By Chris Heide
A post recently went viral on social media, highlighting the pervasive stigma that surrounds an HIV diagnosis.
On September 10th, Liam Blank logged onto Grindr while relaxing at home- a common practice among gay men. Among the slew of typical Grindr messages, Liam engaged in a conversation with a man recently diagnosed with HIV. The man was at the George Washington Bridge, ready to jump, as a result of struggling with the diagnosis. Instead of dismissing the man’s pain, Liam sprung to action.
Here is an account of that interaction, in Liam’s own words:
“A few nights ago, while relaxing at home, I started messaging a man on Grindr. The conversation started like any other, but then quickly went in a direction that I've never experienced before.
This man, who is my age, revealed to me that he has recently been diagnosed with HIV and is struggling to accept it. At this point, I started to tell him that I can be an ally if he needs one. But then, he told me that he is messaging me from the George Washington Bridge and that he was planning to jump off and kill himself.
Immediately, I put on my shoes and jacket, then ran a few blocks to the bridge. I frantically started looking for him in the dark, hoping that he hadn't already jumped or that I wouldn't be witnessing him jump as I approached him.
I quickly spotted a person wearing a hoodie leaning against the railing. I ran up to him and stopped to look at his face to make sure this was the man I was talking to. When he looked up at me and I saw he had been crying, I knew this was the man I was talking to on the phone.
At that moment, I grabbed him and hugged him for what felt like 5 minutes as he cried on my shoulder. Without any hesitation, I convinced this man to get off the bridge and come back to my apartment to talk with me.
Come to find out, this man is an undocumented immigrant who fled his country after his family ousted him and his brother tried killing him for being a gay man. After listening to his story, I was speechless. There was nothing in my life that is comparable to what this person has experienced, so I struggled to think of any words to say. All I could do was listen. We talked for a few hours, and by the end of it, I assured him that he should never feel lonely again because I will be his friend, and I meant that sincerely.
That night on the George Washington Bridge will stay with me forever and has taught me that we all have times when we feel life is against us. Here was a person who wanted to die, but I helped him live. I may have changed this man's life, but I wonder if he knows that he changed my life too.
Be grateful for your life and everyone in it. Hug your friends and family a little closer.”
According to Liam, this experience has had a greater impact that he expected:
"One thing that this experience has really made more apparent to me is that expressing kindness, even in the smallest of ways, can have a profound impact on the lives of others. I wasn't expecting my Facebook post about my experience to be shared so widely, but now that it has, I've realized that sharing the story has impacted a lot of other lives as well."
This narrative highlights a bleak reality of our society. Despite medical advancements in the treatment of HIV, a tremendous amount of stigma, guilt and shame still surrounds the diagnosis. We, as a society, must do better. No only through education, but through compassion and understanding.
Liam believes that stigma is a pervasive societal issue that has tremendous impact on an individual level:
"It is so unfortunate that within the LGBTQ community, there is still such a heavy stigma towards those who have HIV, but I truly believe that education is the antidote to stigmatization. It's time that we start acting like a genuine community again, as it was decades ago. We should be helping and educating one another to the best of our ability instead of self-segregating and marginalizing."
Talk to another human being. Share in their experiences. Embrace their pain. Strive to understand. Only through altruistic acts, such as Liam’s, will the stigma surrounding HIV and homosexuality truly dissipate.