Positives and negatives
The man was in the bar by himself drinking shot after shot of rum when one of his friends came in, spotted him and then went over to him. "What happening buddy?" the friend asked. "Why you looking so down and sit down here by yourself drinking as if you want to empty the bar?" The man said dolefully, "Boy, I took a medical test last week and the results came back today. The test says that I have HIV." His shocked friend looked at him and blurted out, "You positive?"
The first person to tell me this joke was what we call a PLHIV (Person Living with HIV/AIDS). At that time I was working with the Pan-American Health Organisation as the media/communications adviser based in Barbados. I had volunteered to help the National HIV/AIDS Commission with some research on managing the stigma and discrimination problems experienced by PLHIVs. I decided that I would start with focus group sessions with PLHIVs.
I had already been working in the international health sector for about five years when I decided on the focus groups. I had read everything there was to know about HIV. I knew that I could not get it from mere contact with an infected person. Yet, when I showed up at the venue for the session and one of the men put out his hand to shake mine, I experienced a moment of both panic and truth. Intellectually, I knew that shaking hands would not cause me to become infected and yet emotionally I was shaken. It did not last long as my reason eventually returned although, for a while, not completely in charge of the situation. The session went well enough - we made jokes and, because of my column in the Barbados Nation, the men told me their favourite stories. This is when I heard the joke with which I started the column.
As I told the group when I was summari-sing, at least one positive came out of the session. I found out that some of the men loved to shock people. One told me, "From your column I know you're a reader so I am going to leave all my books to you." Later, in the discussion, he revealed that his parents were unaware of his condition and there was no way he would tell them since he feared the consequences. One of his sisters and one or two nurses knew, but he did not trust the hospital staff at all, since he believed that they would tell everyone and his parents would inevitably find out.
What I felt at the beginning was not revulsion or anything to do with the men, it had to do with the disease and the fear it still spreads among the most logical and enlightened of us. It also had to do with me and my need to come to terms with myself and my fears. Then, emboldened, I went to the hospice in Barbados to meet with another group but one that was mixed and contained as many women as men. Shaking hands was easy. The women, perhaps wary of the reactions they normally got, did not enfold me for the customary peck on the cheek. There were no hugs and I was still not at the stage where I would initiate it. It was enough of a test merely to shake hands. Then we sat down and talked about stigma, stereotyping and all the other causes and effects of the discrimination that people with HIV/AIDS encounter almost everywhere - even in medical institutions.
One of the problems of stereotyping is what I call the 'Joe the Plumber' syndrome. In a posh Toronto suburb, full of big, fancy cars, a man moved in and all he had was a van with the words 'Joe the Plumber' stencilled on the side. People were angry about a common plumber in their exalted midst. There were the usual petitions and threats to move out. However, when the hockey season came around, Joe the Plumber proved to be a godsend. He loved hockey and was able to take the kids to practice and games in his van.
The kids liked him and eventually the people in the community liked him. "Joe is a good guy," they said. He was invited to the barbecues, the picnics and the parties. Would they allow another plumber to come into the community? No. Their stereotypes of plumbers did not change. What they did is to acknowledge tacitly and make one exception to the stereotype - Joe the Plumber is a good guy, for a plumber. Stereotypes are almost impossible to change. We can say that "Tony is a good guy for a Trini", or "She is an intelligent person for a woman", but the stereotypes are almost completely resistant to change.
Also resistant to change, at least for a while, were my fears. I completed the session, got a burst of applause from the group, and then one of the ladies said to me, "Tony, don't go yet. We prepared some sandwiches and juice for everyone. Please stay and join us in the refreshments." Talk about fear and panic reaction! My greatest fear was that they would read my fear and hold it against me. I knew that there was nothing to be afraid of and yet I was scared speechless, and worse.
It took what seemed a long time but must have only been a couple of booming heartbeats before I nodded and uttered a shaky "Sure. That's nice of you." I did sip the orange juice and take a bite out of a sandwich but the irrational fear did not entirely disappear. It was then I understood what caregivers go through, not because of ignorance or spite, but because of this fear of death. I used to believe with other communicators that one of the most courageous of human actions is getting up to give a speech. Not so. HIV/AIDS has taught me the meaning of courage, not just in myself, but in those who can joke about their condition.
Dr Steven Sultanoff, in an article titled 'Larry, Moe and Curley, Jest for Perspective' wrote, "A client walks into an AIDS Services Office proudly reporting his T-cell count of 3. He states that he affectionately named them Larry, Moe, and Curly. It is this client's humorous perspective that in the midst of dealing with the disease improves his ability to cope. In Doonesbury, when one character with AIDS jokes about the disease to another, the other responds, "How can you joke?" The person with AIDS responds, "How can you not?"
Tony Deyal was last seen quoting Dr Sultanoff's story about a little boy who returned from an AIDS-awareness class at school and explained to his mother, "They told us we should stay out of intersections and buy condominiums."