Laverne Cox has spent her life breaking through barriers. Now, she wants to help break another: the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding the HIV+ community.
Like so many people, Laverne’s first experiences with being a Poz individual were not necessarily positive. Growing up in the 80s, she recalls the heavily stigmatized lens through which most of the world saw HIV and AIDS. “My own sexuality was budding at the time,” she says, “so I began to associate being sexual with getting HIV/AIDS… and dying.” She notes that there was a distinct sense of shame from the onset. “There was so much stigma to unpack.”
Unpack she has, through she says that like anything else, it’s a process.
“I think one of the ways to combat stigma is to talk about it, to begin to give language to it and then reimagine the language that we have used as well,” she says. “Language becomes the stories we tell ourselves, then our thoughts create our belief systems.” Specifically, Laverne cites using words such as “clean” to describe someone who is not HIV+ as being particularly damaging. “Think about a whole culture of that,” she said. “A whole culture that stigmatizes certain behaviors, and a certain group.”
But Laverne is committed to doing her part to rewrite the narrative.
She has also partnered for a campaign that will help others in the HIV+ community. Laverne explains that RED, Bandaid and Johnson & Johnson created a pack of bandaids that you can purchase at your local drug or grocery store, the proceeds of which can supply a day’s worth of life-saving medicine to an individual with HIV. “If someone wants to get involved, they can just go to CVS and buy some bandaids,” Laverne explains, noting that though these issues can seem so intimidating at first, there are simple ways to get involved and help. (Plus, she notes that the bandaids themselves are “quite chic.”)
Going forward, Laverne says that she hopes people will grow to understand that having HIV is not a death sentence, and that you can live a healthy and happy life as a Poz individual.
“Humanity is everyone, no matter if you’re LGBTQ+, if you’re a person of color, an immigrant, a person with HIV… your humanity should be celebrated,” Laverne says. “Our institutions should support the humanity of everyone, and if they don’t, we need to change those institutions, and how we interact with people [within those communities] and how we internalize [those labels] ourselves.”
She concludes by affirming that her life work is about supporting dignity for everyone. “A diagnosis does not make you any less human,” she says, “and we have to celebrate the humanity of everybody – period.”