How The Stigma of HIV Can Linger and Keep People from Care

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Lenworth Poyser (left) works with a colleague at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Poyser is a health educator for a project focused on reaching young, gay men of color who are HIV-positive. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Lack of health insurance isn’t the only barrier to getting medical care. The stigma and fear around HIV can keep people from seeking help. As part of our ongoing health series Vital Signs, we hear from Lenworth Poyser. He was homeless and living with HIV. Now, Poyser helps young HIV-positive men support each other through a group at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. 

By Lenworth Poyser

When I first came out, when I was still in Texas, I left my mother’s house. At the time I was 18. What she was basically saying is: You can be in this house, just don’t be gay in this house. And I couldn’t do it. So, I threw my clothes into a trash bag and got out.

My sister had invited me to move out to L.A., move out to L.A. And, when HIV hit, I was like, “Oh, life is too short.” So, I decided to just do it.

In 2010, young black men who had sex with men made up 55 percent of all new HIV infections for young gay and bisexual men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While roughly 10 percent of youth are LGBT, anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

I do want to sing. And I also knew there were lots of opportunities for people who are positive out here, versus in Texas. But after about 3 months, I still could not find a job. I was kind of just sleeping with friends and stuff like that. Like house hopping.

I started care when I got into the transitional living program at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center — a program for youth, 24 and under, who are homeless. I remember that was one of the first (times) I took my medication. My HIV medication.

It’s sad that we’re thirty-plus years into this disease and like the shame and the stigma is almost — it’s gone away some — but it’s still there, and it’s still affecting positive people. So, that’s why I want to speak out about it because I know that there are still young people out there, not taking medication for whatever reason, not telling their families, and not telling their partners. And it’s fueled by their own fear.

I’m a health educator for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. A lot of our guys are here in care, and some of them have been on the streets or are on the streets still. It’s tough on the guys to come because, purely for the fact of walking in the room is: ‘I’m in an HIV-positive room and who’s going to see me?’ You know, literally going to the group alone is stepping out on faith.

But when they have those friendships, when they have a sense of community — whether that be their actual family, their blood family, or a family that they make here in L.A. — it seems to help a ton.

Susan Valot reported this story.

Listen to Poyser tell his story on The California Report:

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