Panel on Jews and HIV sheds light on lingering stigma

From left, Ryan Peck, Alex Klein, Jordan Lewis, Ron Rosenes, and Louise Binder JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO
From left, Ryan Peck, Alex Klein, Jordan Lewis, Ron Rosenes, and Louise Binder JODIE SHUPAC PHOTO

“Why, in 2016, are we still talking about HIV?”

That was the question posed by Justine Apple, director of the Jewish LGTBQ group Kulanu Toronto, in introducing a Jan. 14 panel on seeing HIV through a Jewish lens.

The discussion, held at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, marked the organization’s inaugural event examining the relationship between HIV and Jewish values.

The panel consisted of Alex Klein, a founding member of the Toronto HIV Primary Care Physicians’ Group, past chair of the Ontario provincial advisory committee on HIV/AIDS and a doctor who’s been treating HIV since the 1980s; Jordan Lewis, a social worker at St. Michael’s Hospital; Ron Rosenes, who’s been living with HIV for more than 30 years and is former chair of AIDS Walk; and Louise Binder, a lawyer living with HIV who’s been involved in informing health policy and treatment of the disease for more than two decades.

The panel was moderated by Ryan Peck, executive director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario.


Panelists primarily addressed the social, political and biomedical implications of HIV having evolved from being considered a guaranteed death sentence in the 1980s to what Peck called “a chronic, manageable illness,” due to sweeping medical advancements

They stressed the extent to which stigma and discrimination remain, and how these affect public policy, legislation and reaction to people with HIV.

“Nobody would say it’s a picnic living with HIV, but people do live long, happy, productive lives with it, and science increasingly demonstrates that newly infected folks can live more or less the same length as someone who’s HIV negative,” Peck said, adding he hoped the event would spark renewed Jewish commitment to HIV issues. He raised historical examples of Jewish involvement in the disease’s early days, such as Jewish activists being among those who agitated for medications.

He noted that many people living with HIV, even in Ontario, don’t have access to medications and that one in five gay men in Toronto are living with HIV.

He cited a 2012 survey that found 15 per cent of Canadians remain afraid of people with HIV and noted the stigma is evident in the fact that non-disclosure of HIV to a sexual partner is criminalized.

“HIV is essentially the only illness that’s criminalized in Canada, and people are being convicted for aggravated sexual assault… for engaging in behaviours that pose little to no risk of HIV transmission,” Peck said.

Rosenes spoke about the survivor’s guilt he’s experienced after losing many friends and a partner to HIV, and said that criminalizing non-disclosure “dampens people’s desires to get tested.”

Binder said women can be more vulnerable to the disease for social reasons, similar to people with less education and those living in poverty.

“I was living with a man who was a nightmare and I felt I should stay” to try to make her marriage work, she said of the ex-husband from whom she got HIV.


“Women are less well-educated, less employed, have fewer health benefits… they’re often afraid what partners will do if they get tested.”

Lewis said the stigma around HIV is “very real,” and that even though HIV has better clinical outcomes than a disease like diabetes, the shame around HIV can make it more devastating.

Linking the need for greater compassion and understanding of HIV with traditional Jewish principles like tikkun olam, Rosenes said, “The greatest challenge… and perhaps the greatest opportunity to apply Jewish values is around the area of stigma.”