Overcoming the stigma of life with HIV

Bill Lizor is 29 years old.

Every morning he rolls out of bed, takes his shih tzu Baxter for a walk and pours himself a bowl of cereal before heading to work.

After work, he might host an “American Idol” viewing party for a group of friends or try his hand at an arts-and-crafts project. To the casual observer, it would be impossible to discern that Lizor has HIV. Lizor was diagnosed with HIV two years ago, and since then, the reality of his status has faded into the background of a vibrant life.

Too often, Lizor says, HIV triggers ghoulish or depressing images that are defunct. “The gaunt face and the sallow cheeks and the reaper eyes — that doesn’t exist anymore,” he said

For a chunk of the public, both gay and straight, however, HIV is still seen as a plague; a scarlet letter that haunts the positive community. Lizor doesn’t see it that way. In fact, he says, life is about as normal as it’s ever been.

“One of the things that surprised me is the way it becomes a normal part of my life,” he said. “HIV is a part of our lives. It doesn’t need to be the first thing we think about in the morning or something hanging over our heads all day.In the grand scheme of things your life isn’t going to change that much.”

This perspective didn’t come overnight, though. Lizor has spent a great deal of time meditating on his status and its effect on his life in the two years since he learned he was HIV positive.

Lizor got tested for HIV at Nashville Cares every six months. On Nov. 27, 2007, as a result of routine testing, he learned he was positive for the virus.

Despite being initially petrified, he projected a stoic front.

“I didn’t have a huge emotional reaction. I just kind of shut down,” he said.

His internal worries swirled around who to tell about his status, and how and when to tell them.

However, a supportive inner circle of family and friends helped Lizor maintain a positive outlook, and helped him to move past the initial shock, even if it wasn’t a panacea.

“That pit in your stomach when you’re about to tell someone hasn’t changed for me,” he said. “Regardless of how long you’ve been living with it some of those things are things you never get used to.”

Carlton Cornett, a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with HIV positive men in Nashville for decades, has watched HIV evolve from a death sentence to a chronic condition.

While he compares HIV with other chronic conditions like diabetes, he acknowledges that the sexual nature of the virus still caries a stigma in the mainstream.

“Our society looks at anything that has to do with sex in a moralistic way,” he said.

This negative judgment often leads to depression and the feeling of being “defective” for his patients, which he classifies as the hardest part of his job.

For Lizor, telling others about his status was most taxing in the context of social and romantic relationships. The prospect of being judged unfairly and written off sat heavily on his shoulders.

“It was scary. I didn’t want to put my status on my online profiles … Trying to figure out that type of timeline [of when to tell someone] got so burdensome,” he said. “[People assume] you were dirty or you were a whore or you were a drug user.”

Eventually he decided that being open and honest about his status, and helping others in the same position, was the perfect way for him to sidestep as much stress as possible.

“It’s something we have to be speaking about publicly; the gay community, the straight community, the church community,” he said. “When we allow it to be the thing we whisper about in the corner, we give it power.”

Fueled by his desire to increase awareness, he joined the staff at Nashville Cares about a year after he was diagnosed. Today, he heads the Early Intervention Program, which caters to the needs of people who recently discovered their HIV-positive status. He also works to educate HIV-positive individuals on how to lead a healthier lifestyle and to avoid transmitting the virus.

Something that Lizor, his fellow staffers and people with HIV have to face is society’s muddled understanding of living with the virus.

“[Some people] expect that you’re going to need to live your life in a bubble in order to survive—that’s just not true,” he said. “We’re talking about perfectly healthy lives.”

Lizor hopes that, by talking openly about his status and encouraging increased HIV awareness, he can help to keep HIV positive people from being seen as dirty or different by a misguided populace.

“It’s sort of a class system — all people with HIV are the same and all people without HIV are the same,” he said. “That differentness of being HIV positive doesn’t exist … HIV can happen to anyone.”

Josh Riley*, a 24-year-old who discovered he was HIV positive while attempting to donate blood two years ago, echoes Lizor’s assertion that life with HIV isn’t a perpetually marred one. (*Because only his closest friends and relatives know his status, Riley agreed to talk to Out & AboutNewspaper using a pseudonym.)

“My life really hasn’t changed … I forget about it,” he said. In fact, he has secured a new job and boyfriend in the two years since his diagnosis.

Like Lizor, Riley expressed frustration at the public’s general persistence in pigeonholing all HIV-positive people together.

“I wasn’t what people thought HIV was,” Riley said. “[People think] HIV is for all the gay people and all the dirty slutty people…I was not that way at all. I wasn’t a promiscuous person.

“I’ve got a great relationship with my family and I have a great job, but people [perceive my status] as a negative.”

All three men agree that to brand anyone’s experience with HIV as typical of every HIV-positive person would be a gross oversimplification.

Instead, Lizor insists, there are as many different experiences as there are people with the virus. The goal, he suggests, should be to recognize that everyone is vulnerable to HIV, and anyone in Nashville could have it.

“The face of HIV is moms and dads, sons daughters, pastors, trash collectors,” he said. “Literally anyone’s face could be the face of HIV.”

Cornett said, for most people, the diagnosis does not change who they are as a person and he hopes that message of understanding will overcome the stigma.

“I’m kind of hopeful for the future having seen over the last 25 years where we came from,” Cornett said. “Gradually we’ll begin to see HIV as a disease and not a moral failing.”


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