Five years ago, Michael Tikili had a hard time looking at himself in the mirror because every time he saw his reflection, he saw “the infection.”
Hearing, in 2009, that he had contracted HIV had shaken him to his core. The 23-year-old African-American Duke University graduate racked his brain to figure out how this could have happened, only to recall a sexual history that had been fairly safe and responsible. He cried for days and entered a brief bout with depression.
Three years later, Tikili stripped his brown body naked and painted his stomach with a concise order—“Fund HOPWA”—then went streaking on Capitol Hill in front of House Speaker John Boehner’s office. He linked arms with other nude activists to protest a federal initiative that would slash resources for low-income people living with HIV.
It is this sort of “radical activism” that Tikili credits for drawing him out of his funk from a few years prior.
“I am a f—king statistic,” Tikili pronounced. “But activism helped me cope with everything. If you’re not in an environment where you’re empowered to talk about this virus, the issues will eat you alive.
“Silence,” he added, “equals death.”
Tikili represents a particular face of HIV that public health initiatives are beginning to target: African-American youths. As the nation recognizes National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7, strategic campaigns are kicking up their awareness efforts another notch to focus on a demographic that’s being disproportionately affected by the virus. To wit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the nearly 21,000 HIV infections estimated to occur each year among African Americans, one-third are among young people ages 13 to 24 (pdf).
MAC, the powerhouse cosmetics line for women of color, enlisted pop icon Rihanna to be the spokeswoman for its AIDS initiative. She just came off a rigorous press tour where she encouraged her youthful fanbase not only to get tested but also to buy MAC’s VIVA Glam products, for which 100 percent of the company’s proceeds will go toward helping people who live with the virus, as well as toward research and prevention.
Tikili has become increasingly knowledgeable about efforts to curb HIV as a result of his 9-to-5 work with Health GAP, a nonprofit that works to increase funding for HIV prevention and support. Aside from the almost clichéd (but still critical) “Get tested and know your status“ call to action, here a few additional facets of the issue that Tikili wants black Americans, particularly young people, to be aware of:
The HIV Dialogue With the Global South
“I have immigrant parents. I’ve always seen the epidemic on the global scale,” explains Tikili, a New York native and first-generation African American. His mother is from Guyana, and his father is from Nigeria, so Tikili has never seen this world, nor this virus, at a “provincial level.”
Homophobia exists everywhere, but it is often practiced more blatantly and, at times, even legislated in African, Caribbean and Latin American countries. That, in turn, breeds a culture of fear where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals are severely shunned, and therefore are less likely to access the health care they might need to diagnose or treat HIV infections. The connection between the LGBT community and HIV/AIDS began when the virus started to show up among gay men living in Southern California and New York City in the early 1980s. Public health scientists originally dubbed it GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. Tikili argues that U.S. global health funds should put pressure on foreign governments to curb their anti-LGBT norms and laws that ostracize those communities so that people feel comfortable coming forth to get the care they need.
It’s also important that U.S. policymakers continue to allocate funds toward global health initiatives like PEPFAR and the Global Fund so that countries in the Global South can apply for and receive money to combat the virus and help those living with HIV/AIDS.
“HIV is the only communicable disease that has legality linked to it,” Tikili explains. He’s talking about the issue of nondisclosure, and whether or not it’s fair to prosecute someone for not disclosing the fact that he or she has HIV to an intimate partner, even if the person with HIV hasn’t transmitted the virus to the partner.
“This is a public health issue, not a criminal one. People are being locked away for 30 years because someone said to the police, ‘This person didn’t disclose,’” Tikili said. He describes how criminalizing the virus began with a well-intentioned initiative on behalf of the federal government to incentivize states to create laws to curb the disease. Instead of ramping up their public health infrastructures, though, some states focused on criminality.
“People are behind bars because someone was angry with them.” And because blacks are being infected at higher rates, the criminality issue will affect blacks more than others.
Preventive HIV Treatments Can Work like Birth Control and the Morning-After Pill
A medication called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) exists that is analogous to the birth control pill. It allows people who think they may become exposed to HIV to take a daily pill to decrease their chances of becoming infected. It’s a particularly useful method for people living in areas where HIV rates and rates of sexual assault against women are high.
There’s also PEP (postexposure prophylaxis), anti-HIV drugs that are analogous to the morning-after pill. They reduce the chances of infection among people who have been exposed to the virus.
“We’ve normalized birth control. We should now do that with HIV,” Tikili argues. “Let’s normalize everyone’s access to health care.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the issue of nondisclosure.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that parses those compelling topics in your favorite TV shows, songs and movies. Follow her on Twitter.