It has been a long time since I have felt the cold touch of HIV stigma or discrimination but this past weekend changed all that. While it did not happen to me directly, the circumstances surrounding the event left me shocked and shaken. I work for a national massage franchise located in Dallas Texas, and last weekend a client was turned away because of their HIV status. They just asked the client to come back another day with a note from their primary care physician that clears them “healthy” enough to get a massage. In my nine years of being a massage therapist, the only people who have ever needed a doctor’s note where people under the care of an oncologist or actively receiving chemotherapy.
Then it gets worse
I understand that not everyone will be educated on HIV issues, but as massage therapists, we are required to take pathology as part of our state licensure curriculum. Baffled by the whole situation I decided to ask my fellow massage therapists on their opinion about the situation. This is where things personally went from bad to worse as I was not prepared for their responses. There was one response in particular that stood out above the rest which was that protocol required us as therapists to wear gloves when massaging HIV-positive individuals. The generally accepted rationale was that as therapists we never know when they get an abrasion, cut, or tear on our hands. It took every bit of strength I had not to call them out on the apparent flaws their statements as we are taught to treat everyone as if they had a contagious disease with is known as universal precautions.
The silver lining
In the beginning, I did not know what to do since all I could do if feel anger. I have the support of my family, I married someone who is not HIV-positive, and no one at work has ever made my HIV status an issue. I was thinking of getting a massage from every therapist to see who wore gloves, what questions they asked, and if anyone would deny me service. Then I thought about the possible negative consequences my actions could cause. I never want to make someone feel uncomfortable or even worse uneducated about something that they believe is not important to them. It would be the equivalent of me seeing a child that looks sick and asking “Is he/she ok?” the have the parent bite my head off while spouting out Phelan-McDermid Syndrome statistics. So, in the end, I decided called up the administrator who asked me to bring educational material to work to educate everyone without singling out anyone. She would like for us to work together on a policy that will stop this from ever happening again.
Dealing with the stigma or discrimination that surrounds HIV is no easy task because you never know what the other person is thinking or where they are coming from. If you attack the issue aggressively, you run the risk of your message being shut out, but if you are too offhand with your approach, you risk not being heard at all. There is no perfect solution but if you take the time to asses the situation, develop a course of action, and execute that plan with conviction the probability of success is much higher. HIV stigma and discrimination still happens today, but it is our responsibility as HIV-Positive individuals and that of our allies to step up when the show up in our lives. Only as a community can we end the silent HIV epidemic attacking our nation.