Speaking Up & Speaking out
Rev. William Francis Is Leading the Charge to Raise Awareness About Heterosexual Men Living with HIV
by Connie Rose
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n August 16, 2012, Reverend William Francis, CEO of Atlanta Faith in Action (AFIA), and lead servant at the AFIA Center based in Atlanta, Georgia, began holding one of the only Heterosexual Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day events in the United States. Since acquiring HIV, Rev. Francis has made his ministry a ministry of “zero,” where he believes that through faith and action there will be “zero” new HIV infections, “zero” injustices, “zero” hunger, “zero” homelessness, and so on. His mission and work through the church, his personal ministry (William Francis Ministries), and The Zero Campaign keep him busy as he addresses social justice issues such as HIV and health matters, discrimination, HIV criminalization and reform ideas, and increasing access to care, as well as quality housing, ending homelessness, domestic violence, hunger, and human sex trafficking.
Currently traveling the country, Rev. Francis is training faith-based and community-based organizations how to better address ending the HIV epidemic, drawing on his personal experience and knowledge of prevention, care, and other advocacy issues he has worked on as a consultant and ambassador over the last six years.
Another activity that falls under Rev. Francis’s mission is the building of tiny homes for the homeless, installing an urban garden and aquaponics system on their church’s property to help feed the community, and offering job training, mental health, and substance abuse programs through The AFIA Center. The AFIA Center provides several other public social services including HIV and STI testing, condom distribution, and linkage-to-care services.
This year the reverend is hoping to expand this grass-roots campaign into a national day of awareness so that the growing group of heterosexual HIV-positive men of which he is a part can begin to get the support and acknowledgment that they deserve. HIV-positive himself since 2009, William Francis noticed immediately the lack of support for straight-identified men within the HIV community. Heterosexual men from around the nation are chiming in on their desire to host an event in their cities and some of the men will be privately showing their support in any way they can to observe Heterosexual Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on August 16. While the collective voice of HIV-positive heterosexual men who have taken up this cause may be small, the numbers of heterosexual men affected by HIV are not. Where you find groups that have people with a common cause you will find that courage and bravery are not far behind. HIV-positive heterosexual men are one of the least talked about and most overlooked groups of people whose needs are being left untreated; they are very often being stigmatized within the very community that can help them. Instead of finding help and support, many of these men are finding blame, shame, and very few sources of empowerment.
With more than a month to go, however, there is still plenty of time for your city or town to organize a event and help Rev. Francis bring this plan of action to fruition. To date, various people and organizations are joining in to show their support in various cities in the states of Nevada, California, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. Currently, the CDC has very few statistics to offer for men who have sex with women (MSW); one estimated infection chart from 2010 states that out of 12,100 new HIV infections among heterosexuals, 4,100 of those were heterosexual males. Additionally, MSW are not part of PrEP campaigns yet they very well could be as there is time to get ahead of the problem.
Recently I discussed these issues as well as Heterosexual Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day with Rev. William Francis.
Connie Rose: Rev. Francis, would you tell us why you decided to organize this event the first year in your community and what is your hope for the future of this day of awareness?
Rev. William Francis: Heterosexual Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (HMHAAD) was started as a local event with a few groups of heterosexual men having open conversations about HIV. Last year, we were excited to get our first partner and held the event with several Bike Groups in the Atlanta Metropolitan area, where we were able to do HIV education, distribute condoms and do rapid HIV testing.
Our goal this year is to mobilize more men, in more cities, to form a National Steering Committee and begin to organize around a national policy agenda. The ultimate goal is to launch a social awareness campaign of our own, along with gaining national recognition of our own Awareness Day from the CDC and others within the HIV community as a whole. Not to single out our community or any other community but to make the community, whole.
The voice or should I say the silence of heterosexual men has been fueled by stigma, shame, self-stigma, ridicule, and, yes, even a permeated “sense of ownership” of HIV. There has been a missing link for far too long, and even an empty chair at the leadership table. Women and our MSM brothers have bore the brunt of this fight for far too long. Often fighting alone in the masses. But the time has come that our involvement will no longer be just a conversation. We want to uphold our responsibility to self, to our families, to our loved ones, to our brothers and sisters within the community. Realizing there needs to be many healing, tough conversations, realizations, and even some apologies that need to take place for us all to come together. Not to place blame or again point fingers at one another but to end this disease and all the “dis-ease” that comes with it. This “place” we must assume on our own—not ask permission, or by invitation.
What do you think the group of HIV-positive heterosexual men will gain as a whole from having a recognized day of awareness in their honor?
Our goal is simply to recognize a population underserved and often not even invited to the table. In doing so we are hoping to lift the stigma and self-stigma placed on and around heterosexual men and HIV. But the movement began to define itself around awareness, education, testing and care. This observance will push research and ultimately the “will” for a cure. It will have other men across the globe no longer feeling as if their stories need to be in the shadows. It will, in my opinion, have an even broader impact on HIV and its defining roles as did Magic Johnson’s announcement in the nineties.
This movement will be that conduit, the catalyst for that change. The change that moves us past just sexuality to mutuality and a commonality. This movement will move us past ambiguity and anonymity and back to humanity.
If your group could speak to every heterosexual man living with HIV and make a plea for him to step forward and stand with his brothers, what would you say?
Live in your truth. Live out your Destiny. We no longer need to stand in the shadows but together let’s walk into the Light. Together we can break the stigma and self-stigma and the need for the community to heal as a whole.
As I mentioned, there is a national conference call scheduled where we, as group of HIV-positive hetero male leaders, will discuss forming a steering committee and creating a national policy agenda to create interventions and target prevention efforts at heterosexual men. This agenda will also include expansion of needed services, support groups as well as targeted care and treatment options. We will also stress that “our” community wants to be inclusive of other communities because we understand the hurt—we just haven’t experienced the same pain.
Any final thoughts?
I want to give kudos to all of those that came before me….Their blood, sweat and tears have only cleared the way for something like this to even happen.
For more information, contact Rev. William Francis by e-mail at: [email protected].
Connie Rose acquired HIV at twenty-one years of age from her husband because she didn’t ask for an HIV test before they married and if he did know he didn’t tell her. Forty-one, Connie Rose is a mother and grandmother living in Las Vegas, Nevada, changing the world one blog at a time. When she is not writing for multiple ticket venues, including the Vegastickets website, she manages and writes for her own website, livingpos.com, an information and blogging site dedicated to the four H’s in the STD community. She also is an advocate in her local community and on social media. Follow Connie Rose on Twitter @Cricketlv.