HIV Equal: What Is It and Why Does it Matter?

March 26, 2014 in inQueery

hivequalphotoHave you seen one of those inordinately airbrushed photos of eccentric people around? The ones with the magenta background, and the subject wearing HIV= in bold pink letters somewhere on their body and wondered what it’s all about? Us too, so we did some investigating.

They’re ads for HIV Equal, a nationwide testing campaign and social art movement, which aims to end stigma over one’s HIV status. It’s the brainchild of founders, Thomas Evans, a NY based photographer, famous for his transgressive presentations of well-known members of the NYC LGBTQ community and Jack Mackenroth, a long-time HIV activist and (Season 4) Project Runway favorite. The two met while working at World Health Clinicians (WHC) in 2012, and the rest is history!

While the initial idea was to have a photo campaign which would “promote self-love, while fighting shame,” the direction shifted to one that focuses on the idea that “people from all walks of life support the concept that, regardless of one’s HIV status…we are all equally valuable” once pairing with Mackenroth, recalls Evans.

Of those photographed thus far, there is one whose participation has left many in the LGBT community scratching their heads. Former beau of designer Calvin Klein, Nick Gruber is a seemingly unlikely HIV advocate, especially given his controversial and potentially homophobic reputation. His inclusion confronts how the personalities, and in this case, also the faces used in public health PR campaigns can actually bring negative publicity to a meaningful project.

There are correspondingly positive representations, too, also from unlikely faces. Adult film star and porn’s newest “IT” man, Boomer Banks, also participated in the photo campaign. When asked about the importance of HIV/AIDS visibility, especially within the Porn community, he explained that “education and awareness benefit the industry” as a whole. This is especially true after January’s 2-week long national moratorium, which halted all porn production after at least four well-known adult stars tested positive for the virus.

Additionally, one cannot help but to notice when visiting HIVEQUAL.ORG, that there are there are hardly any photographs of women. This can become problematic for a campaign seeking equality, when, according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), women account for a quarter of those infected with the virus. While such statistics are factual, HIV Equal’s Chief Medical Officer, and founder of World Health Clinicians, Dr. Gary Blick affirms that, ”currently the most vulnerable demographic is young men”. “Data from 2010 sites that over 90% of new HIV infections are found in young men ages 13-34; HIV Equal appeals directly to that demographic”, he said.

Although the campaign has been widely praised, mostly for its commitment to HIV awareness, a disease that still disproportionately affects the LGBTQ community, clearly there are also its criticisms. The first surrounds the politics of representation and visibility, and the campaign’s claim to include “people from all walks of life.” It is understandable that the beginning stages of any venture are not without their hiccups yet when we are dealing with an issue as sensitive as HIV/AIDS, a second question to think about becomes: Can these hiccups, when collected and analyzed critically, actually suppress a message as meaningful as the one HIV Equal is conveying?

When contacted in reference to these matters, Mr. Evans pointed out that he has, “… photographed many different kinds of people: Congressmen, Senators, gays, straights, married people, single people, people of all body sizes, etc.” while reiterating that the initial focus was specifically on celebrities and eccentric people, “for the press to take notice.”

“We only launched a few months ago. Give us some time; we can’t wait to get to everyone!” he also said.

Regarding using Nick Gruber, Mr. Evans made no excuses for Gruber’s public provocations and gave the accustomed answer of, “any publicity is good publicity.” He also lent an alternative for Gruber’s participation: “…as for Nick, I thought he was a nice guy when I shot him. I think that he made some mistakes, ones that he regrets; he shows this by posing for HIV Equal.”

For those interested in participating, keep an eye on their website for upcoming event dates at college campuses and LGBT centers across the country.

Our condolences to the family and friends of Jovin Raethz, 37, from West Hollywood, CA, also featured in the HIV Equal Campaign, who passed away earlier this month.

Shannon Grooms is a Guest contributor at InQueery and a volunteer at the Pacific Center.