Post submitted by Lance Toma, executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center.

LanceEvery May 19th, we have the opportunity to raise HIV awareness in Asian and Pacific Islander (A&PI) communities on National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Unfortunately, this isn’t always an easy task. HIV incidence and prevalence rates in A&PI communities are low compared to larger populations like African Americans and Latinos. It’s easy to assume A&PIs are relatively untouched by HIV when we only look at these statistics, but doing so is a mistake. At Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, we’ve heard from our national partners that A&PIs are deeply affected by the HIV epidemic. We provide capacity building assistance to organizations across the country struggling to engage A&PIs in HIV testing and treatment. These clients tell us that HIV stigma can seem like an insurmountable barrier to keeping people in care.

You’ve heard stories about HIV stigma, tales of silence and shame, fear and rejection. HIV stigma is born of ignorance and breeds violence and discrimination. At its most benign, it prevents us from educating ourselves or knowing the facts about HIV. In fact, stigma is at least partially responsible for the fact that A&PIs are the least likely race to get tested for HIV. Even more discouraging is the fact that A&PI gay and bisexual men living with HIV are the least likely to know their status (compared to all other races, including African Americans and Latinos). At its worst, HIV stigma can cause unjust incarceration and even death. In Robbie Tanuwijaya’s case, fear of rejection and discovery caused him to live with HIV for six years without treatment. He was only able to face his diagnosis and get the help he needed after a compassionate friend reached out and accepted him.

When we listen to stories of HIV stigma, we see that compassion and acceptance can make the difference between living a half-life or a full life. Jaimie, a mother of two living with HIV, explains how the unconditional support of her children saved her life and allowed her to find love again. Dr. Erik Zheng, an HIV physician who is also HIV positive, talks about how a compassionate doctor helped him find the same hope that he seeks to pass on to his own patients. These simple acts of humanity have enormous transformative power. Jaimie’s sons and Dr. Zheng are examples for all aspiring allies and advocates in the fight against HIV.

Fighting HIV stigma can seem so daunting, especially when faced with deeply ingrained fears and cultural taboos. How do we change our communities if talking about sex or HIV is unacceptable? The answer is that we must be brave enough to speak our minds anyway. We aren’t encouraging anyone to disclose their status if it doesn’t feel safe to do so, but we can all draw strength from the facts about HIV. We can all share our informed perspectives. We can even share the real stories of our communities. For Marson Rosario, honest stories changed his life. As a young Pacific Islander man, he believed people with HIV should be exiled to an uninhabited island until he heard the story of a real person living with HIV. He’s now an outspoken youth advocate fighting HIV stigma and discrimination.

HIV stigma is a community disease and it’s our responsibility to cure it. The truth is, HIV affects every single one of us, regardless of our individual HIV status. The courage and leadership of people living with HIV may inspire you, but fighting stigma must be a banner we all rally behind. People living with HIV must not be left to shoulder the burden of stigma alone. We can’t stay silent when we hear misinformation about HIV. We can’t discriminate against each other based on our HIV status. We can’t stand by while our friends or family members are violently attacked. We must continue to change our communities, our health care system, and our public policy. Compassion and acceptance are two of our strongest tools in creating this kind of lasting change.

So this May 19th—National A&PI HIV/AIDS Awareness Day—think about how you can support A&PI communities in fighting HIV stigma. Visit the Banyan Tree Project, a Center for Disease Control (CDC) funded community mobilization campaign to end HIV stigma in A&PI communities, and take action against HIV stigma. Watch and share true stories created by people living with and affected by HIV. Remember that saving face can’t make you safe. So talk about HIV—for me, for you, for everyone.

Lance Toma is the executive director of Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center in San Francisco, CA and has been with the organization since 1999. A&PI Wellness Center is a health services, training, research, and policy advocacy organization serving people of color and the LGBT community. A&PI Wellness Center also runs the Banyan Tree Project, a CDC-funded national community mobilization campaign to end HIV stigma in A&PI communities.

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