By Caitlin O’Gallagher, Prevention and Education Specialist at the Boston Living Center
The doors of the Boston Living Center swing open every day to welcome the individuals who make up the core of this organization. Artists, teachers, activists, cooks, mothers, poets, fathers, students, professionals – they all walk through our doors. Each of these people comes in with a different conversation to be had – let me tell you about the bike ride I just took, or did you see that article in the Metro this morning? At the end of the day, what they each have in common is that they are HIV positive. But it’s what’s beyond that diagnosis and label that makes each of these people uniquely different and imperative to the colorful tapestry that is the BLC community.
In many causal conversations out in the world about the HIV positive community, we hear language that insinuates that once a person becomes HIV positive, that diagnosis becomes their identity. They not only have HIV, but they are now defined by their HIV. But in many conversations within the HIV positive community, we hear that whereas the diagnosis may become a part of the person’s identity, it by no means becomes all that that person is. One of our members here often says that he has HIV, but HIV does not have him. That saying sums it up perfectly; yes, HIV is a part of him, but it’s not all of him.
Members here sometimes tell me that they are sick of talking about HIV. We hear it all the time, they say, we’re bombarded with conversations about it every day between all of the different services we receive. Why does this constant conversation about HIV get on their nerves? Because they are still people – people with hobbies and interests, people with senses of humor, and people who often have more pressing, immediate issues to tackle than an HIV diagnosis. Sometimes they just want to be able to talk about other issues and parts of them that aren’t their HIV. And shouldn’t that be okay?
So let’s look beyond the diagnosis. Yes, it’s still absolutely necessary to be talking about HIV, to be educating people about HIV, and to be having honest conversations with people about HIV. This is how we confront and combat stigma. But it’s also important to talk to these same people about the other parts of their lives. This is also how we combat stigma. And how’s the new apartment coming along? How did that interview go the other day? How’s your new pottery project coming along? When we address people as people, and not a diagnosis, we combat the notion that people are their HIV.
Here at the BLC, we strive to do just that. We infuse education, support, and learning opportunities into our interactions on a daily basis, but we also remember to check in with people about the million other important or seemingly mundane things going on in their lives. This is where true support lies. I will talk to you about your viral load, your medication side effects, and your CD4 count, but I’ll also talk to you about your family, your cat, or what you cooked for dinner last night. To form a community that is sustainable and has real impact on its members, conversations and support must be all-encompassing.
Let’s move beyond pigeon holing people and move into a space where we can instead be comfortable allowing people to decide for themselves what their most important parts are. I invite you to think about how to see individuals beyond their diagnoses and how to engage and interact with the whole person, not just one part.