of all gender identities living with HIV in the US, other stigmas – based on race, class, gender expression, sexuality, ability, or other factors – were likely already a part of life before acquiring HIV, and exacerbate HIV stigma after diagnosis. Any trait that sets a person apart from a societal norm can be challenging to talk about, or to disclose. HIV status is no different.

d. It is the right of all cisgender and transgender women, including women living with HIV, to be sexual beings. A key aspect of internalized stigma for many women with HIV is being cut off from their right to safe, pleasurable, intimate relations. When journalists convey messages that shame the sexuality of people with HIV in their reporting – as if to even be having sex as a person with HIV is somehow wrong – or imply that finding love, having sex, or being in relationships is impossible for people living with HIV, they validate that assumption. A healthy dose of nonjudgmental sex-positive messaging in mainstream media could save and improve lives.

e. Everyone who is living with HIV has a story of how they acquired HIV. It is a part of a person’s history, and does not have to involve a “victim” and a person “at fault.”

How a journalist reports on a story can determine the way the story is received – and the tone of comments people leave. A more humanizing, less oppositional approach to reporting on disclosure could foster more civil, less reactionary online discussion around challenging, and potentially unifying, topics like HIV.

Like what you’ve read? Share this statement on Twitter, Facebook, and beyond using the hashtag #StandUptoHIVStigma!


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