New group aims to ease stigma of HIV
The local chapter of the national Mister Friendly movement launches today (Friday, Nov. 13) at the Cedar Springs Tap House, joining a dozen other chapters of the organization that targets the stigma of HIV.
Chapter co-founder and Dallas Bears President Gauge Xavier first learned about the national Mister Friendly organization at the 2011 Texas Bear Round Up. Mister Friendly founder Dave Watt was there, distributing information and swag, encouraging people to get involved in the group and in HIV awareness in general.
Watt founded the group while running for Mr. Michigan Leather seven years ago. He gave a speech about HIV, staying upbeat, and, most importantly, smiling.
“Too much of the messaging around the stigma of HIV is negative,” Watt said.
Xavier was attracted to the goals, strategy and structure of the national group.
For one thing, chapters do not have to adhere to a bunch of rules. They simply must hold four events a year, whether fundraisers or socials, and fulfill the group’s mission of combating the stigma of HIV.
Watt, who lives in Michigan and has worked with AIDS service organizations for most of his adult life, said the structure encourages participation.
It also allows organizers to tackle local issues. After all, those living with HIV in St. Louis, Mo. may not have the same needs as those living in Dallas.
Locally, Xavier said, Mister Friendly members are focused on reaching populations most susceptible to contracting HIV — people of color.
According to Texas Department of State Health Services, people of color, and particularly young men of color, are most likely to contract HIV. Currently the state only estimates the rate of gay and bisexual men living with HIV or AIDS and does not track data based on gender identity.
It is estimated 80,073 Texans report living with HIV in 2014. Of those known cases, 37.3 percent, or 29,895, of black Texans report living with disease while 30.7 percent, or 24,607, of Hispanic Texans report living with HIV.
But the ultimate goal, Xavier said, is to reach all communities.
If the number of local Mister Friendly chapters, known as teams, is any indication of the movement’s success, the strategy and structure work. People like socializing, making friends and getting to know one another. Communication and personal bonds ease the stigma of HIV.
Ahead of its official launch, Team Friendly DFW announced it is partnering with Resource Center. Xavier said the partnership was born when he approached Rafael McDonnell, Resource Center’s communications and advocacy manager, about a possible collaboration.
McDonnell and center staff agreed a partnership would be a good move for the center. Currently its HIV awareness work has been in the areas of strategy and advocacy. Team Friendly’s anti-stigma message blends in perfectly with the center’s current work, which is mostly focused on advocacy.
“We serve as a resource for information about HIV testing and awareness, but we have been looking to expand our programs and message,” McDonnell said.
Just as important, Team Friendly DFW’s strategy affirms what Resource Center’s research has shown: Networking and peer support encourage HIV awareness.
“We’re designed to reach people where they are, the people who aren’t ready to talk about their status,” Xavier said. “We want to give people the resources they need to feel comfortable.”
That could mean privately counseling and supporting someone who may be HIV-positive, or accompanying someone to a clinic for testing.
While the idea was born at the intersection of the leather and bear communities, chapters are encouraged to reach out to all populations.
Regardless the gender or ethnicity or race of whom you address, Watt said to never forget one thing.
“Start a conversation about HIV with a smile,” Watt said.
For information on Team Friendly DFW visit TeamFriendlyDFW.org or email info@TeamFriendlyDFW.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 13, 2015.