I was once labeled the “accidental activist.” I had no real plan or vision when I decided to share my HIV status on my social pages back in 2018 – I just let my fingers do the talking after a jolly Friday afternoon happy hour with friends at an LA bar.
After a few rounds of vodka martinis and a picture that was taken by a friend of me wearing a t-shirt from the online social account The AIDS Memorial (in which I thought, for once, I looked, somewhat ok) I decided to post my personal story to my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Most of my close friends knew at that point that I had been living with HIV for almost ten years, and outside of that universe, who would really care? Sure, I was sometimes on K-ABC in Los Angeles through their entertainment brand “On The Red Carpet”, but outside that, no one cared who I was or watched what I did… or so I thought.
Overnight my story went viral.
Minutes before I decided to talk openly on social media about my status, my best friend implored me to “not do anything stupid” as he closed the door of my apartment and left for the night. Little did I know that by speaking my truth, the next morning all the world would know my business! Headlines from publications like The Hollywood Report stated “ABC Correspondent Reveals He’s HIV Positive”. The Daily Mail was quick to tell everyone, “ABC red carpet reporter, 37 reveals he’s HIV positive.”
Who knew? Who cared? Why did they care? How did this become a story?
My story went national.
Friends across the country in the news business didn’t understand why this was even a news story. Frankly, neither did I – I mean who am I? But to my friends not living with HIV, the question was why is HIV still relevant? Don’t you just pop a few pills and you’re done with it? HIV hasn’t been a big story since the advent of ARVs. Before that, it fit perfectly into the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads.” But with good therapies it just wasn’t, dare I say, “sexy?”
The silence surrounding HIV and lack of information was so profound that it took me sharing my HIV status to learn about Undetectable Equals Untransmittable! If I was virally suppressed to the point that I was “undetectable” then I presented ZERO transmission risk to a sexual partner. I had lived with HIV for almost 10 years at that point. I was educated. I went to the best doctors and yet, I had no idea what U=U was. Those two data points lit a lightbulb in my head.
I wasn’t looking to become a “voice” in the HIV/AIDS fight. But my revelation sparked a discussion about HIV. In a few short months my life would go from being an “ABC red carpet reporter” to the “accidental activist” on the cover of major LGBTQIA publications, talking about it nationally on ABC and NBC. And then it went away – but I knew it shouldn’t / wouldn’t / couldn’t. That’s why I created +LIFE media – to keep the conversation going and to fight stigma.
Fast forward a few years… Plus Life Media, or Plus Life as it’s now known, is a recognized go to brand online for people living with, people curious about, or people who know someone who is directly impacted by HIV. We talk to EVERYONE about HIV. What it means to live with HIV, what an HIV diagnosis looks like, how you can protect yourself against HIV and most importantly, to show that world that just because someone my have those three letters and a symbol next to their name, it doesn’t mean that life is over. That the ability to love, or have sex or smile or feel good about yourself doesn’t end with a diagnosis. In fact, if anything, perhaps HIV can be something that helps you turn your life around and helps you start living the life that you were destined to live; with grace, humility, humor, compassion, love and any other feel good adjective you throw out there.
Over the last twelve months or so, I’ve come to realize that being an accidental activist can put a target on your back. Stepping out, speaking up, and living your truth with the hope that it encourages others to take a moment and consider what HIV means in this day and age, can be met with a wave of anger, jealousy, and hostility that this “accidental” activist wasn’t ready for. And it isn’t just from outside the “community” of those living with HIV and fighting against stigma. I feel it from inside the community as well.
At one fundraising event, the head of another media company introduced themselves as “the enemy.” I was taken aback, there are no enemies in the fight against HIV stigma because we are all (or should be) in this together.
When we (and I mean that as a collective of people who are living with HIV) are all fighting for the exact same goal, I don’t understand where the attacks, the hatred, the vitriol comes from. Aren’t we all working towards the same thing?
I look around and see different groups of people living with HIV, fighting for pieces of the pie and I wonder, can’t we all sit and share it equitably?
Those who have gone through trauma know that no two traumas can or should be compared. My trauma is deeply wounding to me as yours is to you and those wounds don’t need to be compared. But they can be healed if we stand together.
Instead of accusing each other of wrongdoing or missteps and kicking while someone is down– let’s lend a hand to those who trip, let’s educate those who misspeak, let’s fight ignorance with knowledge. Let’s find a way to be one community standing together to fight as one.
Let’s come together and take all the things that make us different, special, unique, angry, passionate and use them as a concentrated force to end HIV stigma, to push for medical equity for all and to talk about what it means to be living with HIV during this time.
Imagine, if we took all that negative energy and turned it into a joint task force that continued to push for reform, social justice, equality, and education what we could achieve now. Fuck waiting for 2030 or any of these sexy timeline goals.
Many people, including the great Elton John, have said over and over… and over…. we have the tools to end HIV right now!