Why is #PrepSoWhite?

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The hashtag stared back at me, hanging there on the Internet for the world to see: #prepsowhite. It was a comment, beneath an article profiling people who were bravely outing themselves as users of the HIV-prevention drug. All the faces staring back at me were white gay men, a detail that wasn’t lost on the person who made the comment. Despite HIV having a greater effect on other communities, why is it we still default to the experience of white gay men?

I’m a white gay man living with HIV, and I’m tired of us hogging the HIV spotlight. From ACT UP to PrEP, our experiences and opinions seem to have more weight, despite the fact that we are just one facet of an incredibly diverse community of people living with and affected by HIV. So how can we be better at sharing the stage?

The #PrEPSoWhite hashtag comment riffed on the #OscarsSoWhite grassroots campaign that’s highlighted the last two years’ complete lack of people of color among the Oscars’ acting nominees. It reminded me of how far we’ve all come in the fight for diversity and equality, but also how far more of us have to go. 

HIV is a highly personal journey. Multiple generations have experienced the virus in a variety of different ways, some of which have included unimaginable loss. The social and psychological damage caused by the AIDS crisis have calcified in the community, and the stigma, grief, and in some causes trauma continue to be felt by those who lived through that time–and they have been inherited by those who’ve come after.”

Everyone affected by HIV needs to be heard. The call for greater diversity is in no way an invalidation of the experiences of those who currently get more exposure. However, unless we as white gay men acknowledge the travails of others and make room for them, we perpetuate the falsehood that we “own” HIV, and that we have borne the brunt of its devastating effects.

In almost every respect, black men, women, and trans people are disproportionally affected by HIV when compared with their white counterparts.

The epidemic, once a defining element of gay communities in big cities on both coasts, now ravages America’s South. Within the past two years, San Francisco’s HIV infection rate has dropped to a new low, just as the city has become less affordable and more gentrified than ever. To those of us who live in cities like San Francisco and New York City, I wonder, Are we beating HIV, or just beating it back long enough to build a wall to keep it and everyone else out?

The first step in finding out is to ask the question and listen to the answer, even if we don’t like what we hear. We desperately need new voices that accurately speak to the HIV of today. However, it seems that instead of encouraging those voices, we are experiencing a period of “AIDS nostalgia.” From recent documentaries about the San Francisco and New York AIDS crises to star-studded film versions of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man, there seems to be a genuine desire to look back to that time. 

That’s important, just as honoring the memory of those we lost is important. However, in honoring the past, we cannot keep our eyes off the present. There are those in our community that have been edited out of those histories, and while we cannot rewrite novels or recapture the archival footage that focuses on white gay men over others, we can make room for the rest of the LGBT community here and now. 

Do we know the story of Michael Johnson? Have we read the words of Mathew Rodriguez? Have we looked at the art of Jessica Whitbread and Kia Labeija? These are just four of the people living with or affected by HIV who offer a different perspective. Their stories do not diminish our experiences, or knock us off our perch. By viewing HIV as an either/or situation, or even a turf war, we risk those important stories being left unheard or underappreciated. If that happens, they will be lost to us in the same way that so many diverse experiences over the course of the epidemic have been lost. 

White gay men need to be proactive in encouraging diversity. We need to resist the temptation to tell only our own stories, and listen only to them.

Let’s not wait for someone from the diverse community of people living with HIV to step up and shout, “We’re not being heard.” Instead, let’s invite them so that the gap between “them” and “us” becomes less and less distinguishable. 

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