Ending Stigma One Photo At A Time
I would’ve never imagined that my life would have ended up the way that it has. But there is certainly no turning back now. I’m an outspoken journalist and activist who gets to work with some of the greats in the field, telling my narrative and the narratives of other black people for various publications. The problem, however, is that with every story and new social media follower I got, I knew I was hiding a part of my life, afraid of what could happen if the public ever found out my truth.
I remember when I first started writing, I was hiding a secret about being HIV-positive. It was something that I struggled with, as I had to find a way of being a public figure in most spaces while trying to keep my private health situation just that: private. Watching the way scandals break, and being a person whose job it is to write about them, my greatest fear was that one day I would be this known public figure and someone would tell my truth before I was able to. Once a truth is told, it is hard to create the narrative around it that it properly deserves. People will make assumptions and create a lived experience about you that doesn’t even exist.
I remember the first time I caught criticism for my HIV status. It was right after I wrote a story about Simone Manuel and racism in swimming; a story that went viral. Although I didn’t have my status listed in my Twitter profile, it indeed said #HIV, primarily because I worked in the field and advocated on behalf of those in the HIV community. Before I knew it, my picture was being screenshot and sent around the Internet as this “HIV-positive” guy causing trouble. I was shocked, and hurt, but not broken.
I penned the first story about this experience for TheBody.com “How I took on trolls shaming My HIV status and short shorts,” and was able to tell a little bit about my truth. It was at that time, however, that I decided I needed to write my story before the opportunity was stolen from me. I followed that story up a few weeks later with my truth, unapologetically. From that story, my confidence grew and I knew what my mission would need to be going forward so that people who follow me and look up to me also knew they could live their lives without shame.
I now take pictures every time I go to the doctor’s office. Every single test I take for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hep C and whatever else; I show pictures. I most recently went back to my original doctor and got my normal labs drawn and a tetanus shot. I remember taking a picture and seeing my face and laughing because I’m a person who can’t stand needles. I also thought to myself about how far I’ve come that I let people into some of the most intimate moments of my life, in an effort to help others who are afraid to be tested or to live publicly with their truth to know that they can do it and not feel like they must live in the shadows.
Stigma is a bitch. It keeps people who are HIV-positive from going to the doctor regularly, out of a fear of being seen or someone finding out they are infected. It keeps people who are HIV-negative from getting tested regularly because of the perceptions of testing. My goal is normalizing healthcare one photo at a time. I always receive such great feedback when I go to get my tests and labs done. I’m always very transparent about what is going on with me, health-wise, as I see it as the breaking of a pathology of poor healthcare that tends to run in black families, though with good reason. It only takes one person living out of the shadows to bring light into such a dark place. HIV has been taboo for far too long in our community, and bringing a human side to the cause reduces stigma, and in turn reduces discrimination and the shame felt by those who are living HIV-positive.
I’ll probably continue taking pictures at each doctor’s appointment, telling a different story about my visit and spilling all my tea, so to speak. If this helps to get even one person to invest in their own health, then it’s worth it for me.