Out of the Darkness: Asian Americans Confront the Stigma of HIV/AIDS

Photo: Pauline Dobson

Editor's Note: This article was produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. It is the first article in a three-part series examining Asian Pacific Americans and HIV/AIDS healthcare in California.

In California, Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the 12 municipalities nationwide most affected by HIV/AIDS, according to the CDC’s Enhanced Comprehensive HIV Prevention Planning, or ECHPP project.

By Nalea J. Ko, Pacific Citizen Reporter
February 17, 2012

A simple, strapless wedding dress is what Sara, 28, settled on for her summer wedding where she is expecting about 200 people.

Like most brides-to-be, Sara, who is part Asian American, is busying planning the minute details of her wedding from specialty cupcakes to the reception venue.

But unlike most who are soon-to-be wed, Sara has a secret she is keeping from some friends and family members. Sara, a heterosexual woman, is HIV positive.

“It was actually the only time I’ve slept with somebody without a condom,” said Sara, who requested to be identified only by her first name. “I think one of the things I did, is I kind of rationalized away the risks. I had one drink, but I was still pretty much sober and I was like, ‘Well, we’re both from Westernized countries, highly educated, in middle- to upper- socioeconomic status, so the likelihood is low.’”

The news of her HIV status was a devastating blow that left Sara in tears. Sara learned of her HIV status in 2006 after taking a sexually transmitted disease screening test.

She is one of the 4,053 Asian Pacific Americans (APA) who are living with HIV/AIDS in California.

When compared to other ethnic groups, APAs have the lowest percentage of cumulative HIV/AIDS cases, aside from American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Eighteen percent of the AIDS cumulative cases as of 2008 are Black, 54.9 percent are white and 23.8 percentage are Latino, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of June 30 there were 5,771 reported HIV/AIDS cumulative cases in the APA community, according to the California Office of AIDS. APAs represent about 2.8 percent of the total cumulative cases.

But some HIV/AIDS healthcare workers say cultural values and pressures in the APA community often complicate dealing with highly stigmatized subjects like HIV/AIDS.

“The case is a little bit different when we’re looking at communities of color because HIV awareness is not as high, testing rates are lower, stigma is higher and the barriers to care are higher,” said Dr. Royce C. Lin, who works at the San Francisco General Hospital’s HIV/AIDS division. “As a result, as a public safety net hospital we see patients who come in when something bad has happened.”

Forty-year-old Henry, who agreed to speak only on the condition of partial anonymity, knows firsthand about dealing with the stigma of homosexuality and HIV.

At 23, after graduating from college, he was diagnosed with HIV. Despite practicing safe sex, Henry says he contracted the virus from his partner, who was open about his status. After contracting HIV, the Filipino American says he never thought he would live to his 25th birthday.

Henry’s parents’ negative reaction to his coming out as gay made him wait about five years to reveal his HIV status to them.

“This is what they pretty much told me, ‘our family’s well respected here. What would people think about us if they find out that you’re gay?’” Henry said. “And so if that was their reaction to me being gay, then what about with HIV? The stigma was even heavier in my mind.”     

When Henry finally revealed his HIV status, his parents’ reaction to the news “pleasantly surprised” him.

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