April 9, 2014

New Group Offers Safe Space for HIV-Positive Students

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A new support group that hopes to offer a safe space for HIV-positive Cornell students held its first meeting Wednesday night.

The group seeks to address a number of problems that HIV-positive individuals face on a regular basis, including the fear of others knowing of their medical condition, dealing with ignorance about HIV and the struggle of being on expensive medications, according to Leo Stellwag grad, the group’s co-founder.

Stellwag, who also runs a transgender support group, said it is difficult for HIV-positive students to find other diagnosed individuals on campus. As a result, the students can feel isolated and face “pos-phobia,” a fear of people who are HIV-positive.

One of the group’s goals is to help connect HIV-positive students who are not already a part of each other’s current support system, according to Lex Brown ’15, co-founder of the support group.

“Some of them have friends that would support them, but those friends are probably HIV-negative,” Brown said. “When you become positive, it’s a big life-changing event, and you end up having issues connecting with people who are not that way.”

Resources currently offered by the University for HIV-positive students include testing, one-on-one counseling and access to a case supervisor, according to Brown.

The group wanted a peer-led support group on campus, rather than group counselling led by “an official with a title who people can’t relate to as well,” Stellwag said.

“There has been such a strong stigma on campus for HIV that none of the [HIV-positive] students would dare to say anything, and probably feel alone because they don’t know anyone that they can go and talk to,” Brown said. “We hope this will give them a safe haven to show that they are not all alone, that there is a group that they can feel comfortable with where they can be themselves and not have to hide anything.”

Stellwag added that the stigma against HIV-positive students also exists in Cornell’s LGBT community.

“There have been negative things said within the LGBT student body which have created a sense of not a safe space for HIV-positive people in the LGBT community,” Stellwag said.

Much of this comes from misinformation, according to Stellwag. He said he recently heard a student ask if one could contract HIV from kissing.

“There’s still a lot of education that needs to be done about HIV, even within the queer community,” Stellwag said.

Stellwag said the group also hopes to distribute stickers and informational cards across campus to generate allies and awareness among the student body.

“Personally I’ve heard someone say that HIV-positive people are untouchable or un-dateable,” Brown said. “We felt that something needed to be done on campus and that this is one of the steps toward it — to make [HIV-positive people] feel comfortable and safe.”

The group plans to have weekly meetings in private locations on campus, according to the group’s co-founders. Currently, only current and former Cornell students are allowed to attend — though the group might decide to open up membership to Ithaca College or Tompkins Cortland Community College students.