Anyone who has tested positive for HIV remembers the day that they first found out. Sept. 20, 1989, was a beautiful, warm, sunny day. I have this vivid memory of walking home from the doctor's office, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face yet feeling numb everywhere else. I threw open the door to my apartment, collapsed into a chair, and wept in solitude, ashamed that I had gotten it, afraid I was going to die, and, even though I was in a relationship at the time, worried that I would have to go through it all alone.
Not long afterwards, I walked through the doors of Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), an HIV/AIDS service organization in Chicago. There I discovered a group of guys (and gals) who were just like me -- most of them gay, all of them HIV-positive -- who embraced and accepted me for who I was instead of judging me for some virus I had acquired. I was given the information and support I needed to live a better and healthier life with HIV, and I learned to hold my head up high and not be ashamed of my HIV status.
I soon began volunteering at TPAN, eventually taking a job working with Positively Aware, the national HIV/AIDS magazine that TPAN publishes, and where I've been ever since, having now served as Editor-in-Chief since 2005. A lot has changed in the years that have followed, much of it for the better, such as improved treatments for HIV that are highly effective, much more tolerable, and which almost -- almost -- make HIV a chronic, manageable condition. But it's still a condition, you still have to take medication every day for the rest of your life, and there are still side effects.
There is still quite a bit of stigma associated with having HIV, much of it coming from members of our own community. It's a stigma that prevents people from getting tested because they are afraid of being seen entering an HIV testing site. It's a stigma that causes them to miss doses of their medication, or avoid taking it altogether, because a co-worker or family member might start asking questions. Some are too ashamed of even going to see their health-care provider or telling their friends that they are HIV-positive, because they might be judged for having put themselves at risk and contracting HIV.
So a few years ago, we at Positively Aware came up with the idea of A Day with HIV, an anti-stigma photo campaign that has begun to tear down the walls of shame and silence that surround HIV by showing that, even in the face of HIV, life goes on. On Sept. 21 hundreds of people, both HIV-positive and negative, will take a snapshot using their digital camera or cell phone to show what it means to live in a world with HIV. By coming together on one single day, we can build a virtual community of support and help raise awareness about HIV not only in our own communities but everywhere.
Last year people were very generous in sharing a moment in their "day with HIV." There is Velietta Dickens Rogers at her easel painting; a "pos" and "neg" couple kissing one another; Amber holding a day's regimen of HIV drugs in her hand; Dab showing off his "Dab the AIDS bear"; 2-year-old Philip, infected with HIV at birth, smiling into the camera; and the Rev. Andrena Ingram, a Lutheran minister, wearing her "HIV Positive" T-shirt at her church's annual conference. These are just a few of the images that, taken together, create a remarkable patchwork of stories about HIV, confirming what photographer August Sander once said: "In photography, there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated."
On Friday Positively Aware will host its third annual Day with HIV, and this is where you come in. Take a picture on Sept. 21 and go to www.adaywithhiv.com by Sept. 25 to submit your photo. If you're HIV-positive, it's OK, because you're among friends. If you're HIV-negative, that's OK, too, because by participating in A Day with HIV, you'll be sending a clear message to others that you've got their backs. Selected photos will appear in the Positively Aware November/December issue, and all of the submissions will be posted online. Remember, sharing your photo does not necessarily mean that you're HIV-positive, only that you care enough to want to make a difference.
One thing that I've learned in the 23 years since receiving my HIV diagnosis is that we're all in this together. I could never have made it this far without the help of others and the kindness of strangers, many of whom are no longer with us. They helped make my own "day" with HIV, and my journey through life, a little brighter -- and a whole hell of a lot less scary. Now it's your chance to do the same, by joining us on Sept. 21 and taking your best shot. Take a stand against HIV stigma and break the silence. In doing so, you will be offering a helping hand to someone else who might desperately need your support.
Because whether we realize it or not, HIV affects us all.
Follow Jeff Berry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paeditor