What It Means To Be HIV Equal
As a reluctant HIV activist, there have only been a handful of public messages about facing down the stigma of being positive that have truly resonated with me. Sure, there are many organizations putting out meaningful content with admirable intent, but their campaigns seem to often fall into only one of two categories.
They go a little something like this:
"If you are negative, take charge and save yourself before it’s too late."
"If you are positive, you don’t have to feel like garbage even though society may view you as such. Life doesn’t have to suck as much as you think it does."
As lovely as these campaigns may be, I was neither HIV negative nor did I ever allow myself to feel like garbage and I certainly didn’t care to listen to others talk about me being such.
This feeling of in-between led me to publish my first article on HIV, called “The Needle Prick: Reluctant Commentary of a Newly Positive 20-Something,” and many subsequent articles since. With titles like “HIV Positive, Unapologetic and Fabulous,” and “HIV Positive and Sexy as I Want to be,” I may have raised a few eyebrows. The titles were certainly salacious, which that was the point, but the material was always heartfelt and written with a very purposeful message. My intention was to wake up those who were a little wary of the usual HIV essay, both positive and negative, and force them to try on a new way of thinking about the virus. If baring a little skin and shocking your system to snap you out of a media haze was what it took, then someone turn the heater on because these clothes were coming off.
Still, I struggled to craft the exact message that I, myself, would want to hear. In the meantime, even though it seemed that many were moved by the content I crafted, others took umbrage with the nuance of my words. I kept telling myself that you can’t win them all, right? But then again, maybe you can.
After the first ten or twenty columns on living confidently with HIV were published, many newly HIV positive men began to ask me how do I do it. How do I not let the nasty sink in, marinating under the surface and poisoning my self-confidence? Or, to put it simply, how do I keep my head high in the dating pool?
Sure, I have been called all of the usual names: slut, skank, diseased whore, used up trash, so on and so forth. My personal favorite was the Queen of HIV (although I am sure it was meant as an insult, I still giggled and pictured a silly red crown full of ribbons). Several HIV negative and positive men accused me of trying to glamorize HIV, that I was delusional, and that my erroneous self-confidence was merely some sort of a defense mechanism.
As the calamity of insults ensued, pessimistic onlookers waited in anticipation for me to have my epiphany that I am, somehow, less than I was before. It was as if my detractors thought I was high on the drug of attention and once it wore off, the cold reality would set in.
I was angry, but not because I ever bought into any of this nonsense purported by my detractors. It was because I noticed that many HIV positive men silently nodded their head in agreement, resigning themselves to a lower notch than they previously held when they were HIV negative. Just like anything in life, something is only true once you agree to it. There had to be some message, some new approach that would help break this delusional ascending order to pieces.
It was then that my friend and mentor, Jack Mackenroth, a brilliant photographer named Thomas Evans and the team at World Health Clinicians came out with a new campaign and a name and tagline that seemed to read my mind.
It was called the HIV Equal campaign. The tagline; “Everybody has a status. We are all HIV Equal.”
It was simple, yet profound. At first, the obvious message may settle on the service. But after a minute of reflecting on what being HIV equal meant to me, it was the jumbling of words I had been struggling to find.
In the 50 or so essays that I have published on this topic, the rambling of words can always be reduced to a simple message. Some people struggle with addiction. Others battle an unhealthy body image. Many of us have struggled with poverty. Even more of us have experienced rejection. Racism still exists. Diseases happen to the good, the bad, and the various shades in between. But no matter how bad you may have it, someone can trump you.
To every newly positive man who looked at me with defeat, asking how I can be so confident while so many judge, we are all equal. To every long-term survivor that doubted if my steadfast determination to not let my diagnosis break my stride would last, we are all equal. And to every queen who scoffed at the notion that we were equal until he received a positive diagnosis, we are all equal.
Everybody has a status; short, fat, tall, hairy, selfish, depressed, bald, skinny, poor, rich, ugly, beautiful, HIV negative, shy, big eared, small hands, silly, serious, stupid, smart or HIV Positive. Whether you don these statuses with pride or with defeat, we are all a collection of the definitions that we wear. But we have at least two things in common. We are human and we are imperfect.
That is what it means to be HIV equal.