Last Thursday on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Sherri Shepherd led the usual hot topics segment. Despite the current presidential race, or the debate about the national anthem, apparently the juiciest conversation happening in the Black community was about the health of controversial megachurch pastor Eddie Long.
Just the day before, BlackAmericaWeb (Joyner’s site) published an article about Long’s “health challenge.” In it, he said his his massive weight loss was due to being “on the medicine God gave you to feed your immune system to build you up.” Long went to on say he was healthier than ever and avoiding a “slave diet.” “I want you to know I’m on zero medication, 120 over 80, I’ve been on blood pressure medication for years,” Long said.
Later, Long released a statement about his undisclosed “health challenge.”
“I am recovering from a health challenge that I trust God to deliver me from. It is unrelated to the eating for life diet consisting of mostly raw vegetables that I am continuing, as part of a holistic approach to good health,” the pastor explained.
While Long never mentioned which specific illness or condition he was dealing with, the BlackAmericaWeb article cited rumors speculating whether or not Long he was HIV positive. Over on the radio, the conversation took the same reckless turn when the question of the pastor possibly having HIV came up yet again because, according to Shepherd, Long had “the look” of someone with the virus.
The notion that there is a “look” that proves someone has HIV was quickly refuted by many on social media, including Marvell Terry II, HIV and AIDS Project Manager at the Human Rights Campaign.
@SherriEShepherd – I share your views on Long’s behavior, but it’s not socially responsible to suggest HIV as a cause for his weight loss.
— Mr. Pierre (@RANDEVYN) September 9, 2016
@SherriEShepherd – That is a misunderstanding of public health and it lends a helping hand to the stigma that unjustly demonizes gay men.
— Mr. Pierre (@RANDEVYN) September 9, 2016
The tweets prompted me to examine how our bias about HIV affects others. As a community, we need to be more careful about spreading negative propaganda if we are ever going to get past stereotypes and phobias that continue to hurt our HIV positive brothers and sisters.
As a person living with HIV, I know how important it is to fight against the stigmas and shaming that takes places by some in Black community who are uneducated, accusatory, or just plain ignorant about the disease. And it can no longer go unchecked. So rather than just GO AWF, we can all use this as a teachable moment about language, stigmas, homophobia, and the antiquated notions that HIV is an automatic “death sentence,” or that you can tell if someone has the virus because of a certain “look.”
Firstly, Long has stated that he is not gay. Now, you can choose believe him or not, but diagnosing him based on his rumored sexual experiences and then using that to argue he may have contracted HIV is taking things too far. When statements like this are made, you not only intrude on Long’s health and sexuality, but you also put the lives of those who’ve had relationships with him in jeopardy because some will assume they must have the virus. Without knowing a person’s actual sexual or medical history these assumptions are best left in your head and not pushed out to millions of people who will take them and run.
Moreover, forcing people to disclose their HIV status before they’re ready is already a major issue, and when you place this type of pressure on a person, it is unfair and disrespectful to their privacy. Even if you’re sleeping with someone, you do not have the right to decide what should be disclosed and when, especially when the person is dealing with HIV and the stigma that comes along with it. However, you do have the right to ask questions about their status, and make responsible decisions about sex and your own health based on those discussions.
Secondly, being a Black gay man is hard enough without every cough, cold, weight loss or illness being automatically attributed to having HIV. Furthermore, those who are suspected as being on the DL (down low), discreet, or closeted should not have that stigma thrust upon them either. People lose weight for various reasons, including switching to a healthier lifestyle, dealing with cancer, and coping with other illnesses. And yet Black gay men (or men who are suspected of being gay) are the only ones forced to deal with rumors about their HIV status.
But since folks want to talk about “the look,” let’s break it down. The rapid weight loss many stereotypically associate with HIV is a term known as “wasting.” And wasting is a condition that occurs in people who are at the advanced stages of HIV, most likely when the virus has progressed to AIDS. This weight loss is usually only about 10 percent of a person’s body weight (i.e. a 150 lb. person will lose about 15 lbs.) with symptoms ranging from a weak appetite, diarrhea, fever, and possible opportunistic infections. Long has stated that his weight loss was due to a change in diet, and he has clearly lost much more than 10 percent of his body weight. Furthermore, although wasting can occur, modern advances and antiretroviral therapy treatments, which have decreased the number of full blown AIDS cases, has made this condition quite uncommon.
Finally, and most importantly, people living with HIV lead healthy, productive, lives and should not be demonized in this way–just look at Magic Johnson. As a person living with HIV, I hate the discussion that comes when people claim the way a person looks can help determine their status. This same falsehood that has prevented many African Americans from getting tested in the first place. In fact, we are less likely than other racial groups to take a HIV test, despite the fact that we are at higher risk of contracting the virus. These types of conversations, like the one on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, lack nuance and scare people into not wanting to know their status. And that is a recipe for disaster. There are 1.2 million people living with HIV and 13 percent (or around 157,000) don’t even know it. When we are unable to use language in a way that encourages people to get tested, we feed into the fears that directly correlate to poorer sex practices and the promotion of nonfactual “truths.”
So to anyone out there who thinks you can look at a person and see that they have HIV you are wrong. It is time that we as a community begin to educate ourselves about HIV, so that we aren’t playing into the same stereotypes that other communities use to demonize Black bodies.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He has written for EBONY.com, Pride.com, Thebody.com, and The Huffington Post on topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. He has a monthly column in A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.