I Want to See U Be Brave
With the Help of Other Women Living with HIV, Andrea Johnson Launches Red, White & U to Fight Stigma
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Jeremiah Page
Andrea Johnson, founder of Philadelphia-based Girl U Can Do It, Inc. (GUCDII), didn’t expect such an encounter last August at the DIVAS Simply Singing! kickoff in Philadelphia, where Sheryl Lee Ralph enlisted Faith Evans, Monifah, and others to mark twenty-five years of AIDS advocacy. Johnson had attended to pass out flyers promoting her own organization’s awareness initiative, the first annual Red, White & U HIV Anti-Stigma Photo Shoot and Campaign, which features stunning photographic portraits of women living with HIV.
“Oh what you think, I have HIV?” a young woman retorted when Johnson tried to hand her a flyer.
“No, we’re promoting a campaign,” Johnson responded.
“Why would you want women to come and show their faces? That’s something that should be kept private.”
Says Johnson, reflecting: “In 2015, I was so surprised to hear that. And I think everyone around me that heard it was surprised, as well. That ignorance in our community in regards to [HIV]—it all comes from fear, and because the person doesn’t know. Yet they are the ones who are more at risk than a person who has some education on the matter and can take an educated stance in regards to protecting themselves from acquiring HIV.”
At first, the longtime advocate was at a loss for words, flummoxed, stuttering, but after a quick plea to her Lord to help find the words to help the young woman, Johnson, who is studying to become a human rights attorney, took her aside for a “sidebar conversation.” “She was blown away once I told her that I was HIV-positive,” Johnson relates. She joked with the young woman in all seriousness, telling her: “‘I look good! You can’t tell me that I don’t look better than a lot of people out here! But you know what? I’m still a person living with HIV and this is how HIV looks. It’s no longer what you thought, or what your mom may have told you, or what your girlfriends are hypothesizing what it looks like. This is what it looks like. And for me to able to help to save you, I need to educate you, to make you more aware about what’s around you, so you’re not going to be blinded.’”
And that’s part of the aim of Red, White & U—to give people a different perception about living with HIV, particularly as a woman. Like Johnson on the day she met the young woman and came face to face with stigma, it’s about being brave, beautiful, and courageous. The women in the photos are celebrating life, making eye contact with the viewer, feeling fancy not forlorn. The glamour is strategic—it’s about remembering and healing, not forgetting and suffering alone. They are showing off a cosmic shift in self-esteem, not a cosmetic one. They are women living with HIV speaking for themselves; they are not “victims” to be talked about by others, in whisper.
The photos are only a first step in education. Johnson hopes that the photos, which will be distributed to magazines like Essence, Ebony, Latina, and Cosmo to prompt editorial coverage, will spark conversations everywhere so that people start to open up about HIV and ask questions. “If they don’t educate themselves, those stigmas are going to continuously happen,” says Johnson, who has worked in HIV counseling and testing, as well as education.
If people say these AIDS awareness campaigns are “too much,” Johnson has a response for them: “There can never be enough!” Not right now. Not while stigma and discrimination are rampant. Not while communities are hard hit. Not while individuals do not know the basics of transmission, or are still perceiving AIDS through the lens of the 1980s, when gay white men became linked with HIV to the exclusion of others, including women. Not while gender-based violence is driving the epidemic. Not while people like the young woman at the DIVAS kickoff feel that living with HIV means being singled out, morally humiliated, castigated, and punished.
By staying on top of their health and wellbeing, Johnson attests, people are living longer with HIV and realizing that different and multiple paths to empowerment have opened up. And some of those paths have been—and are being—paved by women.
“Just like a lot of things within our society, within our world, that impact women differently, HIV does as well. Women, for so long, we’ve been behind the scenes in so many ways. We’ve kept quiet in a lot of ways. And within the last, I want to say, ten, twelve years, we’ve started voicing ourselves in regards to saying, ‘You know what? We’re not going to stand for [what’s] going on. We’ve taken a lot. We’ve taken a lot of abuse. We’ve taken a lot of inequality. We’ve taken a lot from society.’
“I respect the women in the fight—in any fight, whether it has to do with HIV, inequality, women’s rights—because it’s something where you have to be brave, really brave and courageous to fight against systems that have been against you for so long.”
Finding one’s voice and changing the world for the better does not mean these straight-identified advocates are excluding men, notes Johnson. “We love our men. We really do. But we have to be able to take care of ourselves to continuously to help others. Because women are the nurturers of the world and everyone knows that, whether they’re white, black, pink, orange, green, purple, anything. We are nurturers by nature, and a lot of things do revolve around us. [However] we need to be able to take care of ourselves and be strong in ourselves and have that self-confidence, to tell ourselves, we can do anything that we put our minds to.
“Speaking as a woman, because I can only speak as a woman, we go through some serious hardships but sometimes I feel as though we’re put on the back burner on a lot of issues when we should be put on the forefront. I believe that women will be one of the groups that will bring the end to HIV and AIDS here in America and abroad. So we found our voice and we are working it hard. I respect organizations like Sister Love, Positive Women’s Network—USA, and all of the organizations out there stating that we will no longer be silenced about something concerning us and impacting us in a huge way,” shares Johnson, who is a member of PWN-USA.
An advocate for her whole life, Johnson initially started GUCDII to empower at-risk inner city youth and young adults. Two years later, after she acquired HIV in 2007, Johnson implemented an education, awareness, and preventative services component to help end HIV and HIV-related stigmas. The organization has grown and redefined its mission to provide comprehensive health and awareness education and prevention services for disadvantaged youths, young adults and families. She also hosts Real R.A.P.P. (Raising Awareness for Prevention & Protection) Radio Talk Show, whose broadcasts engage communities in a dialogue about issues that affect their lives, such as domestic violence, STDs, youth violence, homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse.
Her activism in part stems from personal experience, growing up in the neighborhoods of North Philadelphia, the “Badlands,” and being exposed to an environment where negativity threatened to overshadow nurturing. “It was horrific. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m going to call it like it is,” she states. She faced challenges, compounded in part by the death of her mother at two and an absentee father. Nurturing won out, however. Her grandparents were and continue to be her “saviors.” She thanks God for them every day.
“So with that firsthand experience and knowing what kids who are suffering hardships go through, then being able to work with kids that your city and other places consider to be the ‘worst,’ and being able to turn them around [so that they] become productive citizens of society was and still is one of my main goals for Girl U Can Do It,” she says, proudly listing their accomplishments. “We show our love through our actions. We don’t disable, we enable. To be able to say [to the world], ‘You were wrong about this child. Your opinions and your judgments and…biases were not something that should have been bestowed [upon them].” These youth, she attests, simply need love and to be shown the way. Her experiences helped her relate to them, and her own story became a way “to help them see that they are in control of their lives. Although we have bad things that happen to us, that doesn’t mean that that takes over us and we can’t change to become something better than what we came from. That’s the message I’ve given to my youth.…I love the fact that I have been able to take a negative in my life and then pay it forward to be something positive in the world, in the society that we live in today.”
Johnson knows deep down that her experiences living with HIV will help others, too. “I was very naive, as well as very ignorant to how HIV was and wasn’t contracted. My infector was also my abuser. I had a history of domestic violence, as well as contracted HIV from [being partnered with] one individual, who was ten years my senior and had had the virus for many years before he even met me. In our community, we have a lot of persons of that nature, but at the same time, accountability goes on both ends. I am free and able to talk about it the way I choose because the mistakes that I did make [I know now were] from loving and trusting someone…that I should not have even attempted to love. I use my life as an educational tool to help others.”
People are listening and taking heed, she says. And feeling less isolated. Until she came out about being positive and a survivor of intimate partner violence, Johnson had not realized how many people were affected by these issues, and also felt isolated. “When we are going through it, we all think it’s only happening to us until we open up our mouths and we speak and we talk and we hear about it,” says Johnson. She has realized, however, that not every woman can speak out for fear of reprisals—from loved ones, their community, their job. So Johnson adds their concerns to hers, and lets them know that support is there so that they too can “be that brave person to take that first step forward and say, ‘I need to make a change.’”
Red, White & U, launching in time for World AIDS Day, aims to create that environment where positive change happens. The campaign will partner with other organizations to hold evidence-based educational sessions and seminars and will circulate the message via media platforms, in print and on the Internet. Johnson plans on keeping the campaign active all throughout the year, as the various AIDS Awareness Days pop up on the calendar.
Describing the process of the photo shoot, she says, “We gathered women together that are commited to making a change, that are standing up and saying, ‘I am not fearful; I am not going to be stigmatized any longer by this. We need to show the world what HIV looks like.’” After she put the call out and received responses, she and a team of photographers, makeup artists, designers and stylists held photo shoots for women living with HIV in Philadelphia and New York City. (And she was overjoyed when all came together to work for free, more concerned about heartstrings than pursestrings.) From around the world, women submitted photos as well and these will form a banner backdrop, Shero’s in the Fight to End Stigma.
Her sister Monica thought up the name of the campaign and Andrea immediately liked it for she could see how it combined the science of HIV and the hope: “RED represents the BLOOD that flows within us ALL that will carry HIV if contracted; WHITE represents the FIGHTING T-Cells (CD4) that will fiercely try to prevent the infection from spreading in your body, despite the T-Cells being tricked into making copies of HIV; and U represents the way we will FIERCELY FIGHT and educate ourselves, TOGETHER, to bring an END to HIV and the STIGMAS that are associated with it.”
The portraits will convey each individual’s message and Johnson hopes the messages will inspire other women, show them they are not isolated, as well as decrease stigma and increase testing and engagement with care. The community needs to do its part too: “Don’t sit back and say, ‘Oh, we don’t know.’ Come out. Be brave. Learn something that can not only save your life but you can educate yourself to help save another life, so we can keep paying it forward, so if you know someone who said something that’s not true about HIV you can say, ‘No, honey, this is how it is.’”
She adds: “When something of this magnitude reaches your community, it gets your attention. When it reaches your family, it really gets your attention. My father died from AIDS. I had two very close cousins who died from AIDS. I can probably say, ninety-nine percent, that there’s not a person in this world who doesn’t know, has heard of, or may have someone within their family who has HIV or AIDS. That is both disturbing…as well as eye-opening. It should tell friends, families, communities, you don’t need to stigmatize a person who has this virus, especially as it is running rampant in our community….If you are not aware, you do more harm than good.”
Collaboration is key. “In order to bring anything to an end it’s going to take unity of us. For those of us living with HIV and for those who are not. Because [living with HIV] we can stigmatize ourselves as well. Then you have that on top of people who do not have HIV stigmatizing you as well; that’s like a double bubble,” she says.
“This campaign is not just to promote cute, and get pretty pictures. Red, White & U is meant to show, to encourage, to inspire, to educate, to motivate both parties, whether you are negative or positive. If you are negative, let’s educate you on how to stay negative. Let’s go get tested so you know your status and you know that you’re negative and you’re not just hypothesizing….
“And for those who are positive, educate yourselves so that you are better informed how to keep yourself healthy and keep yourself alive. And don’t go into the negative stigmas, that we’re going to die, bad things are going to happen. No!”
When viewers see the Red, White & U photos, Andrea Johnson hopes they will see what she sees: “These women are not letting their status stop them doing what they want to do in life: These women are mothers, in school, work in corporate America, are educators and community builders working on ground zero. They’re just human. We’re just humans living with HIV.
“We have HIV. I always call a person with HIV a ‘Human Involved in a fight to obtain Victory.’ Because that’s basically what you are once you realize that the HIV doesn’t stop you.”
A&U photo shoot make-up artist: Leah “GoGoLeopard” Exum; stylist: Jade Couture.
Andrea Johnson wants to thank those involved in the campaign.
Co-Coordinators: Monica Exum, Trudean Wright-Haye
Photographers: Jeremiah Page, Jay Stone
Makeup Artists: Leah Gogoleopard Exum, Andrea Hunter, Tomaka Ravenell
Hairstylists: Michelle Schofield , Gwen LeGrande
Fashion Stylist:Sharon “Jade Couture” Mctyson
The NYC Models are:
Patricia McNeill Shelton
Minister Antionettea Etienne
The Philly Models are:
Real R.A.P.P. airs every Monday night from 6 p.m.–8 p.m. on Spiritual Connect Radio (www.spiritualconnectradio.com). For more information and to learn how you can contribute to the cause, log on to: www.girlucandoit.org.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.