A drive down Lincoln Avenue in Venice Beach presents a banquet of visual wonders upon which the perusing eye may feast. From garage-barber shops to tattoo parlors, Indian cuisine to health food stores, Lincoln Avenue has many unique venues for locals and tourists, including Out of the Closet Thrift Store, a shop that works with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to gather funding for AIDS around the world. The bold blue and pink exterior of the store is topped with a giant muscle-man balloon that demands the attention of any passerby. Inside are the typical findings of most second-hand shops: racks of clothing, shoes, household items, and a haphazard array of books. There are also several idiosyncrasies unique to Out of the Closet: a rack of pamphlets on AIDS, a candy dish on the sales counter full of free condoms, and a tiny little room in the back for free HIV testing. While all proceeds from the shop benefit people with AIDS, it is the little office in the back that is involved in the personal, uncomfortable, and totally human aspect of AIDS work—testing.
Because of the stigma surrounding AIDS, there is much fear and shame involved in the testing process. To illustrate, I went into Out of the Closet knowing that I am not HIV positive. I know this because my husband and I have never been exposed to, or have participated in any of the risks that lead to infection. However, I experienced a great deal of fear and anticipated humiliation in getting tested. I put much thought into how I would ask for the test. I did not bring my eight-month old daughter because I did not want anyone to judge me, or suspect that my child was at risk. Such feelings from someone who knows they do not have AIDS are extremely telling for the rest of society. Testing is humiliating.
While my plans for getting tested were fraught with fear and shame, the personal encounter with the testing counselor washed all anxiety from my mind. It was at the back of the store, near the pants for men—the door was open, and a young man met my inquiring eyes with: “You want to get tested? It’s free.” I went inside, and he shut the door. He said that my husband could not be present during the test for confidentiality. As soon as I sat down, my counselor introduced himself—his name was Lorenz. Lorenz asked me a series of questions including whether or not I do drugs, have an STD, and if I had ever been tested before. He did not ask me anything about sexual activity, and later made the comment: “This is not a judging place.” Lorenz’s attitude and personal demeanor were such that any feelings of shame could not be experienced. He was kind, respectful, and walked me through the testing process with patience. Using an OraQuick Rapid Advance Test, Lorenz had me swab the instrument along my gums, and place it in a specimen tube. There was no finger-prick or any type of blood test. The OraQuick test looks similar to a pregnancy test, takes a mere twenty minutes for results, and indicates the answer with an easy to read positive or negative sign. Lorenz had me wait twenty minutes, brought me back into his office, and showed me the results. I tested negative.
An individual that needs testing for HIV will experience fear, shame, and a certain amount of humiliation. Unless the girl is in high school, or is involved in some other awkward situation, getting tested for pregnancy is not humiliating. Likewise, A person needing testing for cancer, or other degenerative diseases will of course experience fear, but shame and humiliation do not accompany the ordeal. HIV testing is unique because it is charged with cultural baggage and stereotypes. Yet, the person conducting the test has the power to dissolve the degradation of the patient. Where there is kindness, compassion, and an attitude of “this is not a judging place,” people are given back dignity and worth, no matter what their test result reads.
Here are some links if anyone’s interested: