Friday, April 29, 2016

Why You Shouldn't Care Whether Prince Was Diagnosed with HIV

I'm a proud woman of African descent who lives in America. I have family members on various continents, but I call America home. I was raised in the Midwest and the South (mostly the South); I was educated on the West Coast; I call Texas home. But I have always been proud of the fact that I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota - as was a musician whose music provided the soundtrack to much of my life, Prince Rogers Nelson (more commonly referred to simply as "Prince" by fans).

Prince died very recently. He was only 57 years old. Fans of his around the globe are saddened by the loss of such a celebrated music icon. For me, a young black girl from Minneapolis who often felt "different," Prince symbolized ingenuity and self-acceptance. Prince demonstrated that it was not only okay to be different - even a little weird - it could even be perceived as cool to be that way! ("That way" meaning: being oneself.) 

In recent years I mostly listen to Christian music and smooth jazz, but the lyrics and melodies of the music I grew up with is never far from my mind. They pop up in my conversations and/or they entertain me (unbeknownst to others) as I silently scroll through them in my head throughout my day. But in the days since Prince's passing that hasn't been sufficient. I have found myself watching his videos and listening to his songs. Pouring over the words of his music. "Thieves in the Temple." "When Doves Cry." "I Would Die 4 U." "Adore." "Sign of the Times." "Little Red Corvette." "Purple Rain." "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." "Kiss." "I Wanna Be Your Lover." Etc.

I've also been reading about Prince online. A lot of the things I have read have been enlightening. Others have been heart-wrenching. But some are just plain annoying. Everybody and their mama wants to be heard, even if they don't have jack to say. And like petty people tend to do, they start up mess. Already the rumors are circulating about this and about that. Prince never claimed to be without flaws, and it is possible that there may be truth to some of the stories that are being shared. Others, of course, are likely flat-out lies. Like anything else in life, the truth often lies in-between the ideal and the unreal. My main qualm is not necessarily what is being said, but the reasons that people are saying them. One clear reason is purely sensationalist. Another is for profit. And another is for possible slander. It is that latter reason I am going to focus on. 

If I read one more article speculating about how "Prince died of AIDS" I think I'm going to scream. First of all, you don't "die of AIDS." You may die of an AIDS-related illness; you may die of an opportunistic infection you acquired as a result of an immune system weakened by AIDS, etc. But the cause of death itself is NOT "AIDS." 

Secondly, if Prince actually was a person living with HIV, so freaking what? Is that the end of the world, having a diagnosis of HIV? No, it is NOT NOT NOT. Why should we care if he did have it or not? But I'll humor it just for the sake of speculation. Let's imagine we receive confirmation about this; that we learn from an official, trustworthy source that Prince was indeed diagnosed at some point with HIV. If that happens, my response would be...

AND?!?!?!? 

What difference would that make? Not one iota. He was still Prince. He is no more or no less because of his serostatus. That changes nothing about his legacy as a musician; that changes nothing about his philanthropy; that changes nothing about his creativity. If anything, as a disabled woman on color, it makes me admire his accomplishments and his drive even more, knowing that he continued to write, play instruments, produce, travel, and perform while managing life as a person who not only had a diagnosis of epilepsy, but may or may not have also been living with HIV. 

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could manage his health with any number of available medications for treating HIV, including once-a-day-one-pill regimens.

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could have a happy, healthy marriage where he could have loving, consensual sex and not put his partner at risk of contracting HIV due to resources such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and treatment as prevention (TASP).

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could have one, two, or ten HIV negative babies due to medical advances. 

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could potentially enjoy a lifespan that was nearly as long as that of individuals without a diagnosis of HIV (assuming no other major illnesses).

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could connect with many knowledgeable, encouraging, resourceful advocates in the HIV community who are willing to mentor and support others and provide both assistance and friendship. 

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could demonstrate that one can still be successful and influential regardless of serostatus.

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, could rest assured that he had a right to privacy about his condition and that others did not have the right to disclose or discuss his condition without his consent. 

If Prince had HIV, he, like millions of other people living with HIV around the world, deserved and DESERVES to be treated with respect and dignity, not gossiped about and stigmatized. 

I could be living with HIV. YOU, the person reading this, could be living with HIV. Your neighbor, your friend, your physician, your plumber, your hair stylist, your bank teller, your weed man, your pastor, your child, your parent, your Senator could be living with HIV. That does NOT make any or all of these people less. It makes them individuals who happen to have an acquired immunodeficiency virus. That's all. They are not deserving of nor do they desire your scorn, stigma, pity, hatred, or discrimination.

Nine years ago I took a semester-long course called "Learning, Empowerment, Advocacy, and Participation" (Project LEAP for short). One of the ladies in the course, a sweet, beautiful older lady named Jackie, shared a lot about her son, who had died of an AIDS-related illness many years before. She also spoke a lot about her church and about her work as a volunteer coordinator for a huge HIV clinic.

One day Jackie told us about a time that her pastor had preached about eliminating HIV stigma. As he concluded his sermon, he asked the members of his congregation to stand if they'd ever shared a needle with anyone. Startled, only a few very brave, very truthful people stood up. 

He next asked people to stand up if they'd ever had sex with someone - whether they were married or unmarried. More people stood up. 

Finally, he asked people to stand up if they'd ever been born. Every person in the room was now standing.

He asked each person to look around. He stated that every person standing had engaged in at least one act that in which they could have potentially contracted HIV, even if it was the act of being born. He said that because we have ALL done something which could have resulted in the diagnosis, we had NO right to act as if we were better than anyone with the actual diagnosis. 

I think this advice would serve many of us well in the days to come as people continue to speculate about Prince's serostatus. 

If you come across people engaging in the same old tired HIV stigma, please share this post with them. There is NO place for HIV stigma in 2016. Especially on "Alphabet Street."

From Morénike, a loyal Prince fan

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Image is a color photo of the beautiful, talented late Prince Rogers Nelson with his birth and death years listed (1958, 2016). Photo credit: V105


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