What makes Team Friendly Atlanta different than other organizations that seek to eliminate stigma among those who have HIV?

Team Friendly Atlanta is a grassroots organization that is bringing the message of Mr. Friendly to the metro Atlanta area. We are an all-volunteer based organization that seeks to start and continue an ongoing conversation about fighting the stigma of HIV. Alongside other community organizations, we hope to better educate people about HIV, provide referrals for HIV/STD screening and related services, and support the on going works with the metro Atlanta area.

Already Team Friendly Atlanta has outreach relationships with the MISTER Center, the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and Lost-n-Found. We are seeking to enhance upon what these groups do, by focusing on the stigma of HIV. Through monthly outreach events, quarterly community events and a PSA campaign for metro Atlanta and surrounding areas, by engaging the community on multiple levels.

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What prompted the forming of this organization? Did something specific happen or was it an overall reaction to what takes place in society, in Atlanta, still today?

I had been involved with different groups for several years and noticed that the issue of the stigma of HIV was not being talked about head on. Having seen many groups that are trying to deal with the stigma of HIV on an organized national level, I came across Mr. Friendly.  In a series of events, I read about Mr. Friendly, was in Chicago in Nov. of 2012 for a national LGBT event and met the founder Dave Watts. Upon returning, I decided it was time to form a team in Atlanta. 

I asked for and received a grant from the Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to pay for the training. On Dec. 11, 2012, a group of 12 people gathered for the first of the Mr. Friendly training webinar. By the end of the second night, on Dec. 12, 2012, a board was formed. Team Friendly Atlanta was well on its way.

What are some of the stigmas and ways people with HIV are discriminated against in 2013 and why are we still dealing with these issues?

There are many ways some obvious other subtle, that people discriminate against HIV. From terms like, “Are you clean?” or “Drug and disease free ub2,” these derogatory phrases perpetuate a negative attitude. The constant fear of rejection, when disclosing one’s status to a potential date, is equally present. Even the thought of telling your friends, and seeing judgment and asking how you got it, as if there is an acceptable way to get it. Additionally, even some of our health care professionals react differently knowledge that a patient is HIV positive.  

Personally, I can recall the first time I sought dental care and listed my status on the patient history. The dental office’s staff was reading my chart and physically put my chart down and went to put gloves on and confirmed that I was HIV positie. This was only compounded by the fact that the staff, within earshot, they began to state that, “He did not look like he had AIDS,” between each other.

This was mere weeks after my diagnosis. I was brought to tears and physically left the dental office and went outside. With the support of a friend that drove him there, I talked about what had happened and how I wished I hadn’t even come. My friend said that if I wanted to leave, he understood, but to do that would mean someone else would have the same experience.

After regaining my composure, we walked in and asked to speak with the principal doctor and told him what happened. My story is not uncommon, even in a city the size of Atlanta.

And until we tackle the pervasive problem of HIV stigma, a problem that prevents many people from getting tested, seeking support, and becoming better informed, we are fighting an uphill battle to stop the spread of HIV.

By remaining HIV neutral, we seek to meet people where they are and reinforce positive aspects of their life, while challenging them to go a step further. Putting a face to people living with HIV and those affect by HIV, Team Friendly Atlanta wants to help people see the person in front of them, not just a single descriptor like their HIV status.

How many people so far are on Team Friendly Atlanta?

With just under 40 members of Team Friendly Atlanta, as of the end of January 2013, an amazing level of support considering there first general meeting was held at the MISTER Center on January 20, 2013.  Already over two-dozen members have been trained with the Mr Friendly classes, with almost half of them being cross training in HIV101 and Outreach101 at the MISTER Center.

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Name some things Team Friendly Atlanta members do specifically.

Our Team members will do both on-on-one outreach with people at venues like local night spots, community gathering places such as  Piedmont Park and Ansley Mall, and targeted outreach with groups in-town seeking to better educate their members about the stigma of HIV. Additionally, Team Friendly Atlanta will be reaching out the student based LGBT organizations at local colleges and universities.

Team Friendly Atlanta will also be producing a series of postcard size handouts, to put a face to people who are part of the Mr. Friendly movement locally. By being peers engaging other peers, we want to breakdown the walls the stigma has put up.

Photos: Top: Randy Prophater; middle photo, friends of the ‘Team Friendly Atlanta Pup’  mascot show their support; bottom photo, members of Team Friendly Atlanta’s board. (via Facebook)

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