A gay man living on the streets, a pregnant newlywed, a full-time student, a former drug addict — all from different backgrounds, but all connected by AIDS.
More than a dozen people with HIV/AIDS are a part of “Faces of HIV,” a traveling exhibit by the Florida Department of Health to educate the public and break down myths surrounding the disease.
“People can see these faces and say wow, that looks like my brother or my uncle or my teacher or my child or my cousin and realize that people living with HIV are no different from people living with any other disease or anybody else that you might have in your life,” said Marlene LaLota, the HIV Prevention Program administrator for the state’s Bureau of HIV/AIDS
For years, LaLota and others were discussing how to combat the problem of not getting tested, or those who tested positive not getting treatment and staying on their medication. A common theme was the stigma of the disease.
More than a dozen HIV positive Floridians volunteered to tell their story, including a portrait, a video interview, and a diary to share with the public. The participants vary in race, gender, age, sexual orientation and location.
“Faces of HIV” officially unveiled at the beginning of 2012 in Tallahassee, and the exhibit has since traveled across the state, including South Florida.
“We want to make sure that we have as much diversity as possible,” LaLota said. “We don't want to perpetuate the myth that HIV is just a city disease or just a gay disease or a young person or drug user.”
Anthony Johnson, 43, is one of the volunteers participating in the exhibit. A community advocate and psychology student in South Florida, he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1995 at the request of an old boyfriend.
“When it came back positive, I went home, called him, he hung up on me. I called my mother, she hung up on me. I lost my family, I lost all connection with that support system,” he said.
Johnson also ended up losing his job and his apartment, leading to his living on the streets for months. He became suicidal, but with access to a community center and programs to help him, he was able to get back on his feet.
However, his battle didn’t end there. He developed dangerous side effects from his medication, including lesions on his skin and MRSA, a bacterial infection. Again, with help from local resources he was able to get through the trying times. It was because of his experience that he wanted to share his story.
“It's important to take control of what I can in my life,” he said. “The more people that are willing to share their story and share the faces, it will help so many other people.”
LaLota said the public’s response to the exhibit has been positive, with people poring over diary entries, watching every video, and some getting moved to tears.
While the exhibit works to expose people to the disease, it is also combating a sense of complacency that has seeped into society. While it is no longer the death sentence it was in the ‘80s, LaLota said she hears many young people have a blasé attitude toward the disease, that it’s one that can be cured with a pill.
“That is a very important part of our message, that yes, you can live a long and healthy and productive life, but it's not a picnic either,” she said.
Visit WeMakeTheChange.com/faces to learn more about “Faces of HIV” and to see photos, read diary entries, and watch videos.Christiana Lilly