Billy Willis, considers himself “a pretty simple guy,” despite the fact that the 28-year-old southern born Millennial HIV activist has done some pretty amazing things. His advocacy work began when he organized a support group after learning he was HIV-positive. The support group morphed into a social group, and “We became a family, bound by the virus we all had running through our veins" He decided to take his advocacy to the next level and start speaking publicly, organizing events, and seeking ways to make the lives of those “I loved better through fighting our biggest enemy: stigma. I learned many things by living openly with my diagnosis and through my passing privilege I got into spaces that most couldn't, yes I admit I have passing privilege, and have never denied my native heritage nor the fact that I come from a very, very rural part of my state.”
The state Willis is referring to is North Carolina, which has been a hot bed of anti-gay and trans rhetoric over the past few years, to which Willis says it gets a bad rap from the current party controlling the heavily gerrymandered state. When he refers to passing privilege, Willis is of indigenous North American descent on both sides of his family. His grandmother was half Seminole and half Cherokee. His other grandmother was Lumbee (a local nation/tribe to N.C.). The rest he laughs, is Scotch-Irish, which is typical for the sand hills of the state. He also has what most consider, an atypical career outside of HIV advocacy, which is HVAC, or Heating and Air Conditioning.
Believe it or not, Willis came out about his status in an ad hoc speech he gave at Gay Bingo night at a United Church of Christ in Elon, N.C.. There were, “about 40 people there and I was beyond nervous! I asked my best friend to just walk with me for moral support. It was well received, being that the old ladies in the crowd were just ready for me to get off stage so they could play more bingo.”
However, Willis caught the attention of the Non-Profit that was hosting the event and was invited to join them in future events. Today he has been with them for 2 years and proudly serve on their Executive Board, being not only the youngest person, but also the only one living with HIV.
The group, called WECAHN, which is short for Wellness & Education Community Action Health Network, which focuses on prevention, education, and assistance of HIV and affected communities in the state. "Since that first time, I have spoken many times and although I still sometimes start off with a slight tremor, that I’ve had since I was a child, I usually get the attention of the crowds in a positive manor, well as long as I’m not interrupting a Bingo game because those ladies are serious about their Bingo!"
This past year, Willis has had great opportunities both at home and abroad. Locally, he has worked with The NC HIV Modernization Task Force, which helped craft a proposed change to the state’s HIV control measures, the measures govern HIV-positive bodies in the NC. More thrilling and Internationally Willis has been selected to be a Youth Ambassador to Honduras through Youth Across Borders out of Columbus, Ohio.
He leaves this January to join orphans living with HIV at Montana del Luz.
Ironically, it’s Willis' mom who’s been his biggest influence as an activist, “When I came out at 15 she was very supportive and raised me to be proud of who I am. Then when I was diagnosed, she said, ‘You can let HIV beat you or you can beat it,’ because I did have a rough period in the beginning. Now days she tells me that I took her advice a little too well. [laughs]”
Lastly, Willis reflects on his youth and what he would do differently. I’d have been more aggressive about being educated, “seriously, don’t wait until you get a diagnosis. As someone recently stated at a meeting I attended, don’t wait for Web MD to start googling what’s going wrong with you. If you know diabetes runs in your family, then research it, if a certain cancer or disease is common in your family then do the research before it is too late. The same goes for HIV or any STI, if you’re having sex, then you need to educate yourself as much as possible."
He adds, “And to all my fellow youth living with HIV, do you to the fullest! If it is just existing or if you’re thinking about doing something big like starting a business, going back to college, or being an advocate like me remember that God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the call! Also, take your medicine because Undetectable Equals Untransmittable!”