June 04 2010 12:00 AM ET
As many of you probably know, June is Gay Pride Month, so I found it only fitting to focus on the issue of pride itself as it relates to both being gay and HIV-positive.
In Coming Out of Shame authors Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael astutely observe that pride cannot exist without shame. Some of the language used speaks to the dynamics of shame operative throughout our history: 'The love that dare not speak its name,' 'staying in the closet,' 'sodomites.' These and other statements imply the importance we have felt to remain invisible and hidden. Where we hide, we live in shame.
When I was a teenager I noticed that 'gay' was not often talked about -- and when it was, it happened in the context of AIDS. Therefore, my sense of self was informed by either feeling invisible or sick. Without support or peers, I lived in desperate emotional isolation, paradoxically surrounded by the love of others, yet unable to embrace it because I was an outsider. The invisibility and sickness I felt was the invisibility and sickness they understood gay to be. It was actually dangerous to be openly gay, both physically and emotionally. The need to hide and remain invisible was a matter of life and death. It was necessary to live in darkness.
There exists in this dynamic a parallel with the AIDS pandemic. I've had friends tell me of their loved ones who'd died and whose families burned their possessions out of fear of infection. Others have shared stories of families' requiring different sets of silverware, cups, and towels. I know of one man who was told to leave his childhood home -- when he was sick -- because his mother thought her dog's illness was due to her son's HIV.
Having AIDS constitutes being a pariah in some people's eyes -- much like being gay has constituted being a pariah to some. It doesn't feel safe for many of us to be open about our status. We feel a need to hide. Many can't take their medication consistently for concern over being seen and questioned. Many fear being exiled by family or friends. Others fear judgment from their faith community.
In many communities this has improved a lot since the early '80s. However, sadly, in many others it hasn't. But regardless of where one lives, though, it rarely is easy to live openly as HIV-positive. It takes courage because it still is so stigmatized.
Having AIDS has meant to live on the fringes of society -- to be unacceptable. My closest friend, living with AIDS since the early '80s and known for his dark humor, once referred to the HIV-positive night at the bars Leper Night. Dark humor, to say the least.
There are many of us who live openly as HIV-positive people and who have a number of friends living with the virus as well. However, there are far more living in fear and isolation.
In recent columns I have written about how crucial it is to connect with others like us. Isolation tends to do bad things. In many studies researchers have found that isolation has a direct correlation with a person's level of depression. In the world of substance abuse it's a sign of relapse. Being cut off from others is to continue the emotional isolation of childhood, reinforcing the belief that we are not only alone but fundamentally different from everyone else.
Pride hinges on being able to accept who each one of us is. One of the crucial steps for me has been to find communities where I find like-minded folks. Doing so has saved my life, and it's made me proud to be who I am.
Fransen is a licensed psychotherapist in practice in Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected]