Larry Scott-Walker and Daniel Driffin can rattle off the date they tested positive for HIV as easily as their birthdays. So can Alfonso Mills.
In fact, so can most of the 1,000-odd members of the group they run in Atlanta to help gay men living with the virus. But they do not simply remember the date – they celebrate it.
In an act of empowerment that may initially make little sense to an outsider, many choose to mark the day that altered their lives with reflection and festivity. In the same way many in the LGBT+ community reclaimed the power of slurs such as “queer,” so too have these men taken control of the day that a generation ago would have meant something much darker.
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They mark their so-called “seroversaries” in different ways – a drink with friends, or a quiet dinner. A woman they know in New Orleans is this year marking her 25th seroversary with a blow-out bash for more than 100 guests.
The name seroversarsy takes its inspiration from several words that have their root in “sero”, which refers to blood serum. Serology is the scientific study of such serum, while the medical and HIV communities use the word serostatus in relation to whether someone is positive or negative.
“Once you’re a person living with HIV, no amount of shame is going to change it, so celebrate it,” says Scott-Walker, 39, one of the group’s three co-founders and the man credited with inventing the word. “Celebrate the way your life has changed since you were tested. I go to the doctor more than ever. A lot of amazing things have happened to me since I admitted I had HIV.”
Mills, 27, the group’s story telling project manager, added: “Mentally, it is so important. It’s a complete change in life. By calling it a seroversary, I focus on the point my life changed.”
The three men – gay, black and living with the HIV virus – are members of Transforming HIV Resentment into Victories Everlasting Support Services, or Thrive SS. It is one of the organisations supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which The Independent and Evening Standard are raising money for this Christmas.
Sir Elton and Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the newspapers, recently heard from groups such as Thrive after travelling to Atlanta, the Georgia city often touted as the shining example of the so-called new south, but which has HIV infection rates comparable to a number of cities in southern Africa.
In the US today, a gay black man has a 50 per cent chance of being diagnosed as HIV positive. In Atlanta, the figure is closer to 60 per cent. Racism, homophobia, poverty and lack of education about HIV are all contributory factors.
Scott-Walker (whose seroversary is 5 June, 2007) says the group, which also has chapters in Washington DC, Oakland, California and Charleston in South Carolina, said Thrive SS was different to many other groups working in the field.
Firstly, the members placed their own experiences – of being gay, black men living in the south and living with HIV – at the heart of the organisation. By doing this, they “prioritise the experiences of our community”. Secondly, they offer 24/7 online support, unlike many government-supported groups that shut up shop at 5pm.
Then, there is the twist that they allow alcohol at their meetings – the third co-founder, Dwain Bridges, describes the atmosphere as being “like a fraternity”. Core aims of the meetings are flexibility and authenticity.
Driffin (19 June, 2008) said the decision to take control of the day they tested positive was because for many, the experience was utterly traumatic. Staff can come across as unsympathetic – in that intense, vulnerable moment, many people feel they are being blamed for what happened.
Driffin, one of the co-founders, said when he was tested, a nurse pushed a piece of paper across the table to him, saying: “You know what that means.”
He said he refused to show any emotion in front of the nurse and walked out and telephoned a close university friend. It turned out she had just learned she was pregnant – something she was not expecting. “I said, ‘I’ve got one on you – I just found out I have HIV’.”
While he was able to share the news with his closest friends, Driffin felt unable to tell his mother for five years. She found out by accident when he posted a public Facebook message that he thought was in a private group. When he saw her three days later, his mother Jeanine offered her support and love. “She said: ‘Why did you not tell me before, so that I could have helped’?”
Scott-Walker said his husband Derrick had been told by the doctor: “I thought we had talked about this”, the inference being – whether the doctor intended it to be or not – that he had somehow done something wrong.
Miller (15 September, 2012) got tested by himself. The nurse told him the results had come back positive. He managed to limit his emotions in the clinic to a single tear, before heading outside, feeling stunned. To try to pretend it was just like any other day, he bought a pet turtle. “I just did not want to think about it,” he said.
The group believes that by focusing on the experiences of the people they are trying to help, they can provide an essential network of support.
Two years ago, Driffin was invited to speak at a Democrat national convention in Philadelphia.
“I’m living with HIV, and so many others are,” he told the audience. “Who is most at risk? Young, gay black men. Men like me. In fact, one in two black gay men will be diagnosed in their lifetime if the current rates continue. I’m sure black transgender women are more at risk, too.”
He said to beat the disease, it was essential to to ensure “the meaningful involvement of young gay black men at every level”.
“So what do we do to fight HIV/Aids today?” he challenged the crowd.
“As an organiser, as an advocate, as a black man, as a gay man, as a man living with HIV, I ask you: go get tested, and then go vote.”
Money raised from public donations through the AIDSfree appeal will be used to support the Elton John AIDS Foundation projects in six key cities around the world (London, Nairobi, Atlanta, Kiev, Delhi and Maputo). Through UK Aid Match the UK government will double public donations up to £2m to be spent across projects in Maputo and Nairobi.