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    Proudly Presents Speak Out

    Speak Out, a new campaign that hopes to bring HIV out of the closet for bisexual and gay men, recently held a reception at Blush Wine Bar in the Castro.

    Supervisor Scott Wiener, Vincent Fuqua from the San Francisco Department of Public Health AIDS Office and many others came to meet the campaign’s featured men, who shared their personal stories with the Bay Times.

    Bay Times photographer Abby Zimberg was among the attendees who later went to the Castro Muni Station for a viewing of posters and informational panels featuring the Speak Out logo that declares, “What You Say Matters.”

     

    CHADChad

    When Chad moved to the Bay Area about a year ago, it profoundly changed his life. As an HIV-positive man, he saw the move as “an opportunity to be honest about telling people about my status.”

    An emotional sense of freedom was matched with community action when he became part of the Speak Out campaign. “It’s an opportunity to come together with other gay and bisexual men and talk honestly and talk real about HIV,” he says. He believes communication is a key part of both reducing stigma and preventing infections, especially because not discussing HIV status with a partner contributed to his own infection.

    A grantmaker at the Corporation for National and Community Service, Chad says he’s glad to commit off-work hours to Speak Out. “This is a chance to lend my name and voice to a cause larger than myself,” he says. “We need to get a handle on HIV.”

     

    ANDREAndre

    Andre is an African American gay man who is outspoken about the challenges facing the gay community. He is acutely aware that being so vocal makes him, and his partner who is also African-American, a rarity.

    “Most gays in African-American community aren’t out to the point where want to be on a billboard,” he says. In fact, the pressure to stay silent means sometimes they end up “not valuing their lives; they even end their lives.”

    A San Francisco gardener who grew up in San Diego, Andre says often inflexible attitudes about homosexuality in many black families and in black churches put barely tolerable pressures on African American gay men.

    Those realities, Andre says, give the Speak Out campaign special resonance. The “Oh my God!” tone that accompanies any conversation about a person’s positive HIV status tends to squelch honest conversation, he says. Speaking out, he hopes, will “get people to realize to that HIV is a part of everybody’s life. Not talking about it is not going to make it go away.”

    DERRICKDerrick

    Derrick is a longtime video producer and a former TV journalist who has traveled to 35 countries on six continents. He has a passion for turning dry statistics into flesh-and-blood real-life stories that tell the truth and pack an emotional punch. He’s used to people talking enthusiastically about their lives – even the not-pretty parts. So he was especially disturbed to realize that most of the gay community in the U.S. tends to talk in whispers about HIV, when it’s talked about at all.

    Derrick was raised in Salt Lake City in the Mormon church. He’s not shy. “I put my Speak Out images on my Facebook page, and all the Mormons I went to high school with see that,” he says.

    He’s watched HIV fall off both the gay community’s and the media’s radar steadily over the decades. “We must have dropped the ball someplace, because our young people don’t understand,” he laments. More people not talking about HIV means more people get infected with HIV, he notes. “The implications are huge. It’s like compound interest in a bank account.”

    Jonathan

    Jonathan says that “my whole life’s journey since becoming positive has focused on speaking out, to combat that stigma, to change the perceptions.” He grew up in Sonoma County, and has lived in the Bay Area most of his life. A nurse practitioner with a Master’s degree and specialty in HIV from UCSF, Jonathan currently is on a year-long fellowship at the Veterans Administration hospital, caring for HIV patients, including people who’ve just been tested and learned they are HIV positive.

    In part because of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture around HIV in the gay community, these new HIV patients often report suffering from deep shame, says Jonathan. He also sees older gay patients who, instead of being looked upon as wise elders, are shunned because of their positive status. “It’s omnipresent, but people don’t want to talk about it,” he says. But, “when we start speaking out about our status, positive or negative, you take some of the power from the skeleton in the closet. You’re taking it into the light.”

    SEANSean

    Sean was gossiping with fellow employees about a “dirty old man” in his 50s who worked with them in a Forever 21 store, a gay man who was open about being positive for HIV. After reflecting on what he called this “mean girl” conversation, he embarked on a journey of personal transformation.

    “Mine has been one of the most stigmatizing voices,” he says. He thinks it’s partly due to his upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness in Orange County, “not a great place for someone in the gay community.” After moving to San Francisco four years ago, he found himself in a focus group concerning attitudes around HIV and it opened his mind. “After that discussion, I found it liberating and inspiring. It changed my perspective.”

    “Men in the gay community, both positive and negative, are affected by this virus,” he continues. “It is my responsibility as a negative man to stay negative, but also to understand that this whole epidemic is not about excluding positive people.”
    Johnnie

    Johnnie is on a mission to speak out about HIV not just for himself, but also for his friend, Julian. In May 2013, just after celebrating his 36th birthday, Julian died of AIDS.

    “I never thought I would lose someone around my own age to AIDS,” Johnnie  said in an email. “To experience this loss in 2013, in San Francisco, is both heartbreaking and concerning.”

    For Julian’s birthday earlier this year, Johnnie was one in a group of friends who took him to New York. Julian had never been, “and the trip was filled with wonderful moments showing him the sights, going to shows and dining at amazing restaurants,” Johnnie said. Julian was in good spirits, despite his low energy and significant weight loss caused by going off of his HIV medication.

    With a lot of encouragement from friends and his doctor, Johnnie said Julian agreed to start his regimen of medications again once he got back from the trip. But the decision came too late to save his life.

    “It is important for me to share my perspective because my friend Julian is no longer here to speak for himself,” Johnnie said. “Too many have lost friends and loved ones from this disease.”