When Your HIV Advocacy Gets Amplified

My Face on Billboards
What happens when your HIV advocacy is suddenly thirty-feet high?
by George M. Johnson

Back in mid-March, I was walking to the train station as I do almost every day and felt like people were looking at me. Granted, I live in New York City so it always seems as if someone is looking at me, but this time it felt different. It felt as if people were trying to figure out who I was, like they had seen my face before but couldn’t quite place it. I brushed it off as just one of those days. Little did I know, my neighborhood would be seeing my face a lot more, and I would have to learn to navigate within my corner of the world.

It was during this same week that the NY State Health Department launched its newest “HIV Stops With Me” campaign. It was the first campaign of which I was a part, so I was very excited to know that I would be on promotional videos, cards, and have the ability to do even more HIV work in the community I live in. When I arrived at the event, I met up with several other spokesmodels—all full of excitement as it was the first time we were seeing how our ads and promos turned out.

I struck up a conversation with one of the models, who asked, “Did you see your billboard?” Dumbstruck, I responded, “What billboard?” Unbeknownst to me, my billboard had been placed up at a main location in the Bronx. Granted, billboards were a part of the campaign but I was under the impression that the campaign launch would be the event that started the dissemination of information. Either way, I was very excited about the start of the campaign, and the attention it would bring to the cause.

The next day I posted a pic of the palm card with my face on it, which did very well on social media. A lot of people were proud of me and that I chose to be a face of the virus with the hopes of helping others. I posted how there was a billboard of me in the Bronx as well when I got another shocking response. A friend from college who lives in New York City said, “There is also a billboard of you in Brooklyn.” Now I’m nervous. It was one thing to think that my face was in a borough over an hour away, but the fact that it could be in the same borough I live in brought about a new anxiety.

That night, a friend sent me a pic of my billboard in the Bronx, while my other friend sent the pic of the one in Brooklyn. When I saw the photo, I immediately knew where the billboard was. Two blocks up and a half-block over, my face on a thirty-foot-high billboard on one of the busiest streets in Brooklyn. It explained all the looks I had been getting recently. It was a moment of fear, joy, and the culmination of all the things I had worked for.

I remember when I first signed up to do the campaign, I thought through a lot of different things. What would my friends say? What would other close acquaintances say? What would people with whom I’ve had sexual encounters say, and was I really ready to have all of these conversations? Would being such a public figure living with HIV affect my dating life and social life? There is so much more that goes into this work, all of it very panic-inducing at times. However, I also knew the importance of breaking the cycle in our community. That we need more people who have platforms and the ability to reach a wide market of people speaking out as HIV-positive activists. HIV is still an epidemic for the Black community and it takes more familiar faces to be a part of the cause if we are ever going to see a change in the narrative.

Fear though is a very real reaction when you become the face of a campaign. You are literally taking on all the stigma, shaming, and discrimination that could come from people who don’t understand HIV, and continue to hold it against you. It is a scary thing to see your face so big every day and wonder what people are thinking when they see you in person. You never know what a person is going to ask you once they place your face with the HIV ad, whether they will get a little bit too personal with the questions or if they just appreciate that you are trying to help their community.

For me this campaign is more than about getting a paycheck. It’s about more than having the opportunity to do speaking engagements and throw events. It is about taking the power back from a virus that I thought was going to take my life when first diagnosed. I now have the opportunity to help a lot of others, and in turn use my voice to save a lot of lives. HIV Stops with Me, and I truly mean it.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.