My journey to Atlanta last weekend was an enjoyable and enlightening one to say the least. I was attending the Atlanta Leather Pride festivities that included the Mr. and Ms. Atlanta Eagle contest. Like most leather events I’ve attended in the last two years, the event also was raising funds for Mr. Friendly, the new face of HIV awareness.
Founded in 2008, David Watt set out to make a symbol that would let people know that he was HIV-positive friendly and willing to have open discussions with anyone about HIV. His smiley face with a plus sign for a nose and a minus sign for an eye was born. Mr. Friendly has now swept across the country, with many cities starting their own Team Friendly organization to help David spread the word that no matter if you’re positive or negative, “we are all in this together.” Atlanta is one of those cities.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta has the sixth highest population of persons living with HIV/AIDS. Team Friendly Atlanta Co-Chair Dylan West told me that Atlanta is “historically not the most accepting area” even inside the gay community.
“We have found that even within the LGBT community in Atlanta, which is very tight knit, there were massive stigma issues relating to HIV,” West said. “There was and remains to be a massive need for groups like Team Friendly Atlanta, within the LGBTQ community, and especially in other communities.”
I can attest to those stigmas. It hurts when I see a profile that says “drug, disease free you be too” or “clean only.” The only thing dirty about me is my sex. Dylan told me of instances of doctors discriminating by putting biohazard or caution symbols on patient’s folders. Instances like that can only influence a worse stigma.
Team Friendly Atlanta works out in the community to try and put an end to HIV stigma. By making themselves available for discussion, they aim to change people’s attitude toward HIV.
“Our goal is to take the message to the public, working in bars and at events to start real, one on one conversations about the reality behind HIV, and how they can work to become HIV neutral themselves, “ West said. “Our group is working towards this goal by initiating conversations in the public and not behind desks in an office.”
Wouldn’t that be great?
Instead of identifying as HIV positive or negative, we could all eventually just identify as neutral. I think with more groups like Team Friendly Atlanta that might be a distinct possibility. I’ve said I wish people could see that HIV isn’t what is used to be. Yes, the virus is evolving, but medicine is doing its job to keep up with it.
Should we do the same?
“We are no longer in the days of HIV as seen in Rent, and towards the beginning of the epidemic,” West said. “HIV/AIDS has evolved, it is very possible to lead and live a healthy life with HIV.”
He’s right. I do it. Millions of people all around the world do it. Mr. Friendly has started a conversation that it doesn’t matter what your status is as long as you’re willing to be open and honest with people about it.
Said West: “HIV should never be used to define a person.”