Billy Willis has come a long way from the Elon, North Carolina where he first came out HIV-positive on bingo night. In the small town (fewer than 10,000 residents) where Willis grew up, proud of his heritage — part Seminole, Cherokee, Lumbee, and Scotch-Irish — he was an atypical activist. Working by day as a Heating and Air Conditioning tech, he also serves on the board of the Wellness & Education Community Action Health Network, which provides prevention education, testing, access to care, and support services for people affected or at high risk for HIV, STIs, and other health disparities. Willis is the youngest person who is HIV-positive to ever serve on the board .
Last year, Willis was also selected to be a Youth Ambassador to Honduras through Youth Across Borders in order to visit a children’s home for kids living with or affected by HIV or AIDS.
Willis says his trip to Honduras was actually pretty scary because it was the first time he left the country. In fact, he became the first person in his family to travel outside the U.S. Willis adds, “I’d researched the political and social climate of Honduras, which doesn’t have a great reputation. But once I arrived in Tegucigalpa, my fears and anxiety left me.”
When he reached the Montana del Luz children’s home, Willis says the kids, “greeted us with a song, each one introducing themselves to us. I was hopeful that I would bond with some of the children, which happened almost immediately.” He remains friends via social media. “We talked about all sorts of stuff, but my favorite was when they found out I do heating and air because one of them wants to be an electrician. I bonded with him the most — I am now his Padrino! It means godfather. He was stuck in summer school most of my visit, but I still cried my eyes out on the way to the airport thinking about not being able to talk to him more about his career interest.”
Willis says the experience profoundly changed him. “When I got back to the US, I made a few life changes. I decided to move out of the town I was in to a more conducive environment for my activism. I also made the decision that it was time for me to start dating again after being single for four years. That probably stemmed from being surrounded by a multitude of adorable children and yearning to be a father one day.”
He also got more involved in his own community again, “I had been on a hiatus for a while because I had become numb from constantly dealing with the trauma of helping other traumatized people. I find that I’m now a much better listener now and have no reservations about taking time for self-care.”
Willis has also worked on decriminalizing HIV and says, “In my own state, we had a huge win in terms of modernizing our health codes to reflect the current science of HIV. North Carolina no longer mandates that we are required to disclose or wear a condom, if we are undetectable which is defined as having a viral load under 200 for longer than 6 months. If someone in North Carolina does have a viral load over 200, then they do have to disclose, but aren’t required to wear a condom if their partner is also positive or on PrEP. I have mixed feelings about this, mainly because I and many others felt like it’s created two classes of people living with HIV. This of course wasn’t the goal, but it is the first stepping stone in full modernization of the way people in North Carolina are treated while living with HIV. And at the end of the day, we all have more freedoms than any time since the laws were introduced back in the 1980s!”
Looking to the future Wilis says he would like to pursue something more artistic. "I recently got back into painting, but with a different medium than most, my own HIV positive blood. I entered my first piece this year in a contest at the HIV is Not a Crime Training Academy III in Indianapolis, IN and it was revealed that the entries will be a part of over 100 museum’s World AIDS Day exhibits this winter through Visual AIDS. I’m very proud of this, but I am also rejuvenated by the reception of such a shocking piece, it isn’t common to see blood incorporated into art."