What Is HIV Status Discrimination?

Medically Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on May 22, 2023
5 min read

HIV status discrimination is when people living with HIV and AIDS face negative attitudes, abuse, and discrimination.

Although HIV status stigma can look different, examples include:

  • Believing people deserve to get HIV because of the way they live their life
  • Judging people who do things to prevent the spread of HIV
  • Thinking that only certain groups can get HIV

There was a lot of fear and anxiety when HIV became an epidemic in the 1980s. During that time, doctors didn’t know much about how HIV was spread, so people were scared of getting it. That same fear continues, even today.

Many people also believe myths like these, which can lead to HIV status discrimination:

  • HIV is linked to things like using drugs, cheating, sex work, and being gay.
  • People get HIV because they’re irresponsible.
  • People get HIV only by having sex.

HIV status discrimination can affect the care you get. You might not have access to health services because of discrimination and stigma.

If you’re living with HIV, you might be treated badly at work or school. This can lead to mental or emotional damage. You might also be shunned by your community, family members, and peers. All of these can prevent and limit access to HIV services, including testing and treatment.

The stigma and discrimination around HIV status could cause you to not get tested for HIV, not to open up about your HIV status, and not to take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

HIV status discrimination can harm your physical health by causing you to:

  • Avoid getting medical care that could save or lengthen your life
  • Be afraid to get tested for HIV
  • Hide health problems from your family
  • Hide your HIV status from a sexual partner
  • Not take medicine the way you’re supposed to
  • Not use condoms

It can affect your quality of life by making you:

  • Feel like your reputation has been damaged
  • Feel worthless or hopeless
  • Not get taken care of at home
  • Lose your income or livelihood
  • Lose your marriage or options to have children

HIV status discrimination results from stigma. Look out for these common forms of HIV stigma and discrimination:

Community and household stigma

Discrimination and stigma on a community level can make you change how you live your life or force you to leave your home.

Women and girls in particular are often scared they’ll be rejected by their family. Because of that, they could lose their home, their kids, or their job, which can bring on depression, low self-esteem, or thoughts or acts of suicide.

Research suggests that some LGBTQ communities segregate based on HIV status. That means people usually spend time with someone who has the same HIV status as they do.

Cultural homophobia and the fear of HIV could make you afraid to open up about your sexual orientation or HIV status. You might rather face infection than the stigma linked with HIV.

Employment stigma

You may also face stigma or discrimination at work from your employer or co-workers. This could include:

  • Being fired
  • Not getting hired
  • Being made fun of
  • Getting left out of social situations

Employers should aim to get rid of stigma at work using methods like offering HIV testing and offering HIV and AIDS education.

In the United States, people living with HIV or AIDS are protected from HIV status discrimination under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Section 504 makes it illegal for health and human service organizations or providers that get federal funding to discriminate against you because of your HIV status. Places that can be covered by Section 504 or the ADA include:

  • Clinics
  • Dentists’ offices
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Drug treatment centers
  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes

Governmental stigma

Depending on what country you live in, you could face governmental stigma. Many nations have laws and policies about HIV. Some of these rules can isolate people with HIV.

The ADA makes it illegal for U.S. state and local government entities to discriminate based on your HIV status.

Health care stigma

Even though doctors can help treat people living with HIV, discrimination is still a problem in some health care settings. HIV status discrimination can include things like:

  • Asking for extra payment
  • Refusing to treat you
  • Separating you from other people in the facility
  • Limiting time around people with HIV
  • Performing HIV testing without counselling or getting your consent

Some health care providers may make judgments about your behavior, gender identity, and sexual orientation, too. That can mean you might not be treated with respect.

Internalized stigma or self-stigma

Internalized or self-stigma is when you’re so worried about discrimination that you don’t seek the care you need. This can negatively impact your physical and mental well-being.

Internalized stigma can also affect:

  • How seriously you take your treatment
  • Your access to health care services
  • Your quality of life

Travel restrictions

Some countries also limit the time you can stay if you’re living with HIV. These rules depend on the country you live in.

The best way to tackle HIV status discrimination is to combat the root causes of stigma. Making sure services are accessible and inclusive is important, too.

If you’re living with HIV and want to ease the discrimination and stigma you could face, you could:

  • Become an advocate. Encourage policy changes that help people with HIV get the respect, housing, and health care they need.
  • Learn about your rights. In the U.S., federal law protects you from discrimination. It’s important to protect these laws, help others living with HIV understand their rights, and act on any violations.
  • Be open with people you trust. You don’t need to tell everyone about your HIV status if you don’t want to. But being open about it with people you trust can be a huge relief.
  • Educate yourself and others. HIV status discrimination and stigma are rooted in misinformation and fear. You can fight this by finding local organizations that offer HIV counseling, education, and testing. Your community public health department should be able to put you in touch with local organizations.
  • Get help when you need it. Research shows that strong social support can make you less likely to be stigmatized. Finding local HIV support groups can help, too. If you’re comfortable, consider volunteering your time and support to other people living with HIV.