It has been forty years since anti-propaganda ad campaigns of the 80s first explained that AIDS couldn’t be contracted by simply hugging or shaking hands. Yet still today, we as a society don’t fully understand HIV. Although we are coming around to the notion that having a relationship with an HIV-positive person can be perfectly safe; it seems parenting with HIV is still a very foreign concept.
Despite significant medical advances in IVF, surrogacy and adoption, increased awareness and the ability to live a full life with HIV, a very real and painful social stigma against people with HIV having a family still exists. This stigma doesn’t just affect the LGBT community.
Even though HIV is still often referred to as a gay disease; it is very much a global mainstream issue.
What does this stigma look like?
With almost 50% of HIV+ respondents, in a recent European study commissioned by Gilead Sciences, stating that they felt having HIV would be a barrier to them having a family – it is evident that stigma surrounding parenting with HIV is very genuine.
We at The P3 Network; the non-for-profit organisation aiming to represent non-traditional families and better support LGBT people who are looking to become parents or already have children, have found within our own network of HIV+ parents and prospective parents, that people living with HIV (both heterosexual and LGBT) often feel cut off from society and judged by their decision to become parents.
Where pregnancy or adoption is concerned, they often feel that they are discriminated against and receive different levels of service. The fact that HIV is sexually transmitted, tragically feeds a stigma that it is a disease which is “self-inflicted” and linked to promiscuity – this stigma follows HIV-positive parents and prospective parents around; denigrating their perceived ability to love and care for a child.
Rupert, an HIV-positive father of one, within the P3 Network, recalls that after he disclosed his HIV status to some of the parents at his son’s school, some of the parents of other children at school no longer wanted him to assist with the after school run collection which the parents shared – due to a concern of their children being exposed to him, and his medical condition.
In addition to hurtful feelings of social rejection and discrimination, parents often also feel the burden of stigma from within their own families; with their children and partners often feeling concerned about what others will think about them and their family – feeling personally vulnerable, due to their parent’s HIV status.
Herve, another P3 member shares that he is still saddened by the fact that his children (by way of surrogacy in the US) will never really know their grandparents. It seems that coming out as gay to his parents was manageable, but disclosing his HIV status to them was just too much - they are currently estranged. Herve reports that the situation is fine for now, as the children are still young, but he is concerned about how he will explain to his kids why their grandparents don’t ever want to meet them.
How can we end the stigma?
The first step to breaking down stigma is education. We need to let society know that being HIV-positive has absolutely no bearing on one’s ability to parent, and that a parent’s power to love is not defined by their status. We also need to let HIV-positive people know that starting a family is not only possible, but perfectly safe.
“HIV isn’t just an LGBT issue; it is a global issue.” says Michael Newton, the COO of The P3 Network. “As a gay man living with HIV it concerns me that 68% of people living with HIV live in fear of disclosing their status, and nearly 50% believe that having HIV is a barrier to having a family”.
This is why The P3 family has teamed up with Terrence Higgins Trust, 56 Dean Street, CARE Fertility, New Family Social and NGA Law to launch a Positive Parenting campaign backed by organisations including the British HIV Association and Children’s HIV Association – spreading the very simple but powerful message on World AIDS Day; that ‘HIV doesn't define a parent's power to love. #endHIVstigma’
As well as spreading this powerful message, an online hub at hivandfamily.com will provide useful, up to date resources and a directory of relevant support to those with HIV who are looking to start a family - as well as those who just want to know more. The website will seek to demystify what having a family for HIV-positive parents entails and shine a light on the fact that it’s perfectly safe.
“This mentality is the driving force behind our mission. We want to breakdown these stigmas - our message truly is that ‘HIV doesn’t define a parent’s power to love’.” - Michael Newton, COO of The P3 Network
Words by Mark Mesiti, Communications Coordinator – The P3 Network