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Arik Hartmann: Why Is There Still Lingering Shame And Prejudice Around HIV?

Feb 23, 2018
Originally published on February 23, 2018 7:30 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Stigma.

About Arik Hartmann's TED Talk

As treatments for HIV have advanced, the stigmas surrounding it have not diminished as quickly. Arik Hartmann argues for more transparency to tackle misperceptions surrounding HIV.

About Arik Hartmann

Arik Hartmann was diagnosed with HIV in 2014. Since then, he has tackled the ignorance and misinformation surrounding HIV/AIDS within his local community in Louisiana. Hartmann believes that by being transparent, we can engage and educate those around us — and hopefully dispel damaging stigmas. He has worked as a biologist for the United States Geological Survey, and plans to pursue a graduate degree in wildlife ecology.

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When you were in high school, were you out and open?

ARIK HARTMANN: We were raised Pentecostal, so it was a little difficult to be out because, you know, every Sunday, it's fire and brimstone.

RAZ: This is Arik Hartmann. He grew up in rural Arizona going to church every Sunday with his family.

HARTMANN: Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday (laughter). For the longest time, I thought I would just burn in hell forever had I come out, or my dad would kill me. But I decided to come out when I was 16.

RAZ: And when Arik told his parents he was gay, it didn't go over too well.

HARTMANN: It could have gone worse, but a little fun fact - when I did come out, my dad tried to demonically exercise me.

RAZ: Wow.

HARTMANN: He invited the pastor and some friends over to kind of ambush me after school and that was...

RAZ: What happened? What did they - what'd he do?

HARTMANN: Well, luckily, my mom had come home early from work, and as I'm watching, they're kind of rushing out of the house with my mom screaming and threatening to shoot them, you know, brandishing a gun. It was...

RAZ: Wow.

HARTMANN: That was exciting.


RAZ: After that, Arik focused on getting away from home. So in 2012, he enrolled in college at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

HARTMANN: My friend group in college was just, you know, a mix of straight people, gay people, everyone on the spectrum and a lot of people who had backgrounds that were reflective of mine, you know, growing up in a religious household, which is common in the South, growing up with parents who might not accept you, with families that might not accept you. So I was able to - like, I felt like I had made the right choice after talking to other people with similar backgrounds.

RAZ: So Arik had escaped the stigma of being gay in a small, religious community. But then something happened, and Arik had to confront a new stigma, and this one was much more difficult to escape. Arik told the story from the TED stage.


HARTMANN: In the fall of 2014, I was a sophomore in college. And like most college students, I was sexually active, and I generally took precautions to minimize the risk that sex carries. Now, I say generally because I wasn't always safe. It only takes a single misstep before we're flat on the ground, and my misstep is pretty obvious. I had unprotected sex, and I didn't think much of it. Fast-forward about three weeks, and it felt like I'd been trampled by a herd of wildebeest. The aches in my body were like nothing I have felt before or since. I would get these bouts of fever and chill. I would reel with nausea, and it was difficult to walk.

Being a biology student, I had some prior exposure to disease, and being a fairly informed gay man, I had read a bit on HIV. So to me, it clicked that this was seroconversion or, as it's sometimes called, acute HIV infection. And this is the body's reaction in producing antibodies to the HIV antigen. It's important to note that not everybody goes through this phase of sickness, but I was one of the lucky ones who did. And I was lucky as in there were these physical symptoms that let me detect the virus pretty early. And I want to show of hands for these next few questions. How many of you in here were aware that, with treatment, those with HIV not only fend off AIDS completely but they live full and normal lives? Y'all are educated.


HARTMANN: How many of you were aware that, with treatment, those with HIV can reach an undetectable status and that makes them virtually uninfectious? Much less. How many of you were aware of the pre-and-post-exposure treatments that are available that reduce the risk of transmission by over 90 percent? So what I want to ask next is this. If we have made such exponential progress in combating HIV, why haven't our perceptions of those with the virus evolved alongside?

RAZ: When you were diagnosed with HIV, who did you tell?

HARTMANN: I told my best friends, who were very supportive. And they were great about it. We kind of had this nice exchange, this dialogue. And that was very affirming. And then I told my roommates, who are also very good friends of mine, and they had a very interesting reaction. They broke down. They started crying. They were hugging each other. They thought I was going to die in front of them. And at this point, it's been like four or five weeks since infection. All my immediate symptoms were gone. So I'm feeling OK. But things started to change with that group of friends.

RAZ: What happened?

HARTMANN: I would just notice little - initially, it was little things. I - one of my roommates, he would kind of sidestep around me when I was, like, walking around. He was very peculiar about things that, like, we had in common that we might touch like a chair or silverware.

RAZ: Wow.

HARTMANN: I would cook large meals for groups of people, and I noticed that my roommates weren't eating anything I'd cooked. And, you know, that was kind of the seal on it. Like, I knew something had changed, you know, in our friendship.

RAZ: Did you ever ask them why? Did you ever talk to them about it?

HARTMANN: Yeah. I had sat them down multiple times. And I even went as far as to get, like, this pamphlet on HIV from one of the local clinics and, you know, explained to them, you know, I'm not a danger to you. You are not at risk from infection. I let them know what the transmissible fluids were, rates of infection, what they could expect. And still, it just persisted. It didn't matter how much I'd try to sit them down and educate them. There was still this wall that I couldn't breach with them.

RAZ: You know, Arik, I think, I mean, one of the realities is that a lot of people, not just in Louisiana but all over the U.S., all over the world, might be afraid - right? - like your roommates. They might stigmatize it.

HARTMANN: I definitely was coming into that with that knowledge that, you know, this - these are people who might not have my perspective. Well, they definitely don't have my perspective, So I was trying to be as calm and rational with them. And it did highlight that, you know, this is a problem. And even in our age of easily-accessible facts that people still kind of run to that kind of hysteria when confronted with HIV today.


HARTMANN: You may ask, and I asked this question myself initially, where are these people living with HIV? Why haven't they been vocal? Where are the stories? How can I believe these statistics without seeing the successes? And this is actually a very easy question for me to answer - fear, stigma and shame. There is safety in assimilation. And there is safety in invisibility. So I opted for transparency about my status, always being visible. And this is what I like to call being the everyday advocate.

The point of this transparency, the point of this everyday advocacy was to dispel ignorance. And hopefully, if I could spread some education, then I could mitigate situations for others like I'd experienced with my roommates and save someone else down the line that humiliation. This is a community-driven stigma that keeps many gay men from disclosing their status. And it keeps those newly diagnosed from seeking support within their own community. And I find that truly distressing. The fear of how others perceive us when we're honest keeps us from doing many things in life, and this is the case for the HIV-positive population. To face social scrutiny and ridicule is the price that we pay for transparency.

RAZ: So you're saying that to remove the stigma around HIV requires more transparency, right? But, I mean, I'm sure you know people who are HIV-positive but just aren't, you know, aren't comfortable telling anyone.

HARTMANN: Yeah. I know many, many, many HIV-positive men and women who don't tell people and, you know, for good reason because, you know, it's a disease of a sexual nature. So by default, there's already something attached to it. There is a moral question of it. A lot of times they might have stable careers that they don't want to jeopardize. Or they might be working for conservative people, and that puts them in a very difficult position. And I totally understand keeping that to yourself. I really - it's not like I'm trying to set an example that everyone with HIV should just be as open with their status as possible because it's a very personal choice to talk about. But if they do, I want to make that easier for them.

RAZ: Arik Hartmann - he's an HIV awareness advocate. You can see his entire talk at On the show today, ideas about Confronting Stigma. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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