Just*in Time: May 2017: So You Want to Be an HIV Activist

by Justin B. Terry-Smith

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So, you want to be an HIV Activist…

Photo by Don Harris © Don Harris Photographics, LLC. All rights reserved.

There are several things that you should be aware of or put in place so that you can become a HIV activist. When I became an HIV activist I had to keep in mind that there are different ways for one to become an HIV activist. There is a virtual activist, who is more of a present-day phenomenon; this kind of activist uses social media such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to spread their message. There is the more traditional activist, who will organize a protest in numbers and bodies to put up picket signs and yell slogans. In this country and world, we need both and more allies to join causes even if it doesn’t affect them directly.

1. Think of the question “why?”
Why do you want to be an activist? There is a thing call passion, and most of us have it. What are you passionate about? There are many aspects of HIV that one might feel passionate about. Whether it is HIV policy change, HIV funding, prevention, awareness or education—all are needed in this fight.

2. Research.
Once you figure out what part of HIV activism appeals to you, do your research on it. You have all the resources at your fingertips. Anyone can use Google to research subject matter on HIV, but there are better ways to get the latest news on HIV. Go to an HIV organization or health agency and sign up for their newsletter. Make sure that the agency does its fact-checking and that their news is accurate.

3. Talk to people.
Hey, I have a good question if you are not positive yourself: Do you know anyone who has HIV? If you don’t now is the time to meet someone living with the virus. Talk to a person who has HIV and find out the challenges on what it means to be HIV-positive: how much their medications cost them with or without medical insurance; the big issues that are paramount to them.

4. PrEP or Condoms?
One of the biggest issues that HIV activism has recently faced is whether to advocate for PrEP or still stick with condoms. I, for one, advocate for both. I prefer PrEP but I also understand that condoms are acceptable as well. Condoms prevent other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while PrEP only prevents HIV. PrEP can be used by anyone who is negative, but it has given men who have sex with men (MSM) a new and revived sexual revolution, a reboot of the one that had been stilted by AIDS. There are pros and cons to both; it’s up to you to figure where you stand.

5. Street smart or book smart?
One of the biggest issues in activism is being well educated on the aspects of HIV. There are activists who have never gone to school to receive a higher education degree and they do not have to. Being educated on recent issues is very important, but one does not need a degree to understand what is paramount to the HIV community. But I will say that having a higher education degree can give a person more power to have the ability to travel into the different areas of HIV activism.

Remember, these are just five things you need to think about before becoming an HIV activist. There are many more things that come along with being an HIV activist. Please remember that being an activist is important to any cause. Representing an underserved community is often hard, especially when you, yourself, are a part of that community. Think about the people who you are going to help in the future because of what you are doing. Many individuals say to me, “Nothings ever going to change.” I say, “Nothing ever changes for people who don’t bury their head in the sand to what goes on around them.” Since you’re not doing anything to make a change, stop complaining about how nothing changes.

Good luck, and see you online or in the streets!


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].