When Revealing HIV Status Turns Deadly

The Cicely Bolden case exposes the dangers women face when telling partners they're HIV-positive.

Cicely Bolden (via KVEO-TV); Larry Dunn Jr. (Dallas County Sheriff's Office)
Cicely Bolden (via KVEO-TV); Larry Dunn Jr. (Dallas County Sheriff's Office)

Violence and trauma can kill HIV-positive women, and not for obvious reasons. That same WIHS report found that HIV-positive women experiencing recent trauma were 4.3 times more likely to have their AIDS medications fail and 50 percent more likely not to be in medical care. Researchers cited a range of reasons, including depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, that became barriers to adhering to meds and seeking care, even if care was accessible and available. 

Naina Khanna, policy director at the Positive Women’s Network USA, emphasizes that domestic violence can also be in the form of emotional abuse specifically aimed at HIV-positive women, such as withholding their medication, not allowing them to attend doctor’s appointments or support groups and even threatening to reveal their status to others who may not know.

“A woman’s HIV status can easily be used as a tool for manipulation and coercion,” Khanna said. “Maybe her parents, her baby daddy or her landlord [doesn’t] know about her status, and so the partner holds that over her head — threatening to get the courts to take her kids away or make her lose her housing. This creates abusive situations, which, sadly, all too often turn violent.”

While the act of disclosure is extremely complicated, by no means is anyone suggesting that HIV-positive people should remain mum about their status.

But the key is for everyone, including HIV/AIDS advocates, to look at the big picture.

Many HIV/AIDS leaders boast that disclosing is empowering and can improve one’s health, but Dázon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove Inc., believes that this communal message needs nuance.

“We have to encourage disclosure in a way where we say that it has to be careful [and] prudent, and have conversations about where to tell and why to tell,” she said. “Because right now we have a serious dilemma. We are fighting against prejudicial and unfair HIV nondisclosure-criminalization laws [pdf] [that throw people in jail for not disclosing their HIV status to partners]. And yet the HIV-positive people we are trying to protect [would] rather go to jail and not disclose than be killed because they did.”

In the end, Bolden’s death is another tragic reminder of the constant fear and violence that so many people living with HIV/AIDS, especially black women, face on a daily basis in the United States — violence that is a direct consequence of the stigma and ignorance that HIV-negative folks create and perpetuate, yet are unwilling to own up to and admit is a problem.

“Cicely Bolden’s murder is, for women, what Trayvon Martin is for the black men,” says Dixon Diallo. “Another man is going to get off lightly or completely for killing a woman for disclosing her status, and in no day or any country should that be acceptable.”

Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is currently working on her M.F.A. in screen directing at Columbia College of Chicago. She also blogs about health for BET.com. Follow her on Twitter.