Compassionate Atlanta co-director Iyabo Onipede with Lil Nas X during a party in Atlanta last month celebrating the success of his album ‘Montero.’ As part of the album’s release, Lil Nas X asked fans to donate to various nonprofit organizations, including Compassionate Atlanta / Photo Courtesy of Compassionate Atlanta

Atlanta Nonprofit Uses Compassion to Combat Stigma Toward Black Women with HIV

Black women across the country are diagnosed with HIV at much higher rates than any other group of women — 15 times higher than white women and almost five times that of Latino women, according to

HIV/AIDS is also a leading cause of death for Black women aged 20 to 44, according to the CDC. The alarming numbers have led some activists to call for HIV prevention medication such at Truvada, typically readily available to gay and bisexual men, to be more accessible to Black women.

Compassionate Atlanta, a grassroots nonprofit, is heading up another effort to lower HIV/AIDS rates that disproportionately affect Black people by asking the Black church — specifically Black female faith leaders — to get involved.

The group was recently awarded a $25,000 grant as part of the Gilead COMPASS Initiative Faith Coordinating Center at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Emory University Rollins School of Public Health is another COMPASS coordinating center.

The $25,000 is being used to educate and train Black women who are leaders in their churches and then to pass on what they learn to their members.

“Black women are the fastest growing demographic of those diagnosed with HIV in the South,” Iyabo Onipede, co-director of Compassionate Atlanta, told Georgia Voice. “We have brought together a cohort of 23 female Black clergy, including a Buddhist, and are asking them to define what does stigma mean to them personally, to deal with their personal stigmas. And then we want them to begin to think about how they can address stigma in their faith communities.”

Compassionate Atlanta’s program aims to “restore dignity” to Black women as they share their stories and empathize with others. Onipede believes that when these women feel compassion, they will feel the need to act on it by reaching out and helping those with HIV/AIDS. The goal is to raise awareness, eliminate the fear of HIV/AIDS and eventually lower rates of infection through education.

“When we break the issue down into common humanity, then we can start building it back up by having the leaders acknowledge, ‘These are our parishioners,'” Onipede said. “And they begin to think, ‘We wouldn’t turn them away if they had cancer, why would we turn them away if they are HIV-positive?'”

A change could be as simple as an announcement in the church bulletin saying there is HIV testing as well as a blood drive after a service.

“We want places to create a sense of belonging,” said Compassionate Atlanta co-director Leanne Rubenstein. “And how do you create a sense of belonging? You understand what barriers you’re putting up and take those down.”

The Compassionate Atlanta program will culminate early next year with a play featuring five Black women telling their stories of facing stigma for being LGBTQ, disabled, HIV-positive, wrongfully incarcerated or single mothers.

Today, there are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S., including the 476,100 who are Black. Although Black Americans represent only 12% of the U.S. population, they accounted for 43% of new HIV diagnoses in 2018 and an estimated 42% of people currently living with HIV, according to the CDC. Black women make up 13% of the U.S. population of women, yet they account for 58% of HIV diagnoses.

Gilead launched its COMPASS initiative in 2017. The drug manufacturer, which makes many HIV prevention medications such as Truvada, promises $100 million in funding to organizations over the next 10 years.

The company says it seeks to “eradicate underlying serious and systemic challenges that contribute to the HIV epidemic in Southern states by combating stigma, improving the quality of and access to health care services and increasing local leadership and advocacy efforts for those impacted by HIV.”

Compassionate Atlanta was one of the Atlanta-based COMPASS initiative nonprofit partners to be listed on Lil Nas X’s “baby registry” when his studio album, “Montero,” was released in September. The LGBTQ entertainer, who hails from Atlanta, asked fans to visit and donate to various HIV nonprofits linked to different tracks on the album. “The Art of Realization” is the track linked to Compassionate Atlanta.

Lil Nas X was in Atlanta last month for a party to celebrate his album’s success and visited local HIV organizations to raise awareness about Gilead’s COMPASS initiative. The City Council approved a resolution making Oct. 20 Lil Nas X Day.

Onipede said the star personifies what Compassionate Atlanta teaches and encourages everyone to do: “he is taking his compassion for others and putting it into tangible action.”

For more information on Compassionate Atlanta, visit