Anyone who knows me knows that I am passionate about ensuring that every child born is safe and supported in the process of figuring out who they are in the world that we have invited them into. Here’s what I hope, in my heart, I will always communicate with any young person of color who confides in me their HIV status. I share this with the hope that the sentiment may support you if a young person you know trusts you enough to share.
- Say Thank You. Begin by thanking the person for trusting me enough to share. It is important to acknowledge how brave and transformative the person is in being vulnerable enough to tell you about their status. No one owes you anything, including personal information about themselves, which is why it is important for us to create space where people feel safe and affirmed before they may need to share something important. When thinking about HIV, often people of color are thinking about the shame and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and how to manage existing relationships with themselves and members of their family and community. Give grace. Acknowledge the strength required for someone to share.
- Commit to Remaining Present. Not a single one among us is supposed to endure the weight of navigating life alone. It is important to affirm that you will remain a present, caring, and conscious member of the community that’s required to ensure the person thrives. Care and support, by non-judgmental, compassionate people is important: to facilitate immediate access to treatment when a person is diagnosed with HIV; to support adherence to treatment to attain viral suppression for people living with HIV; to enhance the prevention and management of HIV-related infections; and support coping with the challenges of living with HIV. Follow the lead of the person who is recently diagnosed with HIV. The person may not always want to talk about their status or may not be ready. They may want to connect with you in the same ways they did before being diagnosed. They may need a shoulder to cry on someone who is available to talk. Commit to do the things you did together before their diagnosis; talk about things you talked about before their diagnosis. Find ways to affirm that they are more than their diagnosis—they are. Do not judge.
- Champion Holistic Health. Take on the task of serving as their number one health supporter. Make sure the person has access to medical care to manage their HIV. By getting linked to HIV medical care early they can start and develop a plan to adhere to treatment with HIV medication. Staying in care enables people living with HIV to keep the virus under control and prevent their HIV infection from progressing to AIDS. Unfortunately, when one is first diagnosed they may not know where to go to get treatment, have the means to get treatment, or may even feel a sense of hopelessness that encourages denial and avoidance of treatment. Let the person know that you have their back and help them navigate the health care system, which includes getting into treatment, adhering to medication and medical recommendations, and serving as their number one ally when others might stigmatize them and impeded their journey to wellness. Leverage your privilege for good and commit to disrupting the stigma that too often causes people to suffer in silence.
The #WordsMatterHIV toolkit, developed by the National Black Justice Coalition, includes language, activities, and resources that can be helpful to you in accomplishing the abovementioned goals and in having affirming, positive, potentially life-saving conversations about sexual health and wellness.
David J. Johns serves is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same-gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS. He is known for his passion, public policy acumen and fierce advocacy for intersectional social justice.