Fear of the Strange and Unknown – It is the stigma that dare not speak its name. We have reached the stage at which HIV infection is not an automatic death sentence. The presence of ARVs means that the wasted bodies of victims are no longer an integral aspect of the LGBTIQ community. Many people are handling their infection as best as they can. Likewise, society has become less intolerant of people who are having a very hard time with this terrible disease. That is the good news. The bad is that I work in a place where someone is facing a very modern form of discrimination. I do not think that the people are necessarily against them, they are just fearful of what to say.
The Emotions that Run Riot
When Andy first told us that he had HIV, we could not believe it. He seemed like such a gentle giant, albeit with a fetish for increasingly colorful tattoos. I must admit that my first thought was that he must be bi. You see, I too have gotten into the stereotype that people who get HIV in a developed country like the USA are either gay or black. I know that this is completely false but it does not stop my subconscious from thinking that way. When I see a seemingly straight white man in his late 30s, I think that he is outside the net for HIV infection. In this case we were all wrong.
To his credit, Andy was quite open about his condition. He actually announced it during a coffee break and there were some awkward glances. Some thought it was a prank while others were genuinely shocked. I could see from their eyes that they were thinking what I was thinking: “Oh you poor thing…Just out of the closet and now this.” We were all dying to ask how he got it, although we already had our own assumptions (based on wrong information as it turned out).
Apparently Andy had been on a trip to Thailand with his girlfriend and they decided to get a tattoo to commemorate the event. They could not actually remember the parlor that they used since it was located in a slum. The guy that was operating it assured them that he was “clean”. They were convinced, even though his girlfriend had some misgivings about doing a tattoo in such a place. Anyway too weeks after returning, Andy started vomiting and broke out in a rash. He thought that he had picked up something from Thailand, maybe food poisoning.
The doctor told them that they should both run a series of tests. They all came back fine except the HIV. Andy was devastated but was grateful that his girlfriend was ok. They put him on medication to control the infection. He thought he would just get it out of the way by telling people at work about it. It seemed like such a sad story and we were all genuinely devastated on his behalf.
The Drama Begins
Rhoda is well known for her love of procedure. This is a woman that wants a manual to explain to newcomers the etiquette for using the canteen room fridge. Trust Rhoda to ask for guidance on the correct protocols for dealing with a member of staff who had an HIV infection. When people groaned, Rhoda stated in her typical matter-of-fact way that it was nothing personal. All she wanted to do was ensure that Andy’s health and safety was not compromised. She also said that it was good workplace planning to deal with such events. Rhoda is really not cut out for the administrative team manager. She ought to have been in personnel. She has the language and the attitude.
Andy said that they were trying to get his infection to a level where it was undetectable in normal blood states. He says that he could not be infectious once they got to this stage but that during the early stages, he could be quite contagious. However, given the fact that he did not share any sharp utensils with anyone; Andy opined that it was unlikely that he would be a risk to anyone on the team. Rhoda asked about knives and working in the sink. Andy retorted that he never used the sink anyway since he always carried his dishes and washed them at home. At this point Rhoda seemed satisfied and said no more.
The other team members were somewhat annoyed with Rhoda and they grumbled. The general feeling was that she was being officious and being too familiar with someone that had just received this devastating news. I then began to notice that people were no longer speaking to Andy or sitting near him. When they spoke to him (very rare occasions these days); they would do so in hush tones, almost as if they were talking of death. He was our policy analyst but it seems everyone was trying to keep his work load to a mere minimum. It really was getting ridiculous. You could almost think that he was on the verge of dying.
I Confront the Fearful and Ignorant
Actually, I did not think that Rhoda was that bad. She had been honest, if not a touch brutal in explaining what her concerns were. The really bad guys were those that were behaving as if Andy had suddenly acquired this super dangerous contagion which required him to be treated with kid gloves. I suspected that he was hurt by our responses. This was not a team of bigots but rather people who were worried about offending Andy or getting infected themselves. Gordon confessed to me that he was worried: “if a guy can get that thing by a tattoo, how do we know it will not travel through saliva…I do not trust these doctors”.
Sandy said that she was just worried that she would say something that was inappropriate. Apparently she had never dealt with someone who had HIV and was concerned that she would inevitably get it wrong, hurting Andy in the process. Marie though that he was going through a grieving process and that it was best if the team “stayed well out of it”. Apparently we could do more damage if we tried to interfere based on our ignorance of the situation. I could see that these were not nasty people but ones that were suffering from the ignorance that continues to dominate this condition.
I am no expert on HIV but I know that human beings like to be treated with respect regardless of whether they are in the prime of their health or whether they have fallen ill. We now know that HIV is transmitted in very specific formats and through specific pathways. That means that unless Andy got this evil thought into his head to have unprotected sex with everybody in the team or alternative to inject them with his blood; it was highly unlikely to ever occur. I also find it incredible to imagine that a guy who had just come out as being infected with HIV, going on to spread to it others. If he was that way inclined, the last thing he would want was to share the information with all and sundry.
When I plucked up the courage to speak to Andy, he told me that the silent and respectful treatment hurt him a bit but the counsellor had prepared him for such a reaction. His view was that people would come round eventually. He did tell me that the condition worried him immensely and that he was having trouble sleeping. The coming out was not a brave exercise on his part but rather a cathartic experience so that he would no longer have to hide under the shadows. Andy told me that during the first few days he kept checking his body for signs of AIDS, even though the doctor had told him that he was very unlikely to ever get AIDS as long as he followed the regime that they had set up for him.
What Andy really wanted was for people to treat him like before…talk to him, send him tasks and occasionally argue with him as a colleague. These hushed tones were giving him the creeps and making him feel as if he had a label on his forehead; warning all that passed that this was a dying man. I asked Andy whether he was happy for me to bring his concerns up in the next team meeting. He said that he appreciated my efforts but would rather speak for himself.
We Get Consensus on Mutual Trust and Respect
So at the next meeting, Andy told a sheepish team that he did not want them to treat him as if he were a leper. He went through some of the issues of infection and told people that they really had nothing to worry about. He was neither going to die from AIDs now or infect them. Over the next few days; things went back to normal. Of course, Rhoda asked whether Andy could bring in some literature so that everybody had a reference point. We all laughed about that particular end to the episode but Rhoda never seemed to get the point.