BET.com explores the lives of four people who are living with HIV and fighting on the frontlines to educate and empower their communities. While many areas around the country have seen declines in the spread of HIV, the infection rates in Atlanta, continues to climb. Meet four community organizers and health activists who are working on the ground to change that narrative starting with themselves.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn't halted Michael Ward's career and activism. Over the summer, the 29-year-old actor appeared in a virtual reading of the critically acclaimed play "one in two" by Donja R. Love. It's based on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s projection that one in two Black men who have sex with other Black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Ward is also the host of The Counter Narrative Project's "Revolutionary Health" YouTube show, discussing a variety of topics including his mental health struggles and his life since being diagnosed with HIV.
As our third HIV advocate, Michael Ward reveals how he stepped into this role of public activism after wanting to keep his own diagnosis completely private.
I stepped in as the host of Revolutionary Health earlier this year. It's been this incredible and exciting journey to be able to talk about all things related to Black men's health. We've spoken about intimacy during COVID-19. What does that look like? How do we protect ourselves by getting PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, a pill that reduces the risk of getting HIV) in the mail and online? We talk about sex toys. We've had physical exams. I've gotten a massage on air. We talk about so many things that affect Black gay men and Black men in general.
One of the things that we’ve talked about is criminal justice reform and decriminalization of HIV. They include laws that don’t really follow science which can totally change your life. For example, how do you prove that you have disclosed your HIV status to someone? A lot of times, when it comes to these laws, it just further perpetuates stigma for people living with HIV to see them as almost kind of a weapon or a threat to society.
The reality is I was scared to step into this role. When I was first diagnosed at 19, I knew no one living with HIV. My first thought was that I was going to die. I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as being undetectable. I felt like nobody understood me. I felt shame. I felt like I should have known better. I felt like I had failed myself and my parents.
I think about young people or even people my age and older who are diagnosed. Somebody just says you’re HIV-positive and sends you out into the world. In that split second, your entire life changed. There’s before the diagnosis and then there’s after the diagnosis. As a person living with HIV, I feel like I have a responsibility and a purpose because I’ve been there. Black gay men are so much more than HIV. I know that’s a big focus, but we need to ensure that we’re all healthy.
The flipside that’s crazy is, even now, there’s PrEP stigma. There’s this narrative that people on PrEP have riskier sex or just want to have all of this condomless sex. I honestly don’t know how we get to that place where we can say this is no longer stigmatized.
Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based entertainment and culture reporter who has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, GQ, NPR Music and Atlanta magazine
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.