D. Paul Gordon was known for his sweet potato pies. But when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 many of his friends stop requesting them.

Because of their reaction, he hid the illness from his mother for five years. “She always equated being HIV positive with life style and would probably say you get what you deserve,” said Gordon, 41, who was among several hundred at the second annual International Conference on HIV Stigma , held at Howard University on Thursday.

The event coincided with World AIDS DAY, bringing together medical professionals, international HIV/AIDS activists and Miss America 2010. there were break out seasons on topics including religion spirituality. A constant theme was the struggle for acceptance.

“I wish I could have educated my mother more before I told her,” said Vanessa Johnson, a District lawyer who HIV positive. Johnson was diagnosed in 1990. “When I told her, she started having chest pains and family members had to take her to the hospital.”

Karen Reynolds, of the District, said she could relate. She is a peer mentor with the National Association of People with AIDS.

“On a trip to South Carolina, I got sick and had to go to the hospital,” she said. “The doctor assigned to be my doctor stood in the doorway and never examined me. He had other people come in and touch me, he talked to me from a distance, to me that is stigma.”

Howard University pediatrician Sohail R. Rana said there have been medical advances in treating the disease but negative perceptions linger. “Stigma is a virus that is worse than HIV,” he said.

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