3 min

Ottawa health ad stigmatizes HIV status

Campaign shows lack of cultural competency and empathy for HIV-positive people

Just because it's the language that people use, doesn't mean it's right to perpetuate it.  Credit: smartview 27 / iStock / ThinkStock

When you have HIV, you never get used to the stigma attached to the virus. You can adapt, you can begin to learn how to handle discrimination and you can brace yourself for worst-case scenarios while hoping for the best, but it never hurts less when you’re rejected.

It never gets easier scrolling through Grindr and seeing “clean UB2” written over and over again by boys you think you could be friends with or whom you’d like to date. And it never surprises you anymore when supposed allies or safe spaces betray you with open hostility towards your status, because you have come to understand that HIV-stigma is institutionalized in our culture.

The only safe space you have anymore is the time between your anonymous test results and the confirmation by your doctor. You’ve learned these things, so you’re not surprised when the latest public health campaign by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) calls you “unclean.” When you have HIV, you quickly discover you have to fight to be respected.  

OPH’s latest safe-sex campaign is called Sex It Smart, and is aimed at decreasing barriers to obtaining prophylactics by providing home delivery of condoms. The campaign was created in response to high levels of chlamydia and gonorrhea diagnoses in Ottawa youths aged 15-29  (who account for 79 percent of all chlamydia and gonorrhea diagnoses). While access to free condoms, dental dams and female condoms in rural areas is a concern, it’s a puzzling, dated focus for a major health campaign in relation to gay men and HIV.

Several studies over the last decade have suggested that condom use among gay men has remained static, with just over half of gay men reporting that they’ve used a condom the last time they engaged in anal sex. Furthermore, recent PrEP studies have suggested that Truvada may in fact be more effective at stopping new HIV infections than condoms alone. Even with those studies, condom use remains the focus of many health initiatives: Bill Gates is currently offering inventors $100,000 in start-up grants to develop a condom people actually want to wear. It’s a puzzling time to be focusing on increasing access to latex instead of PEP and PrEP in Ontario.

When I initially saw OPH’s banner ad for the campaign featuring a man and the words “Was he lying when he said he was clean?” I was immediately offended by the HIV-stigmatizing use of the word “clean.” In a climate where stigma is arguably harder to cope with than the actual disease, it’s a dangerous, harmful reality to be perpetuating. While some people on social media were quick to defend the campaign for using language that exists in the LGBT lexicon, others were quick to point out that the campaign failed to challenge the use of the language, and in fact only reinforces it.

Jer’s Vision seemed to have several of the same concerns when they first saw the ad. The organization reached out to OPH to investigate how this ad — called a “scare tactic” by Jer’s Vision’s David MacMillan — was approved for distribution, and encouraged OPH to remove it. In a March 2 blog post, OPH expressed “concern about the message of HIV Stigma that the ad conveyed.” In a surprising move, OPH appeared to be throwing the youths involved in the construction of the ad under the bus. “The concern about HIV Stigma [in the ad] was brought to the youth by Ottawa Public Health, but the concerns were dismissed,” the blog entry reported.

OPH agreed to pull the ad, but it’s raised some uncomfortable questions for poz folk in Ottawa. Lying about your HIV status when not using condoms, even if you have an undetectable viral load, is a criminal offense in Canada. OPH has had a heavily debated role in the issue, and officially says that it does not work in tandem with police. However, this campaign could be interpreted as showing OPH’s pro-criminalization bias. Furthermore, it shows a shocking lack of cultural competency and empathy for a segment of the population its mandate is to serve. As an HIV-positive gay man moving through the world, I face and fight enough discrimination and stigma; I don’t need Ottawa Public Health adding to it.