The Georgia Straight - - Front Page -

Stigma is de­fined as a mark of dis­grace. De­spite ad­vances in treat­ment that can make HIV vir­tu­ally un­de­tectable in hu­mans, clients of Van­cou­ver’s Dr. Peter Cen­tre—which pro­vides inclusive, com­pas­sion­ate care for those liv­ing with Hiv—still face per­sis­tent and on­go­ing stig­mas that af­fect them al­most ev­ery mo­ment of their lives. And it’s not only due to their HIV sta­tus: many of the cen­tre’s clients live with mul­ti­ple and in­ter­sect­ing stig­mas, such as cul­tural back­ground, men­tal ill­ness, ad­dic­tion, and his­tory of trauma.

In 2017, Casey House—a Toron­to­based pro­gram that serves a clien­tele sim­i­lar to that of the Dr. Peter Cen­tre— launched a pop-up restau­rant. This ini­tia­tive was in re­sponse to a study that found that only 50 per­cent of Cana­di­ans would eat a meal pre­pared by an Hiv­pos­i­tive 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 di­ag­noses, 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 first­hand, 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.

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