Addressing the stigma

By Isabella Lilley

In the florescent-lit basement office space, Mike Benner softens his furrowed brows and slackens his rigid shoulders.

“What are the pre-conceived notions about (people with) AIDS?” he repeats. “That it makes you dirty? That it makes you gay? That (it means) you’re going to hell?”

Benner has served the financial, social and living needs of HIV-positive individuals as the executive director and only on-staff member of the Greater Community AIDS Project of East Central Illinois. The project was created in 1985, when cases of HIV began appearing in the East Central Illinois region. Benner said around 425 people in Champaign County have been diagnosed with HIV.

Local health and social services, as well as global efforts, have emerged to medically and financially support HIV and AIDS victims since the popularization of the pandemic in the early 1980s. These services also educate both infected and non-infected persons on what the disease is and what actually causes it, in an effort to de-stigmatize the unfavorable, societal view of the virus.

Benner, an HIV-positive individual, has personally experienced this harsh stigmatization that comes with the diagnosis.

“There is a stigma that people with HIV hold against themselves. They’re afraid of what other people are going to be thinking, so they don’t even talk about it,” Benner said. “It’s challenging all the time.”

The GCAP serves 150 to 175 clients yearly through various financial means. Through public and private funding, the Champaign House and the State Street House provide a shelter for homeless individuals who have recently been diagnosed with HIV through its transitional housing facilities.

Additionally, in conjunction with the Eastern Illinois Foodbank, all GCAP clients are welcome to monthly supplemental groceries. And, through health department referrals, certain clients may be eligible for emergency monies to pay past-due rent, utilities or medical expenses.

Benner said he doesn’t want his clients to feel that same feeling of unworthiness.

“Being HIV positive myself, I’m working with people that are going through the same thing,” Benner said. “That’s both really good that I can relate to them with these kinds of things, but I also see myself in some of them too.”

As a part of de-stigmatizing the illness as a whole, Benner pushes to educate his clients as well as the students of the University that HIV is totally treatable, with the capability of lowering an individual’s viral load to the point that they are no longer capable of transmitting the disease.

Katrina Gorospe, a freshman in LAS and an MCB major who intends to later specialize in communicable diseases, feels that the primary issue in the stigmatization of the disease stems from a lack of education.

“I don’t think people know. (People think) that if you touch someone with HIV, you’re going to get HIV and that’s not the case at all,” Gorospe said. “I don’t believe (HIV) is fully understood.”

Although the Greater Community AIDS Foundation was originally founded as the Gay Community AIDS Foundation, Benner explained that the intention of the original founder’s naming was not to promote the illness as an LGBT-exclusive disease, but because the gay community was most vocal about the pandemic and de-stigmatizing the way it was societally presented.

In the early ‘80s, in direct response to the stigmatization placed on the gay community with the appearance of AIDS in the local community, the McKinley Church Foundation was the first Champaign-based Presbyterian Church to adopt the “more light” principle that intentionally welcomed the LGBT community.

Keith Harris, assistant reverend at McKinley Church, has carried on the promotion of this ideology since its inception 30 years ago. He said that this policy is intended to welcome the LGBT community whole-heartedly, not simply with the intention of simply allowing them to attend.

“(We welcome them) not just be here as outcasts, but to be in full inclusion of the life of the church, as officers and leaders,” Harris said.

Harris adds that he has been unimpressed with how societal views toward HIV have limited the disease to only affecting the gay community.

“A lot more work needs to be done around the stigma of AIDS,” Harris said. “We equate AIDS with (the) LGBT (community) or a very promiscuous lifestyle when that is often not the case.”

As the number of cases locally have stabilized over the past decade and a half and HIV medications have become readily available even to impoverished individuals, Harris encourages the community to intentionally forego their prejudices.

“People that are in real need, need our compassion, not our judgment,” Harris said.

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