In honor of World AIDS Day 2014, HIV Equal Online is honoring 10 of the most captivating voices in HIV research, advocacy and care. The honorees were selected based upon the nominations of people from across the country who have been inspired by the work of these men and women. HIV Equal Online is proud to present the first annual list of Most Captivating Voices in HIV, and in the spirit of voices, will allow these men and women to speak for themselves.
Name: Mathew Rodriguez
Location: Queens, New York
Occupation: Journalist, Essayist
What inspired you to become involved in your work with HIV?
I lost my father to an AIDS-related illness in 2011. Even though he was a heterosexual drug user, in many ways my work in HIV as a voice for young gay men of color links me with him. I often think about the ways in which HIV has altered the course of my family’s history and how it continues to shape who I am.
I am also inspired to work in HIV because I realized early in my professional career – which began in non-profit work – that HIV has severely influenced the way people like me operate. We make decisions, we destroy plans, we operate wholly on the possibility that we could one day get HIV. Something that barely exists for many people I know is often omnipresent for my queer POC family.
What do you think contributes the most to HIV stigma today?
HIV stigma stems from a lot of things. I think it’s mostly, in the gay community, trauma. Every person in the queer community is still dealing with the trauma of the AIDS epidemic. It has forced a bunch of young men like myself to feel our mortality – even though science tells us that living with HIV is not something that has to have an impact on your longevity.
Stigma is also the lazy answer, and humans can often be lazy. Stigma stems from an unwillingness to build a bridge and understand an experience that’s different from your own. Because we associate HIV with being dirty, not only do people want to separate themselves from HIV, they don’t want to understand or empathize with those who are HIV-positive people. I don’t want to say I’m thankful that my father was HIV positive, but I do want to say that HIV stigma makes no sense to me as an adult, because looking back, I did everything a father and son do together, and I loved him to death – and he had HIV.
What does it mean to you to be HIV Equal?
HIV equal means that HIV-negative people must recognize that changing the conversation around HIV is their prerogative. We may be HIV negative, but HIV is our burden. One thing that I learned from feminism is that feminism is a movement that is meant to liberate both women and men, to make us all fuller people. I think the same of HIV activism. I think HIV activism is meant to liberate all people, whether positive, negative, at-risk or oblivious. It’s about recognizing that we are equally worthy of respect, of good health and of social, economic and political justice.
What do you hope to accomplish in your work with HIV?
My hope as a journalist is to be able to document and convey the lived experiences of those who have been infected and affected with HIV. My father wasn’t allowed to tell his story – because no one handed him the tools. I hope to be an instrument that can help empower people to understand the value of their stories, their bodies and their experiences.
How do you use your voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS?
I’ve come to understand that sometimes, my voice can be a bit controversial. If you look at a comment section underneath some of the things I write, I may be extremely persona non grata to a large population in the gay community. But I really don’t care. I want to use my voice to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Sometimes, afflicting the comfortable means that I come off as rude or something. Whatever. A friend of mine once said that if what I’m writing doesn’t piss people off, then it’s not worth writing. I hope the one thing I can convey is that everything I say and everything I do is rooted in the idea of love – awesome, queer, liberating love – and the possibilities of what love can do.