(The Root) — It's been more than 30 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States. Yet despite decades of awareness campaigns about prevention and the facts of transmission, the national epidemic persists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 50,000 Americans become newly infected with HIV each year, and an estimated 1.1 million Americans are now living with HIV.
CDC cites two insidious obstacles in the fight against HIV: stigma, which stops people from seeking testing and treatment; and complacency, which keeps people from truly understanding the magnitude of the HIV crisis (research shows that the U.S. epidemic is far less visible today than in the past).
In a new effort to combat stigma and complacency, on Monday CDC launched Let's Stop HIV Together, a campaign that gives voice to people living with HIV and encourages people to get informed, get tested and get involved by sharing their own stories.
Through online and print ads, TV and radio PSAs, billboards and social media, Let's Stop HIV Together features HIV-positive people from all walks of life alongside their family members and friends. Rolling out a week before the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., the campaign highlights both everyday people and public figures, such as longtime HIV/AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent, who appears with her friend, actress Jurnee Smollett; and Jamar Rogers from NBC's singing competition The Voice, appearing with his mother, Danielle.
The Root caught up with Jamar Rogers, 30, about his diagnosis story and why he decided to "stop chasing fame just for the sake of being famous" and reveal his HIV-positive status on national television.
The Root: What do you think it will take to really chip away at the stigma surrounding HIV?
Jamar Rogers: It will take the voices of people who are involved in sports, the entertainment industry and politicians — we need to see more visible HIV-positive people. It can't be something that we just whisper about anymore. I think stigma is perpetrated because there's a lot of ignorance. It takes people willing to get involved in things like this campaign to let others know, "Hey, we're here, and we're just like you."
The best thing that I can do is to make really great music. If I'm on MTV and getting interviewed by all these outlets, people can see that I'm not decrepit and I don't have leprosy. Then I think people's perceptions will start to change.
TR: Did it take some motivation to get you to this point? Were you ambivalent about revealing your HIV status on The Voice?
JR: I went through months of soul-searching, crying and saying, "God, I'm not ready to talk about this." But I had this unrelenting feeling that it was time to stop chasing fame just for the sake of being famous. I began to understand that because I've accepted my status and know my purpose, then I have to let other people living with HIV, especially young people, know that they also have a purpose.
TR: You appear in the Let's Stop HIV Together ads with your mother. What is your diagnosis story, and what role did she play in helping you get through it?
JR: I had been a crystal-meth user for almost six years, and I was sharing needles, having unprotected sex and just being very reckless and ignorant. When I decided to stop using meth, I thought that all my problems would be over. But it was three months after I made that decision that I actually found out I was HIV positive.
At this time my mother and I were on the outs. I was a drug addict, and I had stolen from her and broken her trust. She was the first person I called from the hospital, and she jumped onboard with me. The African-American community is so impacted by this, yet we're not willing to talk about it. So I'm glad that my mom, as a black woman, is able to stand up and say, "This is what my son is living with, and if you also have a family member living with this, here's how you can overcome the stigma."
TR: What responses have you received since talking about your HIV status?
JR: It's so funny how your own mind will lie to you. From the moment that I filmed The Voice to the time that it aired, it was about five months, and I lost sleep worrying over what people would think. The very next day after my audition aired, I was running errands in the Bronx, and this older Puerto Rican guy stopped me on the street. He told me that he'd been off of heroin for 10 years and was living with HIV, and he just hugged me and cried on the street. That was the beginning of so many people reaching out to me.
I now know that I did the right thing at the right time. For people in my generation, the last person we've seen living with HIV who was really out there was Magic Johnson — and that was 20 years ago. So who are people my age and younger supposed to look up to? I never wanted to be the new face of HIV. [Laughs.] However, I embrace it wholeheartedly because if it's given people hope, then I'm happy.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.