[dropcap]S[/dropcap]tarted by Greg Owen, a U.K.-based advocate and writer, Equals=Equals is an anti-stigma campaign born out of the frustration that the world could be a kinder place and one that is more AIDS-aware and stigma-free. On Facebook and Twitter, posters have called him brave, but he demurs. “I really can’t take credit for being ‘brave.’ I’m just fighting back as much for me and my soul as for our positive friends and indeed our negative ones, too.”
Equals=Equals seeks to unite individuals across serostatus instead of pitting them in an “us/them” binary, laden as it has come to be with assumptions of morality and whose bodies deserve care and love. Shares Greg: “If we have something that’s positive, combined with something that’s negative, we neutralize that and they then become equal. And there in itself is a mission statement.”
Owen has turned to crowdfunding to help support the production and distribution of the “Equals” T-shirt. Wearing the T-shirt will help normalize conversations around HIV and allow HIV entrée into everyday situations so that it is accepted as a fact of life and normal. In particular, it seeks to defuse the “slut-shaming” of positive individuals so prevalent in some pockets of the gay male community. The campaign also aims to help individuals become educated about the importance of knowing your status and the new prevention science regarding PrEP and Treatment as Prevention through viral suppression. Requesting and wearing your free T-shirt is not limited to the U.K. Owen hopes that T-shirt-clad everyday people and celebrities alike will help enlarge the social media footprint of the campaign with selfies and groupies all over the globe.
A&U: Was there a specific moment that sparked the idea for the campaign or a straw that broke the camel’s back where you said, “Okay, I need to do something”?
Greg Owen: Yes, there were several straws and one tired ass camel! I suppose it was because I realised that there was sweet FA (Fuck All) that I could do about my life, as I knew it, being turned upside down and basically taken away from me. Losing my fiancé and my home because he shut down and couldn’t cope with his recent diagnosis and me remaining negative.
When I accepted that I couldn’t change that. I slowly then began to realize what I could change is the world that he now has to live in as “the positive guy.” Being at sex parties or just out socially and bearing witness to some of the vile, heartless, cruel, passive attacks and active bullying that the positive guys around me were dealing with regularly, on a daily basis, broke my heart a little bit more. And because my ex and I aren’t in touch anymore, it pained me so deeply to think that he was out there somewhere—alone, on the receiving end of that kind of unacceptable, archaic bullshit. Apologies for my colorful language—I’m Irish; we say it as it is.
What are the effects of HIV stigma, as you understand them?
HIV stigma and its impact, in my opinion, is the root cause of the continued rising spike in new HIV transmissions among those HIV “hot spot groups” that we are already aware of, i.e., gay men living in fast-paced urban areas. But we’re now seeing a rising spike in various other demographics, like heterosexual women in the fifty-plus age bracket. The reason I attribute stigma as being at the core of this is because we’re all conditioned to believe that none of us should even be talking about sex, even though all of us are having sex. Somehow, even admitting that you’ve had a HIV test implies that you’re somehow unclean, dirty, irresponsible and reckless or a biological danger to those you are and have been intimate with.
Why did you decide to focus on normalizing the conversation around sex and HIV for this social media campaign?
Unless we shock people into being desensitized to HIV we can’t hope to be able to encourage them to test regularly and make testing commonplace, without fear of judgment from others. The key here is that the people most likely to transmit HIV are those that don’t yet know that they’ve contracted it. Therefore, if we’re not testing regularly, diagnosing early, and treating effectively those most likely to pass on the virus, then we have no chance of tipping the scale on this alarming, seemingly relentless rise in new transmissions. Not many people know that we have the tools available now to actually make a huge impact in stopping new HIV transmissions. If you’re positive and on meds, taking them correctly and are undetectable, then it’s practically impossible for you to pass on the virus. In the same thread, those at high risk of HIV infection have access to/or soon will have access to PrEP….So the combination of treatment (for poz guys) and PrEP (for neg guys) is a no brainer!
Anything else we haven’t covered?
The last thing I want to say is that although HIV and the impact of HIV bulldozing its way into my life almost ruined me and pushed me to a suicide attempt—thankfully a failed one—I now feel like I, and we, are already winning! HIV screwed up my life, but I fought back with the help and support of friends, family and community. And I look at all the people this activity is already reaching out to and supporting and helping and I can see nothing but positive things! Excuse the pun! Taking ownership of HIV’s presence in my life has allowed us to start to claw back an advantage—even on some small level. For that I am very grateful.
When this first phase of the campaign is completed, Owen plans to roll-out two other phases, both involving on-line support strategies.
For more information, check out the “Equals = Equals” Facebook page. If you are interested in helping to fund the campaign, log on to: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/equals-equals-the-hiv-anti-stigma-campaign.