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Whew, Lord! I thought it was “hot girl summer.” Not homophobic summer.
People are rightfully dragging North Carolina rapper DaBaby for making offensive comments during Miami’s Rolling Loud festival in July. His remarks not only perpetuated stigmas about people living with HIV and the LGBTQ+ community, advocates said he also harmed his own fan based and stressed the need to promote better sex education in schools.
To reduce some of the harm, I talked to two people about dismantling HIV stigma and how they are thriving beyond their HIV status.
If you have a moment, consider forwarding this newsletter to others who need more help understanding HIV or need a little dose of hope despite their diagnosis.
Healing through Black love
On Aug. 5, 2006, Morris Singletary was wasting away at an Atlanta hospital. He was taking 23 pills daily for the HIV positive diagnosis he received about two months prior. Because his body had fewer than 200 T cells, his body couldn’t fight other opportunistic infections. He was also diagnosed with cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic infection that prevented Singletary from holding down food and water. Doctors told his mother at the hospital that he had 90 days to live if he didn’t get better.
But on the same day 15 years later, 44-year-old Singletary attended orientation for an executive master in public health at Morehouse School of Medicine.
“This master’s degree is not going to be mine,” Singletary said. “It’s going to be the community of which I serve. … I’m going to be in leadership and I want to change the policies that are holding people back from getting healthy.”
After he finishes his degree, Singletary hopes to build on his advocacy work. Already he is the founder and CEO of Pozitive2Positive, a nonprofit initiative that educates communities of color about Pre-exposure prophylaxis, more commonly known as PrEP, and, Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP. The former is a daily pill HIV negative people take to prevent HIV infection, while PEP is a medication administered within 72 hours of HIV exposure that can prevent the virus from taking hold.
But Singletary also wants to make sure those living with HIV are connected to care and encouraged to continue treatment – something Singletary struggled with early on in his journey. HIV stigma and shame made him reluctant to take his daily medication. His doctor encouraged him to change the way Singleton viewed his relationship to his meds by making a reference to a popular, Black sitcom.
“He said, ‘Be committed to your medicines like the Huxtables are committed to each other,” Singleton said.
The cure for his shame was embracing the love surrounding him by family and friends. When he was hospitalized due to HIV complications six years ago, his niece asked him why he was sick. When Singletary told her it was because he wasn’t taking his pills correctly, she said, “Well, then take your medication.”
So a 7-year-old got Singleton together and he hasn’t been in the hospital since. He swore to stay well so he could see all the important children of his life graduate from high school.
“They were my ‘why’,” Singletary said. “My nieces and nephews and the kids within my circle, I see them like the Huxtable kids. So, being committed to my medicines was the love that the Huxtables had. That was Black love. That was the essence of a Black family.”
Through his nonprofit, Singletary creates interactive events where participants can get educated, tested or get connected to HIV care. In October, he unveiled a new annual event called “The Amazing PrEP Race.” Modeled after “The Amazing Race,” teams made up of social media influencers complete a citywide scavenger hunt for cash prizes while answering questions about HIV medications and prevention. This year, medical professionals will be the contestants.
It’s important to meet people where they are both culturally and physically. He said that’s the difference between being in the community and being in the streets.
“Being in the community means you can be in the car. But being on the street? That’s a whole different thing,” Singletary said. “My whole thing is, how do I make public health attainable, explainable and reachable for people of color? And it’s funny because I never saw this coming in my life ever.”
Here are Singletary’s brightest moments of joy:
- Meeting the queen of the Beyhive: Because of Singletary’s nonprofit work, he was tapped to present the prestigious Vanguard Award to Beyoncé and JAY-Z during the 30th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles in 2019. He was starstruck as he stood in the presence of trans writer and producer Janet Mock and Beyoncé’s stylist, Ty Hunter. During his speech, Singletary said he modeled his work ethic after Beyoncé’s when he realized he wanted to be an advocate for change. Beyoncé was so moved by his speech, she personally thanked him later in the evening.
“Because I showed up and shared who I was, all the opportunities of life opened up differently, like meeting Beyoncé. I knew there were people who have done this work, but for some reason God saw fit to let me tell my story and let it resonate with people and get to meet Beyoncé.”
- Getting degreed up: Singletary already has a bachelor’s degree in urban studies and public policy from Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. His acceptance to Morehouse School of Medicine meant he would be taking a seat in class not only as himself but for all of those living with HIV he helps on the streets.
“Grate-FULL” to serve those with HIV
Masonia Traylor made sure to always be aware of what is going on in her body. She tested for HIV annually. Her doctor didn’t consider at risk. So when she tested positive at the age of 24, in October 2010, Traylor was shocked. That worry doubled when she found out she was pregnant two weeks later.
Thanks to the power of medicine, Traylor gave birth to an HIV-negative daughter. But shame kept her quiet about her status. She didn’t decide to become open about her journey until a high school friend, a Black gay man, died from AIDS-related complications. Traylor learned her friend had given up on his health because he was told he got HIV because he was a gay, Black man.
Traylor started to wonder: What would have happened had she disclosed her HIV status to her friend?
“I knew what it felt like to be loved, yet feel lonely and isolated with an HIV diagnosis,” Traylor said. “I felt like maybe if he knew a cisgender, heterosexual Black woman who was pregnant with HIV, maybe he would have been my daughter’s godfather.”
So, Traylor went public about her HIV status during a March 2012 panel discussion at Spelman College in Atlanta. That same year, she founded a nonprofit organization called Lady BurgAndy, a creative brand for health and wellness initiatives with a special focus on women, youth and HIV/AIDS. She didn’t know then that talking about her status would transform her into a worldwide HIV activist and advocate inspiring millions of people through her advocacy work and appearances in such publications as Essence and Time magazine.
Now 34, Traylor said one word describes her HIV journey: “grate-FULL.”
“I still have an opportunity to do life unapologetically with a level of confidence and wisdom that only comes after heavy trauma and fear,” Traylor said.
Here’s how Traylor has thrived beyond her HIV status:
- Traylor the traveler: Traylor is a self-proclaimed pride globetrotter. People living with HIV must endure travel restrictions or bans in some countries (the U.S. was one of them). Traylor has been putting her passport to use ziplining over Costa Rica, sailing on the Seine River in Paris and camelback riding along the beach in Morocco.
“When you travel, you get to see that there’s a lot of life to live outside of the perspective you’ve already had. When you have the mindset that there’s more life to live, you then lean into more experiences that help you create memories,” Traylor said. “So, to me, travel is like a therapy to me, but it also gives me this sense (that) I’m still allowed to dream and have the reality of it all at the same time.”
- The powerful vibe of Black women: Traylor has volunteered with multiple community organizations and has connected with multiple powerful Black women in her journey to uplift and empower those living with HIV. From state officials to grassroots leaders such as Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Imperative, Traylor said she is proud to “be a part of the legacy of historical change for Black women.”
Spread the Black Joy and not misinformation about HIV. If you’re looking for a place near you for HIV prevention information and services, here is a good website to follow! See you next time!