As someone who has been living with HIV for over 20 years, I know firsthand how difficult living with the virus can be. When I was first diagnosed I was a young fashion student, newly living in New York City. I felt scared and alone as I struggled to come to terms with my disease. I was certain that I would not live to see my 25th birthday, and that thought became my motivation to seek the support I so desperately needed. I turned to my friends, my family, and mostly to community and AIDS service organizations. The support they provided me helped me have a positive outlook on life while I took the necessary steps to effectively manage my HIV.
Being on Project Runway was a life-changing experience for me. It gave me a national platform where I could be open and honest about my positive HIV status in hopes of helping to fight the stigma that is still associated with the disease.
Today, my priority continues to be to fight this stigma by living my life in an open and honest manner.
This is why I have partnered with Merck on an educational campaign called Living Positive by Design. The campaign works to combat the stigma by engaging people in thoughtful conversation about the disease. We are also encouraging people living with HIV to work with their doctor on an ongoing basis to select a treatment regimen that keeps their viral load at an undetectable level. Side effects from medications can make staying on some regimens difficult, so we also advocate that people living with HIV speak with their physicians if they are having side effects from their medications about how to best manage them.
HIV rates across the nation are too high, and Los Angeles ranks among the cities that are hardest hit by the epidemic. This month I was in Los Angeles for the 26th Annual L.A. AIDS Walk. I led the Living Positive by Design team through West Hollywood alongside 30,000 other walkers. It is always so inspiring to see so many people gathered together to remind us of the great progress we have made against HIV and to unite to face the road forward.
There is still much work left to be done to conquer the stigma of HIV, and I hope that my story and the Living Positive by Design campaign will inspire people to become involved.
Please visit www.LivingPositiveByDesign.com for more information about the campaign, and look for us in a city near you soon!