Why I believe coming out of the ‘HIV closet’ is key to ending the HIV epidemic

As head into Pride month, I want to talk about coming out of a different closet – publicly disclosing one’s HIV positive status. I believe it can play a significant role in ending the HIV epidemic here in Marion County, where 53-68% of people living with HIV are men having sex with men (MSM). The HIV epidemic has most deeply affected our LGBTQ+ community. I believe there are some important lessons we can apply from one community to another.

For me as a queer man, the process of coming out of the LGBTQ+ closet – taking off the mask, pushing through the fear of rejection & discrimination, finding self-love & community – is very similar to the process I went through disclosing my HIV status. In fact, it took almost 10 years for me to fully process the trauma, loss, and grief of my initial HIV diagnosis in 2012. I wish someone had handed me a link or brochure – similar to this one on disclosure from POZ magazine, or this one on Living with HIV regarding duty to inform from the Indiana Department of Health. It might have accelerated my own journey.

If you’re living with HIV, the HIV community needs you to consider coming out of the closet with your HIV status. My hope today is I’ll start you on your journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

If you know someone living with HIV, I hope you’ll share this blog with them. We need to bring about systemic change, and one way to do so is to come out, come out – wherever you are!

Why does this matter – now?

Marion County is a federally designated hot-spot for new HIV cases, according to 2019 data. If we look at the trend of new HIV diagnoses in Marion and surrounding counties, we see a consistent upward trend since 2010. See the following chart from the Epidemiology of HIV in the Indianapolis
Transitional Grant Area: 2022
, particularly the — line for 3 year moving average of new HIV cases.

Of the 7,411 people living with HIV in that same area in 2022, an estimated 13% or 964 people are unaware of their status. We know that people who are not aware of their status are much more likely to spread the virus – so it’s imperative that we get more people to know their status through testing.

The CDC recommends that all adults have at least one HIV test in their lifetime; for populations at risk, testing is recommended at least every 12 months. The key to ending the epidemic is early diagnosis, which is one of four pillars in Marion County’s Plan to End the HIV Epidemic. The four pillars are diagnose, treat, prevent, respond. Click here to learn more about the plan, or go to the Side By Side website at endinghivtogether.org

What Anonymous People did for Recovery

“If everyone thinks about alcoholism and addiction as a negative thing, nobody is going to want to get help.”The Anonymous People

“Over 20 million are suffering in silence.” The Anonymous People

A key shift came in the recovery movement, when people realized that anonymity – a bedrock of the 12-step approach to recovery – had come to hurt the movement by keeping people in silence and limiting their collective voice. Most importantly, people weren’t getting the help they needed.

Over a decade, investments were made in training people across the country in how to tell their story. I was part of that training here in Indianapolis, hosted by Indiana Addiction Issues Coalition. It transformed how we talk about addiction and recovery. It was driven by a lot of organizations like Faces and Voices of Recovery. Check out the Anonymous People video trailer here.

For me, HIPPA is to HIV as the anonymity of the 12 steps was to Addiction. We need to break the cycle of silence because Silence = Stigma. We need our own mini version of Anonymous People for HIV!

I believe most of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US – the 13,900 in Indiana – the 5,420 in Marion County – are also suffering in silence.

We need to change that, in order to being about a similar shift in our community’s ability to diagnose, treat, prevent & respond.

Coming out reduces stigma

Coming out – even to just one additional person you know – starts to put a name and a face to HIV. It’s much harder to demonize people living with HIV if you know one personally. Coming out challenges stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about the virus.

HIV-related stigma and discrimination persist as major barriers to our ability to diagnose, treat, prevent & respond. By coming out, people living with HIV can challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding the virus. The very act of sharing one’s personal story humanizes the epidemic. All of this contributes to reducing the stigma associated with HIV. We also know that when more people openly discuss their HIV status, it helps break down the fear and ignorance that perpetuates stigma and discrimination.

To get help with the the process of disclosure, refer to this brochure from POZ Magazine.

Coming out encourages testing

Publicly disclosing one’s HIV-positive status can inspire others to get tested for HIV, much like coming out of the LGBTQ+ closet inspires others to come out. When people see individuals living with HIV being open about their status, it can motivate those who may be at risk to seek testing and know their own status. Early detection of HIV through testing is crucial for accessing appropriate care and treatment, preventing further transmission, and ultimately curbing the spread of the virus.

We need more people to get tested! We need more people to know their status. We literally need to find the 964 people in Marion & surrounding counties who don’t know their status. Hopefully, the rate shown earlier will begin to go down as more and more people get tested. But in the meantime, it will probably continue to rise as we close the gap on people not knowing their status.

For me this chart sums it all up: when stigma is low, testing is high! When testing is high, people know their status – they aren’t afraid to tell others their status – and we curb the transmission of the virus.

Click here to find testing resources in Marion County.

Free tests are also available at TakeMeHome.org.

Coming out improves your mental health

With the medical advances in HIV science, we know that HIV is no longer a death sentence. It’s a manageable chronic health condition. But, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like a death sentence at first.

I’ve healed a lot over the past 3 years since I came out publicly with my status. Granted, I’m relatively privileged. I’m a GWM and work for myself – so the risk of job-related discrimination is low. As I tell people, my boss knows I’m HIV and doesn’t have a problem – neither should you. Not everyone has that privilege. But I would argue that on a personal level, coming out to others about your status is liberating for your own mental health.

I experienced grief related to my diagnosis without even realizing it. I had largely dealt with the loss of my job in 2010 stemming from my addiction to crystal meth. I learned more about grief when I lost my mom suddenly in 2012 from untreated alcoholism. But nobody had ever helped me connect with the losses related to my HIV diagnosis in 2011. Loss of self-confidence. Loss of love and romance as I feared it. Loss of fear-less sex as I knew it. It took my me years to connect with those losses and properly grieve them.

A key part of my “HIV Recovery” was my support system. I had a great therapist – though I wish “the system” had pushed me harder to get into a support group for newly diagnosed individuals. That’s part of the reason I started the Hoosier HIV+E, a peer-led support group for people living with HIV in Indiana. For our mental health, we need a safe space, peer-led support and community.

If you’re thinking about coming out more with your HIV status, make sure you have a good support system – and at least for a period of time, try out therapy or a support group.

Coming out empowers others

By sharing our stories and experiences, we as people living with HIV can empower others who are facing their own diagnosis. Coming out demonstrates resilience. I learned how resilient I really am through my friends in the HIV community. It also takes great courage and strength to come out – but it shows others that it is possible to live a fulfilling life with HIV. And yes, even have fulfilling sex!

This is where our power in numbers grows. Coming out will encourage others to seek support, to adhere to their treatment and to lead productive lives. It’s that visibility that matters. Ultimately, coming out positively impacts not just ourselves – but the people around us. It’s my way – and hopefully your way – of contributing back to reducing the overall impact of the epidemic.

Coming out educates & informs the public

Many people are not aware of the breakthrough advances we’ve made like Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) and PrEP. I believe we have the science to end the HIV epidemic. But stigma – stemming from ignorance and fear – stands in the way.

Just like when I came out of the closet as a gay man, people had questions for me. It led to conversations, and through that, they became educated about being gay. When I came out more publicly as living with HIV, I also got a lot of questions. I quickly learned, I needed to learn more about the disease I had been living with for 7 years at the time! Just living with HIV doesn’t necessarily make me an expert on everything about the disease.

Coming out as HIV-positive helps raise awareness about the virus and its impact on individuals and our communities. We can educate others about HIV transmission, prevention methods, the importance of regular testing, and the availability of effective treatments. When people know more, they can make better decisions about their own sexual health. This in turn leads to improved uptake of prevention measures like PrEP, more testing, and better adherence to treatment. Yep, the four pillars are all lifted up when the larger public knows more!

Click here to learn more about HIV 101. Click here to learn more about PrEP. Click here to learn more about U=U.

Coming out builds power in numbers for advocacy

As I’ve gotten involved with HIV Criminalization Reform, I’m learning that legislative change requires two things – power and money. Power is largely defined by the number of constituents who care enough to speak up! That’s another reason why we need more people to come out of the closet in states like Indiana, where our laws are dated on 30-year old science and unfairly prosecute people living with HIV.

Coming out with one’s HIV status can be a catalyst for policy change, as it brings attention to the issues faced by people living with HIV. By sharing our personal experiences and advocating for our rights, individuals living with HIV can contribute to shaping laws, policies and programs that are more responsive to our needs. This can lead to improved access to healthcare, prevention services, anti-discrimination laws, and increased funding for research and support initiatives – ultimately finding a cure!

To learn more about Indiana’s efforts to modernize HIV laws, join the email list for HIV Modernization Movement – Indiana.

Coming out requires support!

It is important to note that coming out as HIV-positive is a deeply personal decision, and individuals should carefully consider their own safety, support systems, and readiness before doing so. 

Coming out can have negative effects and adds a level of vulnerability that can be triggered or triggering. Find a support network from healthcare providers, counselors and peer networks like the Hoosier HIV+E in Indiana. If you’re new to advocacy, get a mentor.

Being public about your status brings its own rewards, helping normalize HIV with a face & voice. I understand that not everyone is in the position (aka privilege) to disclose their status publicly, but the more of us who do find the courage, the more effective change we can bring about in ending the HIV epidemic.

Will you join the HIV Anonymous People Movement?

So as we start out this Pride month, I invited you to consider your own “coming out story” as it relates to living with HIV. If you know someone living with HIV, be their friend – ask them how they are doing – share this blog with them. Every voice matters, every voice counts. We need your stories to change public opinion, to end the HIV Epidemic.

Keep tellin’ the story,
Thanks for listening

Professor Peacock

How does it make you feel? Art, Artivism & Art Therapy

This has become a bit of an inside joke with my therapists over the years.

“Yes, Todd. But how does it make you feel?” usually comes after I describe an event or situation with clarity & objectivity from my analytical left brain. It is harder for me to connect with the emotions and feelings that come up.

This question has also started to permeate my creative work. I’m a queer artivist – I bring my activism into my art. It’s also a form of art therapy, helping me to reclaim the shame & stigma I experience in life through digital creations. Music and art have the power to heal. 

I will also tell you that I struggle at times to identify the emotions in a photograph – or the emotions I want a given image to convey to the viewer.

When I was encouraged to create a piece for the HIV Is Not A Crime art contest, I was initially frozen in my tracks. How could I best convey how I feel when I think about HIV criminalization? What does stigma feel like? Where do these feelings come from?

Working in this space can be traumatizing for many different reasons. Thinking about HIV criminalization and the effects it has on my mental health can be heavy at times, bringing up sadness, shame, guilt and other difficult emotions. 

With this project, I wanted to rescript the negative messaging around HIV criminalization. I wanted this to be a positive message. It is easy to identify the negative effects of criminalization – much harder to find and hold onto hope. Hope for change. Hope for a cure. Hope for a world free of stigma and discrimination. 

That first required me to search my soul and imagine – what would it feel like for our laws to finally be repealed and modernized? 

Two words came to mind – joy and dance.

I could literally picture myself dancing, which is my happy place. 

From that inspiration came this piece which I call “Happy Dance

I will be exhibiting Happy Dance along with several other original art pieces at the Phoenix Theatre Nov 3-13, 2022 as part of the Spirit and Place Festival. This year’s theme is Identify. My pieces will be part reflection, part therapy, part celebration! Join us on November 9th for the main event, which includes the visual art show along with a panel discussion.

HIV Modernization
Ending The Stigma of People Living with HIV

Part of the Spirit & Place Festival

About this event

Through an art exhibit and panel discussion, learn how people living with HIV and their allies are working to end HIV stigma by modernizing Indiana’s outdated HIV criminal laws.

People living with HIV often face stigma and discrimination related to Indiana laws that criminalize them due to their positive HIV status. This event features speakers living with HIV who are working to end HIV criminalization through legislative change, activism, art, and community support.

A visual art show featuring Indy-based artist Contonnia Turner, Jr. and photographer/digital artist Todd Fuqua will provide a backdrop for the discussion. Contonnia Turner, Jr. is a talented young Black Hoosier with multiple layers of intersecting identity who creates artwork that reflects who he is physically, mentally, and spiritually. Todd Fuqua is an Indianapolis-based artivist (activism through art) who started a social movement called CelebrateUU, building on the concept of HIV Undetectable=Untransmittable (U=U).

Explore the exhibit and interact informally with artists beginning at 5:30. The Talk will begin at 6:15 moderated by Terrell Parker and will include HIV Modernization Movement Chair Dr. Carrie Foote, and Co-Chair Mark Anthony Hughes. The Phoenix bar will be open, and snacks will be provided.

A partnership between Phoenix Theatre Cultural Center and HIV Modernization Movement Indiana.

Contact the event organizers at 317-635-7529 or cmacy@phoenixtheatre.org.

Walk-ins welcome, but registration is strongly encouraged by Nov. 9.

ABOUT SPIRIT & PLACE. The Spirit & Place Festival (Nov. 3-13) celebrates the powerful role the arts, humanities, and religion play in community life and is housed in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. Learn more at spiritandplace.org

Register here

Remembering friends…telling their story

In the last couple days two very dear friends have been on my mind and help me with some things I’ve been facing. As such I wanted to take time to honor them and remember them because telling their stories keeps their memories alive in our hearts.

First was Phil. Phil was a very dear friend of mine in the early 90s – A mentor of sorts as I came out of the closet for the second time. (That’s another story for another day…) Phil taught me about living with dignity, enjoying the passion of music, and the value of investing time and energy with young adults. Phil was the first choral director for the Northernaires at North Central high school – a gospel choir at a public high school. He was also a man and lived with HIV. This was at a time when the world was very different. Our understanding and acceptance of the disease was far from what it is today. Phil took a calculated risk to share his same-sex partnership and his health situation (carefully and appropriately nonetheless…) with many of the students in his choir, particularly towards the end of his life in the mid 90s, as he died of complications related to AIDS. By doing so, Phil educated those kids, at a very critical time in their life, about HIV/AIDS…surely helping to reduce the stigma and misunderstanding among those teenagers, which played forward across relationships in future years & generations. He also showed them how to live with dignity…and ultimately how to die with dignity.

I was away on an international business trip when he passed. And fortunately my boss was very understanding and allowed me to fly home early in order to attend his memorial. The gospel choir performed at his memorial for a packed church (I believe at Trinity Episcopal in downtown Indy). And I will never forget seeing the one girl in the front row start to cry…and from there there was not a dry eye in the house. Those kids learned how to get through grief and loss at a very young age because let me tell you… They loved and respected their choral director. You could see it in their faces at the rehearsals and at their concerts.

I’ll never forget how Phil would remind them to tighten up their muscles and project… You should be able to hold up a quarter in the grip of your butt cheeks. And all it took on the night of the concert was still taking out a quarter and holding it up to the kids to remind them of proper posture and projection and muscle control. They knew the secret sign…and the audience had no idea what was being “passed” from director to singers in that moment…

Of course Phil was also the famous one who, at a house party at my place on Central, called out across the living room “hey everyone, let’s all chip in and buy Todd a butt.” Yes I have a flat ass thank you very much Phil for pointing it out. I love you dearly.

The second man that came to mind this week was Scott. Scott was our lay leader at Broadway. During my unemployment in 2010, he left his full-time career as a HR executive to follow his dream of helping people in the community through his gift as a life coach. My pastor recommended that I perhaps pair up with Scott and indeed I did. He became my life coach during my unemployment…as well as a close friend. Unfortunately, within months of starting our relationship, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. And within 6 to 8 months, passed away.

He, too, taught those around him how to live and how to die with dignity. Unfortunately, he also faced discrimination at the hands of our healthcare system in Indiana. Due to a loophole in our laws, he was unable to receive the care that he needed here in the state of Indiana because it was illegal for a person with HIV to be able to use their own blood or bone marrow for medical treatments, since it is illegal for people with HIV to give blood or be organ donors. This,of course, does not make sense in these cases…since it was for their own use and treatment. As a result of this discrimination, he had to fly out to California to seek the necessary treatment and by the time he got out there, it was too late.  They sent him back home to Indiana, where he lived out his final weeks with his hallmark smile and care for others.  The nurses on his floor, I remember, were particularly moved by Scott’s spirit…

Fortunately, his quiet legacy lives on, because his family took on the doctors and the hospitals…and with their support, got the law changed.  Now blood or bone marrow from an HIV/AIDS patient, for one’s own medical care, is  permitted in the State of Indiana. For those of us who know the story, we fondly call this the Scott C law. We know the story…and the legacy he left behind.

I think of Scott often when I use his life coaching techniques in my day-to-day life. And I think of Phil when I hear or see the Northernaires perform.

I love you both. Thanks for being my friend.