It started with 25 young gay men who came together over a weekend in Washington, DC in September 2014. They opened their minds and hearts to what HIV means to them and what others like them need to know. The result was 25 powerful personal videos that launched the #SpeakOutHIV movement.
Now more than 70 strong and growing, Greater Than AIDS youth ambassadors are making themselves heard. Refusing to be silent, they are posting videos about HIV/AIDS to their social media pages and encouraging others to speak out about HIV for their relationships, for their health and for their community.
So far, the #SpeakOutHIV videos have been viewed more than 400,000 times.
New infections rose a startling 22 percent among young gay men between the ages of 13-24 for the most recent years data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fastest increases were among those of color. Overall, young gay men account for one in five new infections in the United States.
#SpeakOutHIV, the social media component of the broader Speak Out campaign from Greater Than AIDS, seeks to re-engage the LGBTQ community in confronting the silence and stigma that still surrounds HIV.
A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds that HIV is not being talked about much today by gay and bisexual men, even with those closest to them. Two thirds say the topic rarely or never comes up with friends. Nearly half say not with intimate partners.
#SpeakOutHIV tackles the challenge with a simple concept: Empower LGBTQ youth with the knowledge and skills to speak out about HIV where they are – on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube – and watch the shares multiply.
“Personal stories and profiles have been an essential part of Greater Than AIDS’ work from the beginning because we know that when people can see themselves in someone, it changes them,” said Tina Hoff, Senior Vice President and Director of Health Communication and Media Partnerships at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Selected through an application process to participate in one of the digital story-telling workshops organized by Greater Than AIDS and, the youth ambassadors are between 18 and 25 years of age and from various geographic locations, educational backgrounds and careers. A majority are of color and from the South, reflecting the disproportionate impact of the disease. Some are HIV-positive. Most are not.
“Once the courageous stories about coming out, HIV-diagnosis, isolation, self-esteem, and the like were shared, I learned from these young men that my story is not so uncommon,” said Jai, an HIV/AIDS educator from Dallas who has helped facilitate several of the workshops. “The stories and our shared experience linked us.”
At the multi-day workshops, the young men heard from experts about the latest facts about HIV/AIDS and developments in prevention and treatment. They also explored how they could be a part of affecting larger social change in sharing their own experiences. Following the inaugural workshop in Washington, DC, two more supported by local health departments were held in Atlanta, GA and Dallas, TX. More workshops are planned in other cities across the nation later this year.
The videos the ambassadors recorded on cell phones and other personal devices document intensely personal, sometimes emotional moments, and shed light on how a generation grapples with the virus and what they are doing to protect their health, regardless of status.
“I have to forgive myself for things that I’ve done in the past,” says one of the participants in the Georgia workshop. “The status that was given to me does not make me. I make me.”
In speaking out they commit themselves to their health and future.
“I speak out because it’s normal, healthy and necessary to talk about sex and HIV.”
“I speak out because I want everyone to know that life doesn’t end at your diagnosis.”
“I speak out because I think no one should have to be alone.”
Visit the Greater Than AIDS channel on YouTube to see more of the videos produced out of the workshops.