By Scott Elliott
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace. Despite the advances in treatment that can make HIV virtually undetectable, Dr. Peter Centre clients still face persistent and ongoing stigmas that affect them nearly every moment of their lives. And it’s not only due to their HIV status—many of our clients live with multiple and intersecting stigmas, such as cultural background, mental illness, addiction, and history of trauma.
In 2017, Casey House—a Toronto-based program that serves a clientele similar to that of the Dr. Peter Centre—launched a pop-up restaurant called June’s HIV+ Eatery. This initiative was in response to a study that found that only 50 percent of Canadians would eat a meal prepared by an HIV-positive person. When Casey House learned about this deep-seated stigma, it responded by organizing June’s HIV+ Eatery which only employed chefs who were HIV-positive.
Besides raising funds, the goal was to address people’s fears relating to HIV and to provide information about ways in which HIV is and isn’t transmitted. Food is always a powerful way to connect—and a powerful equalizer. We know this to be true because every day clients come to the centre for healthy meals and conversation. We serve 80,000 meals each year, but the conversations are innumerable.
As another way to bring people together around a shared meal, the Dr. Peter Centre is taking part in the Vancouver Foundation’s On the Table initiative, which aims to create a sense of welcome and belonging by sparking conversation over food. Our topic of conversation is stigma and the event will take place as part of our annual general meeting. Board members, clients, staff, and supporters will come together around a shared table for a family-style meal where we will discuss the stigmas we all face and gain a better understanding of how they affect us as individuals and as a community.
Stigma isn’t always visible, but it is traumatic and affects us in our work, families, and relationships. It stands in the way of us leading rich and fulfilling lives. It can sit like a stone in the bottom of our stomach, lay heavy on our chests, and rattle around in our minds.
The people who use the Dr. Peter Centre are more than their HIV diagnosis, more than the stigmas that affect them, but like a shadow, stigma follows them as they go about their day. Stigma can be hard to talk about—with deep roots steeped in shame and discrimination, it feels like no one will understand, or that it is simply off-limits for conversation. Sometimes it can seem like if the stigma is just ignored, it will quietly go away.
It doesn’t. Stigma does not easily go away. And I know this first-hand, as someone who has dealt with significant stigma my whole life—of being a gay man and a recovering drug addict and alcoholic. Fear of being rejected, ostracized, and “different” has dramatically affected my worldview and set me on a path to overcome the stigma that is both societal and self-imposed.
The On the Table conversation will provide the space and opportunity to discuss stigma in an open, compassionate space. By raising our shared understanding of the impacts of stigma, we will be stronger as an organization, stronger as a community. Because the only thing that can make shadows disappear is shining a light.