The Red Badge of Courage

By Barry Jay Glass, MSW


For the last few years, we have been reading about the celebrities who have refused to acknowledge their AIDS, (Rock Hudson, Liberace), made it clear to the media that they contracted AIDS through heterosexual sex, (Magic Johnson), or posthumously owned up to the disease (Brad Davis). None of this has added to the development of positive role models for those who carry HIV, and only reinforces the notion that being HIV infected is something to be ashamed of. This divisiveness and lack of candor strengthens the argument that gay men, because of their lifestyle, are more to blame for their disease.

Unfortunately, some HIV positive men internalize this view of AIDS and homosexuality, and they carry the burdens of shame and self blame. As prisoners of this belief system, they think that their AIDS is a punishment. When they hear others say that they deserve this disease, they wonder if that might be true. After all, they think, wasn't I taught that homosexuality is wrong and a sin against nature? And isn't it true that if I weren't gay, I might never have become HIV infected? Therefore, my disease is all my fault and I have no one to blame but myself.

If this shoe fits, then I'm talking to you.

Why not blame it on the Unibomber?

It makes as much sense.

And while you're at it, I'll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge for a buck and a quarter.

Cut yourself some slack.

Get off your own back.

AIDS is nobody's fault.

Your AIDS is not your fault.

Can you repeat that?

Can you believe that?
The other voices you hear in your head may be fighting with you:

You're no good.

You can never do anything right.

Faggot. Sissy.

See, what did I tell you? You got what you deserve.

Whose voices are they? Your parents? Your schoolmates? Your neighbors? Your churches?

Where is your voice? Can you hear it above the others? Can you believe it? Can you live it?

Self esteem is your key to success for living with HIV. You do not need to like the fact that you are HIV positive. But you can learn to like yourself, even in the space of being a person living with HIV. Yes, even there.

There is a difference between assigning blame to yourself for your disease and accepting responsibility for yourself with your disease. With the former, you'll never pass GO or pick up a GET OUT OF JAIL card. With the latter, you can create opportunities for building hotels on Park Place and increase your choices in the CHANCE deck.

Wanna play?

You begin by embracing the concept of self worth. Taking care of yourself is of utmost importance. You may believe that such "self indulgence " is nothing but selfishness. Yet being selfish is not inherently bad. Those voices you are used to hearing may be telling you that selfish means "not sharing toys" or "taking the last piece of pizza." But within the context of self care, selfishness means nurturing.

Responsibility for your life may be a scary proposition if you've had no practice. Maybe you have been without the proper tools. Your sense of self might be based primarily on others' view of you. Because society does not support you as an HIV positive individual, you may come to see yourself, and not the disease, as your enemy. Maybe those you counted on for support, such as family and friends, have turned away. Add to that the societal condemnation of homosexuality and the religious zealots who tell you that you deserve this disease, and you wind up swimming upstream just to stay in place.

Don't foul the air you breathe. Find the environments where you get reinforcement for trying to make it through. Seek out the people in your life who give you the encouragement to be your best. Find someone to listen to you. Listen to others who walk along side you.

Yes, it is difficult and painful to undo the many years of emotional abuse. But you can do it. Step by step, you can achieve those small successes that lead to a greater sense of self worth which will give you the ammunition to fight off those unwelcome voices.

The shame does not lie within.

The shame is to be borne by those who would have you believe that you wear The Scarlet A.

Look again.

It is The Red Badge of Courage.

Barry Jay Glass has been a social worker forever. Since 1984, he has been professionally involved in HIV/AIDS work. He has served the community in a variety of ways and has held the position of Director of Client Services for The Colorado AIDS Project as well as The San Diego AIDS Project. His current endeavor is the creation of a new nonprofit corporation, Bearing Witness. The mission of Bearing Witness is to produce, present, and preserve artistic and creative expressions of the human experience as it relates to HIV/AIDS. Additionally, Barry writes a column, The Glass Eye, for Resolute, the newsletter of The Colorado People with AIDS Coalition.

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