I remember ordering the T-shirt. In big, bold letters on the front, it says, "No Shame About Being HIV +." I was so excited and proud of myself for thinking I could wear it. But thinking about wearing it turned out to be a lot easier than actually wearing it.
When the T-shirt came in the mail, I quickly tried it on and then put it away. Later that week, I packed it on an international trip I was taking, thinking that might be the perfect opportunity to wear it. During the two weeks I was overseas, I never mustered up the courage to don the T-shirt. I was traveling with strangers in a group and I kept telling myself that I didn't want to make them feel uncomfortable, but the truth is I was the one who was uncomfortable.
I'm very open about my positive status with my family and friends and, of course, with my online community of known and unknowns. I had no problem posting a photo of the T-shirt on my social media -- that was perfectly fine, due to the barrier between real life and online. It wasn't until a week after I returned home that I put the T-shirt on and decided to go work from a coffee shop in Manhattan.
Stepping outside after exiting the subway, I found myself walking in a straight line, not making eye contact with anyone. What I felt was beyond paranoia, as if everyone was looking at me. When I eventually did glance up and locked eyes with a stranger walking toward me, I noticed her read the T-shirt and then quickly look at me and just as quickly look away. Ok, I had done it. It was exhilarating -- as funny as that might sound. I continued to walk and experience the reactions from people I would possibly never see again. It was rather liberating. I kept walking and found myself in the middle of Times Square, as if the countless blocks I had walked up to that moment were a buildup to the ultimate moment of fear. By this point, I was more interested in reactions and my fear had, well, disappeared.
It's visual campaigns like "No Shame About Being HIV +" from Rise Up to HIV that help push me to be more accepting of my status. Being positive, I have to constantly disclose, or come out, each time someone new comes into my life and is worthy of the information. It could be a new friend I met, coworkers or just people I deal with on a regular basis who might just be getting to know me. Wearing that T-shirt is a powerful tool that can definitely provide a valid mindf**k, but also validate your internal feelings, while possibly allowing you to work through them.
In a couple of days, on Sept. 9, another visual campaign that I have taken part in for the past three years will be taking place. It's very simple, but also extremely powerful. A Day With HIV is an online photo-based campaign that asks those living with HIV to take a snapshot of their lives on a specific day, and submit the photo so that it can be shared, along with a description, on a beautiful website for the world to see. This year, in an effort to extend its A Day With HIV virtual photo-sharing initiative, Positively Aware and TPAN are working in partnership with Let's Stop HIV Together, an HIV awareness and anti-stigma effort of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The idea is to show that there are people everywhere around the world who share a common bond in status, but who are also just real people. A father and son at the water park, a barista at work, a musician playing a gig, or simply any regular person, doing any regular thing. Combatting the stigma that is all around the world when it comes to HIV is an uphill battle. Not everyone knows or understands what it's like to be HIV positive, and in an era where -- thankfully -- HIV is no longer a threatening death sentence, when controlled by medication and proper care, it's important to show those who might not know, that we are just like everyone else.
I look forward to this campaign each year because, to me, it's one of the most powerful photos that I can share online. Just like wearing that T-shirt for a day, this photo also serves as notice to anyone who may see it that I'm a person, just like them, and I'm surviving life ... just like them.
Follow A Day With HIV on its Facebook page, on Twitter @A_Day_With_HIV, or on Instagram to see updates and selected photographs from last year, and to share the campaign and its vision with your networks using the hashtag #ADayWithHIV.