When Chris Richey and Scott McPherson met in Los Angeles, they discovered that they were both passionate about the same issues. One issue was HIV/AIDS stigma. They dreamed of an organization to counter such prejudice, but were told that they were too young to be taken seriously. This compelled them to prove their detractors wrong—and they did!
In 2012, they began The Stigma Project (TSP). Its undertaking is to globally eliminate HIV/AIDS stigma through social media, advertising, and pop culture.
For Chris, the mission was very personal. Diagnosed with HIV in 2010, he encountered what he calls “pozphobia.” He was rejected by new boyfriends, turned away from two Los Angeles dentists, and suffered the dehumanizing experience of being used by an AIDS organization as an example of the consequences of reckless behavior. Scott, former creative art director of two magazines dedicated to LGBT coverage and HIV/AIDS, respectively, was not only disturbed over the countless acts of discrimination directed at those with HIV, but he personally witnessed the venom directed at Chris. Says Scott: “Eventually when Chris disclosed to me, it wasn’t such a scary thing to me anymore and I knew he needed support. Yet I’d witness our friends say rude and completely untrue things around Chris that I felt like I needed to scream the truth just to get their attention. I guess, in a way, that’s what we’re doing now.”
At the end of April, TSP had their first fundraiser, which pulled in $20K. Their first official program, the TSP Library will become available this summer. It will contain a database of visual assets including all of TSP’s ads, cheat sheets, and infographics in various sizes and resolutions. Their inspiration and their organization’s heroes activist Peter Staley and the men and women of ACT UP. “They paved the way and continue to play a pivotal role in the fight to end the epidemic,” says Chris. And, Scott adds: “I think anyone who has the courage to be completely open about his or her status is a hero. They are doing something very powerful in ending stigma: they’re educating by living openly. They are the knights in shining armor.”
Scott, twenty-eight, and Chris, twenty-nine, are both single (Scott: “Thank you for assuming we’re not a couple.” Chris: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”). Chris hails from a conservative Texas town, while Scott was raised in Miami. Each of the two entrepreneurs considers his mother as a role model, and both guys are loving pet owners. “Butler” is Scott’s cat, and Chris’s dog is “Boss.”
Dann Dulin: Say something about your pets.
Scott McPherson: Butler has the personality of a dog and greets me at the door every evening.
Chris Richey: Boss is a boxer and he’s…the boss!
When did you first hear about the epidemic?
Chris: I was in church. I was about eight years-old. A man was telling a group of high school kids that AIDS was God’s cure to homosexuality. I just remember thinking, “God is good. Why would he make someone so sick?” That still shapes my perception of the disease.
Scott: Growing up in Miami and being born only a year after the discovery of HIV, I’ve always been aware of it.
Were you taught HIV-prevention in high school?
Scott: I took a few health classes where we discussed sexually transmitted diseases for about two days and HIV/AIDS was lumped into that mix. All they said was that it’s deadly, and the best way to prevent it is not to have sex.
Chris: Being raised in East Texas, it was your PE teacher or your football coach who taught sex education. We were told, “Don’t have sex, and you won’t get pregnant and you won’t get STDs.” Abstaining from sex until marriage was the only option.
Have you lost any friends to this disease?
Chris: I lost a friend to AIDS in 2010, the year I was diagnosed. His death came as a huge shock to his family and to all of his close friends. He was unaware that he had been positive for at least eight years. He died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-one. I was devastated.
Scott: I have not lost any close friends to AIDS, but I remember being told the story of my gay uncle, who died mysteriously in 1985, just before I was born.
Chris, would you like to share how you were infected?
Chris: In 2009, two things occurred: I graduated from college and the stock market crashed. After spending about six months looking for work, despite so many promising leads prior to the economic crisis, I went through a spiral of depression. This eventually led to my crystal meth habit. For six months or more, crystal meth, GHB, bathhouses, and anonymous sex was my life. Finally, I snapped out of it. Sometime during that period I contracted HIV. But why harp on the past?
How’s your health today?
Chris: My health is excellent. It’s never been better. My T-cell count remains steady at 1,800 and I have an undetectable viral load.
Chris: First and foremost, remember that you are not alone. There are resources to help you and people you can talk to. Don’t keep all your feelings bottled up. Please talk to someone. Secondly, see a healthcare provider and make sure you find one that you trust. Your relationship with your provider is crucial to the journey forward. Lastly, go get some ice cream and take a day to think—never stop enjoying life. You’ve got a long one ahead—make time for the fun stuff.
Establishing an organization is not an easy task. What motivated you?
Scott: The motivation came after I saw the way Chris and I worked together, what we were able to produce so quickly, and the influx of support and positive feedback we received. That’s when I knew that together we had an opportunity to make a difference. As the organization grows, so does my motivation.
Chris: It came after the internal stigma I felt in that first year after my diagnosis. It made me sad to know that a community so affected by HIV in the eighties and nineties could be so out of touch with the epidemic. I was more motivated by talking about HIV to my friends and subsequently they were better informed, much like the idea behind Harvey Milk’s advice, I’m paraphrasing: “Come out, come out, wherever you are. By knowing us, people make a personal connection and they learn more, and are more likely to care.”
Scott: As a sexually active gay male, it’s my responsibility to care. I take PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis, a prevention method] every day. Also I have some close friends who are HIV-positive and I’ve met so many amazing and inspiring new people through this organization. This community has welcomed me with open arms and it’s a part of who I am now. I don’t go a day without saying those three letters [H-I-V] a dozen times.
What can a concerned citizen do to help with The Stigma Project?
Scott: Earlier this spring we became non-profit. After two years without a budget, we finally can receive tax-deductible donations. We need funds to get our ads on billboards and on television. One can contribute on our Web sites: www.thestigmaproject.org or www.tsplibrary.com. Another way, which is equally important, is to spread the word through social media. Encourage people to “Like us” on Facebook, even if they’re negative—especially if they’re negative. We have a long way to go but we’ll get there!
What would you say is the the number-one cause of HIV stigma?
Chris: There really is no one cause but you could sum it up with the word, Perception. The perceptions people have of themselves and others, changes the way they interact, socialize, communicate and ultimately, the way they view the world. This is very true with people who are HIV positive who often, due to perceptions and public opinion, are victims of rejection and denial. They are discredited, disregarded, undervalued, and are put at a distance socially, which more often than not leads to their isolation.
Scott: I don’t think there is a single cause either. It’s the result of a lot of things that have come together over the last thirty-two years. If I had to pick something that I think has had the biggest influence on HIV stigma, it’s the lack of education and understanding among HIV-negative people, and their lack of caring to become more educated and informed, or, as Chris said, perception.
How do you see HIV today as opposed, say, to five years ago?
Scott: We’ve come a long way even in two years. But in the past five years we’ve been able to successfully turn HIV into a manageable disease. The downside is that everyone who wasn’t directly affected by it forgot about it. The evening news stopped talking about it because fewer people are dying. There was this false assumption that HIV was a thing of the past—and that obviously has played a role in the steady increase in infection rates.
Chris: Personally, five years ago I thought I knew all there was to know about HIV. I had positive friends and I was pretty up-to-date on the latest information. That said, I was still terrified about getting infected. I wouldn’t sleep with someone who was positive. I asked people questions like “Are you clean?” I also felt that regardless of what I knew about HIV, if I were to get it, my life would be over. Today, I’m a lot more knowledgeable and [he pauses]…my life is definitely not over.
Any other comments, you guys?
Scott: I just want to say thank you for all of the wonderful and encouraging e-mails and messages we get daily from people telling us their story and how much our work has impacted their lives. We may not respond to every single message, but we definitely read each and every one. If it weren’t for that kind of support and belief in our organization, who knows where we’d be right now. So that’s all. Now let’s get to work.
Chris: What he said….
For more information about The Stigma Project, log on to: www.thestigmaproject.org.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.