Coming out can be one of the hardest things a member of the GLBT community will ever do. While the results of the conversation with his mother turned out how he hoped, Nashville’s Josh Robbins says he had to have the talk with her twice.
“She kind of forgot,” he explains, as she had had a memory-effecting illness at the time. “Six months later, she called me confused about the first conversation we had, and then I had to come out to her the second time over the phone!”
Since that conversation years ago, Robbins has become a poster boy for community activism and HIV awareness — literally. As a volunteer with the Vanderbilt HIV Vaccine Program, Robbins’ face has beamed down on many a club-goer around town. He has been highly visible community activist in regards to HIV awareness and prevention, educating others about proper safer sex techniques and practicing those techniques himself. However, one small slip and his own HIV diagnosis earlier this year changed how he saw the disease and how those affected with it see themselves.
“I am luckier than most because I knew exactly when I was exposed,” Robbins says of the sexual encounter in December 2011 that led to his infection. “And because I became ill and was tested so quickly, I didn’t infect anyone else. But where I wasn’t as lucky, at least right after my diagnosis, was in knowing any people who were positive.”
While there’s no shortage of support groups and other services from Nashville CARES and other community organizations, Robbins says it was hard for him to find an immediate contact. It was then he decided to blend his professional career as a promoter with his role in community activism and create the blog imstilljosh.com. Through that route, he began to not only tell his story, but also link readers to community resources.
When he began receiving social media messages saying things like “you’re too cute to be HIV positive,” he knew that there was work to be done and that he might be uniquely qualified to do it.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go back in the closet, so I thought I’d start to do what I could to increase awareness and let my story maybe help someone else who feels alone when they find out,” he says. “I don’t want anyone to do something tragic because, even though there is a lot of support out there, they think they are by themselves in this.”
Robbins says he spent the time between testing and diagnosis doing further research into HIV. He then realized that, even though he had been “doing all the right things” as far as being careful and advocating safer sex, HIV exposure had happened to him, and it was more likely than not happening to others in his peer group.
“I’m 29, and I couldn’t find a website that showed anybody relatively young,” he says. “I didn’t start the blog to champion anything but to get information out there to people who are around my age, to send them to places where they can get more information and not feel the loneliness that I did.”
While he admits that the under-30 crowd may not be paying as much attention to HIV as older gay men do, he does not think it is because they have been overexposed to the prevention message.
“Young people will be young people,” Robbins says. “They do see the message, and they do know what it means. But they also think it will never happen to them. It’s easy to think of it like a DUI; everybody drives drunk sometimes, but not everybody gets caught. Thinking like that or ignoring the issue are [the things] I want to address in my blog.”
He also wants to do what he can get lessen the stigma of being HIV positive, especially for younger people.
“I went to some group therapy, and some guys I met feel a little defeated because the stigma is so bad,” he says. “I want to help break that wall down, if I can. The people who silently live with this disease are brave. The people who raise money and awareness are brave. I’m just saying that if someone is 19 and infected, his or her life doesn’t have to be over. That’s the message I want to put out.”
Vic Sorrel, a community educator with Vanderbilt and Nashville CARES, says such a personal appeal has a strong affect simply because it ties a face to an issue.
“If one person has the courage to be forthcoming with their own story, then others are going to identify with that,” Sorrell says. “If they see someone get tested, it makes it easier for them to get tested. This type of thing helps lessen the mystery around testing and around a positive diagnosis because it shows someone who has already been there.”
More to the point, he adds, “Having a positive diagnosis happen to someone you know puts a name to HIV and creates an experience that’s much more relevant to a group of people. And that, in turn, gets them to take better care of themselves. It’s not about scaring them but about providing the impetus for them to look at their own behavior and make changes.”
That is key for younger people, who did not see the decimation AIDS caused in the years before current drug therapies became viable and began extending the lives of those who become HIV positive.
“The message here is that it’s not about taking a pill once a day,” Sorrell says. “That’s not the extent of having HIV. When someone like this comes forward and shares his story, then his peer group realizes that it’s a very real possibility for them. And by seeing what he’s going through, they learn much more about what HIV really is.”
If sheer volume is any indicator, that has been true for Robbins. His blog has had thousands of hits since he launched it, has taken what he calls the worst day of life, when he got his diagnosis, and has made it something much different.
“A few weeks ago, I didn’t know one person who was positive who had told me about their status,” he says. “Now I know a lot of people. Getting HIV may have, in a twisted way, saved my life. I wasn’t protecting myself and looking at myself in the way I do now. I want to go out to the bar, to see friends and have fun, but also let people know that they need to protect themselves. I didn’t have to talk about this, but I did, and it’s made a huge difference for me. I hope it can for others as well.”