Bob Poe hopes his video will help fight the stigma that surrounds HIV.
A few weeks ago, congressional candidate Bob Poe ran into a woman named Linda, who shared with him that she’d been recently diagnosed with HIV.
Poe says he wanted to hug her when she told him the news. She was (quite understandably) scared. In her mind, her life was over.
Poe did what he could to comfort her, helping her access resources and support. But Poe also related to her fear because he had his own secret: Like Linda, Poe is HIV-positive.
Poe was diagnosed with HIV in 1998, and he says he was still filled with fear-fueled shame when she approached him. In the moment, he wanted nothing more than to be able to hug her and offer her the knowledge that she wasn’t alone in her fight, but he says he couldn’t. He was scared.
There he was, trying to comfort a woman, knowing that he couldn’t offer her the one thing he knew would help: reassurance that she’s not alone.
This brings us to June 9, 2016, the day that Poe went from having only shared his diagnosis with a few family members to sharing it openly with thousands of people.
Poe released a video explaining his diagnosis. He started by assuring everyone that although he has HIV, he’s perfectly healthy (phew!). With treatment, he can lead a normal life.
He explained why he was sharing his 18-year secret, telling the story of Linda and what her openness inspired him to do. He knew that if he wanted to help reduce the stigma that surrounds HIV, he needed to — as he says in the video — “be the difference.”
For Poe, fighting the stigma surrounding HIV is more than just reassuring people like Linda that they’ll be OK too — it serves as a public health service as well.
Stigma often keeps people from getting tested for HIV in the first place, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates there are more than 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. Of those, more than 150,000 people don’t even know they have it.
And when you don’t know you have the virus, you can’t get treatment for it, and you’re at risk of spreading it to others unknowingly.
The World Health Organization has found that stigma is actually one of the primary reasons people avoid getting tested. And when fewer people get tested, more people might unknowingly transmit the virus to others.
HIV and AIDS don’t need to be the death sentences they once were, and as long as you treat them, they’re usually not.
In the 1980s, the idea of contracting HIV was many people’s greatest fear. Health issues were scary, but there was also an intense fear about the stereotypes of who gets HIV. For many years, people assumed if you had HIV, you must be gay or an IV drug user. And while certain groups are certainly at higher risk for acquiring the virus than others, no group is immune from it.
Luckily, in recent decades, treatment of HIV has improved to the point where people with the virus, like Poe. can lead normal lives.
By opening up about his diagnosis, Bob Poe is saving lives and helping people reimagine the stereotypes of what it looks like to have HIV.
In some capacity, on some issue, we all have the power to do this too.
You may not be HIV-positive. But you are, however, a person with a lifetime of experiences — both good and bad. Your words and your actions, based on those experiences, carry with them the power to help others when they need it most. Your words and actions can help people feel less alone.
In our lives, we all have a Linda. Think about who’s yours and how you can help her!
You can watch Bob Poe’s powerful, heartfelt announcement below.