AIDS Activist Michael Tikili: ‘I Saw My Reflection, I Saw the HIV Infection’

The HIV/AIDS activist discusses what black America should know about the ongoing effort to fight the epidemic. 

Michael Tikili is arrested in a New York City protest in 2011.
Michael Tikili is arrested in a New York City protest in 2011. COURTESY OF MICHAEL TIKILI

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