Empowering Voices – When Abusers Exploit Their Partners’ HIV Status

As Kansas City gets ready for another fantastic AIDS Walk event, it’s important to acknowledge how far we have come over the last 30 years in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

The LGBTQ community has been instrumental in fighting for research funding, insurance coverage for treatment and most important, community education. It’s impossible to imagine where we would be as a society without the heroic efforts of HIV/AIDS activists in our community.

But despite the great strides that have been made, we all know that we still have a long way to go. Individuals living with HIV/AIDS still experience discrimination, social stigma, economic stress from the cost of treatment, and the toll that the virus and treatments take on their bodies.

One of the ways that the LGBTQ community has led the effort against HIV/AIDS is by forcing ourselves and others to have the difficult conversations. This month, KCAVP is challenging our community to have another of those conversations. We want to start a discussion about how intimate partner violence affects those who are HIV-positive.

Leaving an abusive relationship is hard, no matter who you are. KCAVP works with LGBTQ survivors of violence, and we hear stories of how abusers have used partners’ HIV-positive status against them. As much as I would love to tell you that these stories are few and far between, I can’t. Intimate partner violence is present in about one out of every four relationships, regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of partners.

Abusive partners will often use whatever tactics they can find to maintain power and control. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an individual’s HIV status can be used as one of these tools of abuse. Tactics used by abusers include withholding medication and medical care, shaming partners about their status, and threatening to out someone’s HIV status if he or she attempts to leave the relationship.

Unfortunately, this type of abuse can be very effective, especially given the stigma and discrimination that HIV-positive individuals may face when reporting intimate partner violence or seeking services. This is particularly harmful for HIV-positive members of the LGBTQ community. Reporting violence can mean not only having to come out about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but also having to come out about one’s HIV status.

Fear of revictimization in these situations may cause someone to stay in an abusive relationship. Fear of losing access to life-saving medications may cause someone to suffer in silence.

We cannot just sit by while this happens to our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves. First and foremost, we must shine a light on this problem. We have to talk about intimate partner violence, even if it’s a subject that we’d prefer to avoid. We must be supportive of those who may be experiencing abuse and ensure that they know they are safe when talking to us about it. We must encourage health-care providers to talk to their HIV-positive patients about this type of abuse and provide resources when they see red flags.

But the most important thing we can do is to keep pushing our society to be more accepting of all people, regardless of status. By creating a world where individuals living with HIV/AIDS do not have to fear discrimination, we lessen the power of HIV-related abuse.

This year, when we’re walking at AIDS Walk, let’s remember that the members of our community living with HIV/AIDS deserve healthy lives, including healthy relationships that are free of abuse.

If you or someone you love needs support or services, please call KCAVP at 816-561-0550.

Victoria Pickering is the education and outreach coordinator for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project. KCAVP’s vision is to end all types of violence in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

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