KALAMAZOO – Stigma about HIV and AIDS stops people from getting tested. It stops people from talking about their status in an open way. It stops people from even mentioning HIV. And in short, it’s a barrier to reducing the spread of infection.
When it comes to reducing stigma, Mr. Friendly can help. Mr. Friendly is a cute smiley face logo with a simple, yet psychologically robust message behind it. The face incorporates a positive and a negative sign into a smile, making those who sport the image more approachable. Mr. Friendly’s grin tells the world “I am friendly. I am open to discussing HIV without judgment. And – positive or negative – we’re all in this together.”
Mr. Friendly graces t-shirts, stickers, buttons and other swag at LGBT events, HIV outreach opportunities, and even family-friendly events to encourage people to have supportive discussions. The creation came about in 2008 when Dave Watt, a HIV Prevention Team Leader at CARES in Kalamazoo, wanted to come up with a visual symbol to start these kinds of conversations. He’d been using campaigns that he realized were adding to fear or guilt, and wanted to address not only safer sex and testing, but the underlying roadblock of stigma.
The Mr. Friendly program teaches people to talk about HIV, but it also teaches people to be more aware of the words they use and how they can impact others’ choices about disclosure, safer sex and getting tested.
“Use of the word ‘clean’ to mean HIV negative is pretty clearly offensive,” Watt said. “Most times when I mention this to people online, they quickly realize the stigma that they are creating and change their wording.”
He also said that when people tell others “you need to know your status,” or when they say they would never be with someone who is positive, they don’t know what the other person may be experiencing personally. “Maybe they already tested and know they are positive, or maybe they are too scared to be tested because they’re afraid of the rejection,” Watt said. “We use a soft sell approach when promoting HIV testing by saying ‘We have free HIV testing today – tell your friends that you are there for them whether they are positive or negative.'”
Another thing that contributes to stigma is the way people will say “clean,” or “negative” in online hook-up or dating ads. “This continues to be an issue for our community. What choices do we have? If that profile field is left blank, people often assume that you are poz. If you put ‘neg’ or even ‘neg as of a certain date,’ that seems to give people a false sense of security. We must keep in mind the window period of HIV,” he said. “This is effectively pushing everyone to put ‘neg’ on their profile. While good intentioned, I find this often is a barrier to open and honest communication. I suggest to people to put ‘open to discussing HIV without judgment’ on their profiles instead – and a picture of Mr. Friendly of course!”
“Words are hurtful,” he emphasized. “There is this idea that most new infections come from people who are positive and are intentionally hiding their status. The statistics clearly shows that this is not true. Most new infections come from someone who honestly didn’t know they were living with HIV they are not aware of their status. That’s why it hits our community so hard.” He said that we need to teach society to encourage testing, respect people with HIV and encourage open, honest, educated conversations about HIV.”
Mr. Friendly is a good start. Watt said there has been increased dialogue and cases where people have been more kind in their words. Testing rates have increased since the program began in 2008, and people are using the Mr. Friendly symbol on their online profiles as a way to let others know they are sensitive to the topic.
The program has grown well beyond Kalamazoo too. There are 15 trained Mr. Friendly outreach teams, including ones in Grand Rapids, Detroit, DC/Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and even Cape Town South Africa. Agencies that do HIV work can contact Watt to learn more about bringing Mr. Friendly to their town.