2 min

Playing the AIDS card

As if HIV were part disease, part rewards program

Once, when I was living in San Francisco, my brother called from Toronto and asked, “Is it still okay if my girlfriend crashes at your place while she looks for an apartment?”

He was referring to a conversation the three of us had in a bar after my father’s funeral. “I need to know,” he said, “because she’s on her way to the airport.”


After several angry long-distance phone calls, I stormed to a friend’s house and told him what had happened. He was outraged. “I sooo would have played the AIDS card,” he said.

“The AIDS card?”

“Yeah. As in, ‘I have AIDS!'” he said indignantly, like he was at an ACT-UP rally.

So it does exist. But what is it exactly?

The AIDS card is when a person uses HIV/AIDS to get an unfair advantage. Kind of like how politicians use their connections.

While I admit I’ve used my HIV status to get pot and a massage, I have not used it to shame someone into giving me something. But give me time. Last year I considered going on disability until I found out HIV doesn’t pay what it used to.

Though the AIDS card has its uses, it’s a double-edged sword. To get this unfair advantage, you have to stigmatize yourself. Then again, it’s because of the stigma that you feel like you’re owed something.

The first words out of my mouth after I tested positive were: “Can I have a prescription for pot?” Like HIV was not a disease, but some kind of rewards program.

When I was a bartender, guys handed me the AIDS card all the time. Someone would get abusive or out of control and they would blame it on dementia or their meds — never on alcohol or crystal. “I have AIDS!” they’d shout as I wrestled them out the door.

“So do I, honey,” I’d grunt. “So do I.”

The worst offenders are HIV-negative people who play the AIDS card to get steroids, massages or pot. That’s like parking in the handicapped zone. As if being HIV-negative isn’t privilege enough.

More often than not, the AIDS card is used to make a buck under the auspices of compassion. It sells red clothing at The Gap, tickets to circuit parties, and can be used as an excuse to run for the Conservative Party. Buy this and save the world; just ask U2.

As I argued with my brother I considered using the AIDS card on him but thought better of it. Not because of the unfair advantage, but because whatever impressions my brother has of HIV, I am it. He needed to know his girlfriend wasn’t welcome — not because I’m HIV, but in spite of it.