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Heroes 4 HIV is a recurring month-long digital campaign and field day series on HIV Destigmatization initiated by our Community Solutions Fellow, Mutebi Bwakya. This campaign is centered on the experiences and triumphs of Queer and Trans people of color, with an intent on elevating and empowering all people living and thriving with HIV! The goal of the campaign is to highlight the natural resources we hold as a community and how we are sometimes forced to suppress this collective power out of fear and shame. It is about US! OUR stories, OUR experiences, and OUR thoughts on how to shift culture and #StampOutStigma. Together we will fight the battle of de-stigmatization and reclaim our voices, in order to internally and externally change the way we all think about HIV and people living with it. It’s about US as #Heroes4HIV! It all starts with a conversation. So, #LetsTalkAboutIt

Read on for Mutebi’s final thoughts on the inaugural campaign of 2016.

The Heroes 4 HIV Destigmatization campaign ran from the 1st to the 30th of November; experiencing a great deal of wins. To kick things off, I had the privilege of hosting Zina Age, CEO & Founder of ANIZ Inc., as a guest speaker on the 4th episode of SPARK Off! where we discussed the socio-economic effects of HIV stigma.

The campaign also saw the staff of SPARK going out into the streets of Atlanta for a field day to engage members of our community in one-on-one conversations. The enthusiasm exhibited by my support ‘KITS’, as I have taken to calling them, made the day a great success; these people being Krystal, Iman, Taylor & Shayla. We gave out stickers and wristbands, and interviewed a number of community members on their familiarity with HIV. We found that a great number of people still need a lot more education on HIV, its transmission and effects on society. Many people are aware of the existence of HIV but many more know close to nothing about its transmission, prevention measures, or let alone what facilities can provide care & support. This being said, stigma will be easier to eliminate if people are better informed.

 On November 8th, during the 2016 US Presidential election, I went out to a polling station to get an understanding of voters’ knowledge and perceptions of HIV. I primarily asked them what they knew about HIV and what bearing a presidential candidate being HIV positive would have on their influence to vote for such a candidate. Most people I asked informed me that they honestly would not vote for such a candidate because they wouldn’t want a leader who had health complications and was at risk of being incapacitated at any given time. I also asked whether or not some of these people would be in a relationship with someone who was HIV positive or even if they would stay with their current partner if they found out their partner was HIV positive. Almost everyone said they would never commit to this; with many stating that they wanted to have families and be safe, implying that these things were out of reach for people living with HIV.

This spoke volumes of how people in communities are unaware of current advancements in HIV therapy, including Pre-Exposure medication and prevention of transmission from mother to child. It also made me realize that society views people living with HIV as undesirable; people who can no longer be interacted with intimately. It was reinforced in me why people are so afraid of HIV; afraid to be victims of the very stigma they project onto others. Somehow this fear creates barriers to communication. Discussions around sex and the processes through which it can be engaged in have been isolated to islands of specific privileged groups of people; those living without HIV talking about it in their own space, independent of people who are HIV positive, who are often silenced and ignored.

There needs to be a great deal of deliberate interaction and discussion about sex and HIV among everyone in society. Information must be shared and made explicit to all in order create understanding and improve social cohesion. I hope that our campaign at SPARK helped to bring about some awareness and some change to how people perceive and respond to HIV, and that this will continue until we have equity & harmony.