Black Voices: Having (and using) my voice to address stigma
My name is Patrick, I am a gay man of color, and I currently reside in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was diagnosed with HIV at a health department in Virginia on December 1, 2011, which happened to be World AIDS Day.
Turning my life into my life’s mission
From the moment I tested positive, I have dealt with stigma and discrimination. I dealt with friends saying they wanted nothing to do with me because of my new status. A person who I thought was my best friend said he would be there for me when I disclosed to him. That was not the case as he began to no-show on events, activities, or previous plans to spend time together. This made me feel unwanted and pretty much like I was transformed from a best friend to a stranger in just a 72-hour period. I turned to Facebook and YouTube to learn more about HIV and find someone to talk to, but couldn’t find someone I identified with. There seemed to be a lack of HIV-positive young people of color talking about what it’s like to live with the virus, so I started my blog, PozLifeofPatrickExit Disclaimer. I use this site to journal my life living with HIV and address other topics related to HIV, like stigma, disclosure, and dating.
In addition to my website, I am the Testing Coordinator at the rural community-based organization, Fredricksburg Area HIV/AIDS Support Services (FAHASS)Exit Disclaimer. Through my blog, work in prevention, and advocacy I hope to reach as many people as I can to bring more focus on HIV.
It’s so important that we have a voice.
Stigma and rural communities
When I started at FAHASS, I was briefed on the challenges I might face trying to recruit, educate, and provide prevention services like testing to the Black community in rural Virginia. But nothing could prepare me for the reality which was how people would react to me when they found out I was HIV+. “You don’t look sick,” was something I heard a lot. Staff working for years tell me that HIV-related stigma stops so many people, particularly in rural communities, from utilizing our services because so many people that test positive in our community don’t end up successfully linking to care.
I continue to hear that stigma prevents people from testing, disclosing their status or testing frequency, coming into our agency for prevention tools like condoms, or going to the doctor and asking for a prescription for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). Also, I’ve seen how stigma can prevent individuals who are either lost to care or newly diagnosed from being successfully linked to and remaining in care.
Engaging the community where they are
We work hard to educate and empower our Black community about HIV through outreaching to local colleges, community based organizations that serve our target populations, churches, and local health fairs. We have continued to work with the community through our Community Advisory Boards, asking clients for suggestions to better our services, coming up with additional opportunities to test, and working to engage and involve more young people of color. We have a mobile testing vehicle that we can use to reach more people in our service.
Having (and using) my voice
In my time at FAHASS I have tested and educated many young black same gender-loving men. Through our outreach and testing efforts we have tested more people who ended up being HIV positive, the majority are people like me, men under the age of 25.
As a person living with HIV, I talk to providers on what it’s really like to live with the HIV and help debunk myths or misconceptions, including information about PrEP and PEP. I also work with the providers about how to effectively work with the LGBTQ, HIV-positive, youth, Black, and Hispanic communities to provide them with the tools to meet them where they are at on a more personal level by sharing my story through my blog and videos. Because I am a part of this community, I can help normalize HIV and equip people with the knowledge to help prevent new HIV infections and get people into care.
By being so open about my status, I’ve been able to establish “roots”. Like roots on a tree, I have a strong system network of friends. Friends they now stand up for me. Friends that support me. Together we fight stigma. And they give me strength to share my voice and share my story.
We all have a voice and something to share. Will you stand alongside me? Will you share your voice? Will you help me to be part of the solution?