‘Dee’ Conner and Deirdre Johnson hit the road to raise awareness in the South

Davina Conner found inspiration in the pictures of A Day with HIV, POSITIVELY AWARE’s anti-stigma campaign. Moved to share her own story, she submitted pictures several times over the years, making the cover of the magazine in 2015 and 2016. Known to many as “Dee,” she has become a visible advocate and a powerful voice in the community. Conner spoke about her connection to A Day with HIV, and discussed her own efforts to confront stigma.

What inspired you to take part in A Day with HIV?

When I first saw A Day with HIV almost five years ago, the campaign made me smile. Seeing so many photos showing life as it is, and that people can be free from what others think. I cry every year looking at all the photos. The campaign shows that people diagnosed can still smile and be happy, whether it’s with family, on vacation, at work, just taking a walk, or even riding their bike. It inspires people who are not open to see that they can live as well.

What has your personal journey been like?

I’ve been living with HIV for 22 years. I’d gone to get screened for cancer and got tested for STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. I was confused at first, then shocked by my HIV diagnosis. “Am I dying soon, how did this happen, what will I look like being sick, and what’s going to happen to my daughter Sonja?”

My personal journey as a teenager and later after being diagnosed was ugly. I was basically homeless, selling drugs in the projects, getting older people to rent me a motel room so I could sleep; I had been abused by a guy at 15 years old. I was in denial, suffered from depression, and became an alcoholic. I don’t share much about becoming a sex worker after my diagnosis because it was something I was ashamed of. But as I grow over the years I know now that it’s okay to share this because it was something that I went through, and my journey has made me a stronger person.

What as been your experience with stigma?

My daughter’s grandfather wanted me to make sure I wiped the toilet after I used it; he also didn’t want me to drink from the cups in the kitchen cabinet, so I decided to just not go over to his house. I also have a good friend whose brother learned I have HIV, and he would not come over to her house whenever I was there. I think it was easier for me to just not go around too many people so I wouldn’t have to deal with the stigma, so I worked a lot and took care of my family instead.

Talk about your recent road trip with Deirdre Johnson. What was the goal of Driving Out Stigma?

Our goal was to show people the impact of HIV, stigma, and depression among women of color and women of color who are of trans experience. We wanted to educate HIV-negative women of color about PrEP, and to educate women of color who are living with HIV about U=U [undetectable equals untransmittable]. When I shared my idea with Deirdre, she was ecstatic and wanted to be a part of it.

We started in Denver, and our first stop was in Dallas. In Houston, we set up a table in front of Out of the Closet, where we engaged people in conversations about stigma, PrEP, and U=U. We were invited to a community planning group meeting with members of the Houston Health Department, where they discussed their plans on Ending the Epidemic. We were offered a table at the New Orleans AIDS Walk, and invited to attend the Louisiana Integrated Prevention and Services meeting.

In Baton Rouge, we did a Straight Talk at The Kitchen Table meeting with 10 women at the home of Dr. Joyce Turner Keller. We had a frank conversation about how language matters when we speak of or about HIV. In Atlanta, we spoke to a Social Psychology class of 21 young men at Morehouse College. Our last event was a meet up with a group of women at a café in Atlanta that Masonia Traylor put together for us.

I can’t put into words how well the campaign went, and how I was touched by so many people. The amount of support we had was beautiful.

Conner’s partner in Driving Out Stigma, Deirdre Johnson shared her own insights from the journey:

I learned a lot on this trip about myself, Davina and the world we live in. Stopping stigma is a duty we owe to ourselves, our community and each other. It starts with each one of us taking a hard look at how, what, and who we place judgment on, and realizing how we can make a change for the better. Eradicating stigma will be the key to us seeing an end to HIV. We must begin the dialogue of how to make that happen.

Follow Dee and Deirdre on Facebook: PozitivelyDee, DeesDiscussion, and DeirdreSpeaks; and @DavinaConner on Twitter. #driveoutstigma and #drivingoutstigma.