One drag queen’s mission to raise awareness…
HIV is a virus that affects more than 60,000 Canadians, yet there are still so many myths surrounding the condition and it remains shrouded in stigma.
Although HIV stigma began in the 1980s, it is still a large part of life for those living with HIV today. One Toronto-based drag queen is hoping to squash the stigma, and we recently had a chance to sit down with her.
“My story sort of starts in late ’89. That’s when I became HIV positive. I was a little scared to go get tested, so I didn’t go until the summer of 1990. And, you know, back then, it was still a death sentence,” explained drag recording artist and HIV activist Jade Elektra, who recently took part in ViiV Healthcare’s HIV in View – Live at AIDS2022, where she was a panellist in a segment titled “Facing HIV Stigma 40 Years Later.”
When she found out she was HIV positive, she was so scared she decided to leave everything she knew behind.
“Oh, the catalyst for me leaving Florida [where she lived at the time] was that I did not want my family to find out that I was HIV positive. Tampa, where I’m from, was a small place. It’s a lot bigger now, but everyone knew everyone on the scene.
“Back when I was first diagnosed,” she continued, “there were a lot of things that could have happened to me in Florida. Back then, you could lose your job, lose your apartment. And people didn’t know how it was transmitted. They didn’t want to drink after you. They didn’t want to touch anything that you had touched.”
Many people still feel that fear and discrimination today. In fact, the Positive Perspectives Survey found that 90 per cent of Canadian respondents had experienced stigma recently. Eventually, this creates a “self-stigma” where the person takes society’s negative stereotypes and begins applying them to themselves. This leads to feelings of shame, isolation, fear of disclosure, and despair. The Positive Perspectives Survey found that discrimination and HIV stigma affect both the mental and emotional well-being of a person living with this condition. Nearly 33 per cent of Canadians with HIV reported feeling shame and guilt.
These are all the same feelings that keep many people from revealing their HIV-positive status – or even getting tested for HIV – as they feel society will judge them negatively.
And this is a problem in itself. HIV stigma is rooted in fear of what is associated with contracting the virus. And while the spread of information about HIV has increased, there are still many misconceptions about how it’s transmitted and what it means for someone to live with the condition today.
This is why one of Jade Elektra’s favourite HIV movements is U Equals U. This movement is about spreading the word that when HIV-positive patients achieve and maintain undetectable amounts of HIV in their blood, they cannot sexually transmit HIV to others. This makes HIV treatment the most powerful tool against the spread of this disease.
Jade Elektra leaves us with some closing remarks. “The message for ‘undetectable’ needs to be hammered; it needs to be a commercial. It needs to be on the news. We need someone who can go and talk about this and make it a normal thing.”
Ultimately, it will take a conversation and a deep understanding of HIV to rid society of HIV stigma. But if we all work together, we can make a real difference in people’s lives!