Converting Fears Into Strengths

Scott Fried, 53, was diagnosed with HIV at 24 years old, and he has transformed his fear of dying into a love of life, centered on helping others overcome their fears. He has spoken to students across the country — including to some at the University of Florida on Monday — regarding sexual health, intimacy and self-acceptance.

“I began for two reasons: one, because I didn’t want to be forgotten, and I thought I was going to die from AIDS, and two, because I had stumbled into this rich world that was offering me an opportunity to learn from people as they were learning about life upon their dying.

There is something in the act of letting go of your life, knowing that you’re going to die, that emboldens you and makes you bigger. I wanted to share the answers we were learning together. I was arriving into the story of their life at the end, and there was this rich conclusion, full of lessons of courage and dignity and facing fears and so much forgiveness and understanding and compassion.”

What HIV stigmas have you faced in society, and how are you combating them?

“We’re talking 1987-1988. What I discovered was a time in the world that was frightening and scary, and at the same time, there was this surplus of love and overflowing of compassion from everyone I surrounded myself with because we knew we were dying.

“Love and compassion rushed in. In truth, there were horrible things that happened. The stigma came from a place of fear, but the stigma — and the ways people reacted because of the stigma — was a lesson to all of us to practice forgiveness. The main thing about [the] stigma of HIV is that it needs to be tempered by forgiveness, [and] if not forgiveness, at least the willingness to be understanding about where the fear and ignorance which created the stigma came from in the first place.”

Do you think HIV stigma is decreasing with the growth in knowledge of the disease?

“I wish I could say that, but it’s not. I think that it may be disappearing in the more overt circles, where people understand you can shake people’s hands, have sex with someone who is HIV-positive, and you can hire people with HIV. We understand that in 2017, but the place where stigma lies is much more covert. It’s much more underground. It’s the underbelly of the virus, and that’s where the stigma lies, where it is safe to stigmatize: on the internet and on social media apps.

“There is still stigma, and it’s in the shadows of social media, where you don’t have to show your face.”

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