Fighting Stigma One Conversation at a Time

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by Lauren Means | photos courtesy Stephen Bloodworth

Stigma. It’s something that people with HIV/AIDS have dealt with for decades. Even with all the education available now and the public awareness campaigns such as U = U (undetectable equals untransmittable), the stigma is still there.

Until we reach a time where stigma is erased, there will be a need for activists to speak on HIV awareness. One prominent activist that you see at almost every event within the LGBT+ community is Stephen Bloodworth — but you may know him as Mr. Friendly.

In 2013, Stephen attended an HIV conference in Fort Walton Beach called Positive Living. One of the presentations he attended was about stigma and a program called Mr. Friendly. “I had one of those Aha moments and I knew this was something I wanted to bring to Tennessee,” said Stephen. Bringing the program to Tennessee was the catalyst for him becoming more active as an HIV activist.

Since bringing Mr. Friendly to Tennessee, the program has made changes and reached significant milestones. One of the biggest changes that’s been made is dropping the “Mr.” from the name to be more inclusive. “HIV knows no gender, race or sexual orientation and we wanted the name to reflect that. Team Friendly best expresses our mission which is to fight the stigma of HIV one Friendly conversation at a time,” said Stephen. In 2017, Team Friendly Tennessee obtained their 501c3 non-profit status, which is something Stephen is very proud of.

Stigma Knows No Boundaries

Stephen is a Tennessee native, born and raised in Hendersonville, Tennessee. “I actually live on the same spot of land I was raised,” he said. In 1993 he moved to Denver and stayed there for 10 years before moving back to Tennessee where he now devotes all his time to Team Friendly. His interactions with many people
from all types of backgrounds has allowed him to witness the many challenges to access for testing, prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Within the LGBT+ community, Stephen says stigma plays a huge part in the willingness to even start the conversation about HIV. “Young LGBT+ individuals are less likely to talk about HIV and having those encouraging conversations about HIV is a step in ending the stigma,” he said.

Part of Team Friendly’s mission is to help people find locations where they can get tested. Tennessee has many great places to receive care. The key is to get tested and linked to that care. “There are many prevention tools, condoms, PrEP (PreExposure Prophylaxis), U = U (undetectable equals untransmittable) that we educate people on and encourage them to choose what best works for them,” Stephen remarked.

Being uninsured or underinsured also plays a role in access to care in all communities. It seems to be a higher risk factor, however, in the African-American population.

Stephen explained, “African-Americans have been hit harder by HIV than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The majority of those who tested positive were women. As a group, African-Americans are more likely to be uninsured and may not have access to information or as many options for HIV testing and treatment.”

He also said stigma plays a part in testing and treatment stating, “Black heterosexual men who have sex with men have the fear they will be labeled gay if they test positive.”

The aging population has their own barriers to testing, prevention, and treatment with the biggest being stigma. Stephen said, “Older people are less likely to get tested because of fear and embarrassment.

It is estimated that over 50% of people living with HIV are over the age of 50. Medical providers seldom discuss sexual history with older patients, therefore, never suggesting they should be tested.” This is why it’s important to find providers who you feel comfortable being open and honest with and also why it’s important for care providers to continue seeking education on topics like HIV/AIDS.

Looking Back at the Future

Looking at where we are today compared to where we were even 15 years ago, it’s amazing how our HIV care and treatment has improved and expanded. One thing we now celebrate is HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day on June 5.

This wasn’t something that could’ve even been imagined back at the start of the AIDS pandemic in 1981. Stephen is now one of those long-term survivors at 33 years since diagnosis. He never imagined we could be celebrating long-term survivorship when he was first diagnosed.

“When I was diagnosed the doctor told me I may live five or ten years — if I was lucky. I guess he was wrong. I owe a lot to the support I had from both family and friends,” said Stephen.

Like anything else in the world right now, Team Friendly has also been affected by COVID-19. “Our campaign is based on one-on-one, face-to-face conversations. Social distancing prevents us from being able to do that. We attend most pride festivals across the state. It is where we are able to reach the most people and with most of those being canceled or postponed, it has really affected our efforts,” he said.

This doesn’t mean they’re slowing down. They’re always looking for people who want to open up those conversations. “Team Friendly’s mission is to reduce the stigma of HIV one conversation at a time. We welcome anyone who would like to get involved to help make a difference in our community. Whether you are positive or negative we can all make a difference.”

MORE INFO

For more on Team Friendly visit teamfriendlytennessee.org or email them
at teamfriendlytennessee@gmail.com.