It’s been three years since Daniel Driffin nervously stood on stage at the Democratic National Convention, ushered in to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.” The song could be a metaphor for Driffin’s network building ethos.
Just a year prior, Driffin and two friends — Larry Scott-Walker and Dwain Bridges — founded THRIVE Support Services, a support network for Black same-gender loving men, which then had 44 members. Driffin was the first out person living with HIV to speak at the DNC in 16 years, and only the sixth to speak at either party’s national convention. Elizabeth Glaser and Bob Hattoy were the first, in 1992 at the DNC, at the urging of Bill Clinton. Mary Fisher came after, at the Republican National Convention the same year. Then again at the DNC was Phill Wilson in 1996, and Jesse Milan in 2000.
Sixteen years without HIV being part of the conversation left a lot of responsibility on Driffin, who spoke of Hillary Clinton’s support of HIV causes as senator and later secretary of state, which included lifting the HIV travel ban in the U.S. and helping get antiretroviral meds to 6.7 million around the world. With HIV cases on the decline overall, Driffin added that Americans now know how to prevent, diagnose, treat, and suppress HIV — and “we learned all that within my lifetime.”
But those still most at risk? “Young gay Black men like me,” he said, adding that Black transgender women are at high risk too. Driffin called for investing in more research, expanding treatment, and electing Clinton.
THRIVE SS is still going strong today, with over 900 Black SGL men living with HIV in Atlanta, and more than 300 Black women in an extended network. They also touch an additional 3,300 folks within national networks.
“We see new conversations occurring that never happened before THRIVE SS being in existence,” Driffin says now. “We have more than 125 Black SGL men in national campaigns discussing thriving with HIV.”
Even better? THRIVE’s annual engagement survey shows more participants reporting viral suppression of their HIV. It went from 86 percent in 2015 to 92 percent in 2018. In addition, Driffin says, the group has moved the community to be “centered around affirmation versus the negativity.” And it’s only the beginning.
“Myself, Dwain, and Larry believed a new definition of support was needed for Black SGL men living with HIV,” he recalls of THRIVE’s founding. “We believe health is crucial, but if health isn’t supported through fun and family, than what one pill will fix [it]?” There is still need for “more work that is innovative and supportive of Black and Brown communities.”
Driffin, 33, is the oldest of five kids and says he’s still deeply connected to his “family in South Carolina and my created family in Atlanta and across the nation.” Raised in Rochester, N.Y., Driffin spent six years in South Carolina before ending up in Atlanta about a decade ago, where he quickly became a committed activist. There he founded Undetectables Atlanta (a group of over 400 gay and bisexual men with HIV), chaired both the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative and the Task Force to End AIDS in Fulton County, Ga., and served as the Georgia Equality Youth HIV Policy Advisor. Driffin has also been honored as one of Poz magazine’s Poz 100 and Plus’s Most Amazing HIV-Positive People.
It’s a far cry from years ago, he admits. “I don’t think I could have imagined the life I lived a decade ago. I still remember how lonely I felt on June 19, 2008, when I tested positive in Columbia, S.C. To sit here in 2019, after creating and assisting large-scale community interventions to move Black SGL men to a healthier place is humbling — and I still feel like I have so much more to do.”
He’s doing all he can too. Last year, he helped found the SPOT, an HIV testing center inside Atlanta’s Rush Center (where many nonprofit and LGBTQ orgs meet). According to Project Q, THE SPOT is “a joint venture of the Rush Center, THRIVE SS, Georgia Equality, AbsoluteCARE Medical Center & Pharmacy, and Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition. It’s funded through a $75,000 grant from the pharmaceutical company Gilead.”
Above: Daniel Driffin speaks during the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia in 2016. He was the first out speaker in 16 years who was living with HIV.
The SPOT, says Driffin, can reach people who aren’t always comfortable at traditional service agencies. He thinks that happens because there’s “a level of shame and stigma wrapped up within all of our healthcare settings.” Organizations need to actively reduce stigma and negative interactions, he says, which is why the SPOT is “sex-positive, HIV-accepting, and trust-inspiring, regardless if they are needing HIV testing or PrEP.”
Today, the SPOT has grown to three locations with STI testing and are in the final stages of adding housing opportunities for people vulnerable and living with HIV. “But so much need is still being requested,” says Driffin.
“We can have a SPOT at every organization in and around Atlanta to serve as the ultimate peer navigator for the perspective of living with HIV. People living with HIV are experts on how to navigate systems when they work and have always helped other friends living with the virus to be the healthiest.”
In addition to cofounding THRIVE SS and the SPOT (a collaboration of THRIVE and partners), Driffin has a new day job too, as deputy executive director of Living Room.
Living Room, an organization that helps people living with HIV find and keep stable housing, serves a 29-county region including Atlanta area and parts of rural Northwest Georgia region. According to the organization’s own website, over 90 percent of their clients “are defined as ‘extremely low income,’ so finding and maintaining affordable housing is essential to preventing homelessness.” It’s also the state’s largest facilitator of emergency and transitional housing for people living with HIV. Driffin says as the new role will allow him “to think of innovative strategies to bring housing opportunities and medical care closer for people living with HIV in and around Atlanta metro. The Living Room has served people living with HIV for more than two decades through Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS (HOPWA) projects. I am excited since I am relatively new to creating housing solutions for our community, but I am a firm believer of using models and methods that have worked in HIV prevention, research, and care.”
“Here in Georgia, we have several issues around access,” Driffin says. “Access shows up at the primary level of ensuring people can get to and from their medical appointments. This also includes providing for working people to have places to access care [after] 4:30 pm and even on the weekends. I believe fixing simple things around rides to and from and hours we will be able to touch more people instantly.”
The activist says that a culture of indignity that can be present at an organization, and the ability to treat someone living with HIV with respect, has to come from every person they deal with — from the security guards and front desk worker to the case managers and executive director — or it can be an impediment to access. And just as access to food and housing can be barriers to care, Driffin says that both current political administrations and the media play vital roles in whether people live their healthiest lives. As media outlets (including Plus) rushed to share quotes from an Emory HIV expert last year who likened the HIV rates in downtown Atlanta to that of Zimbabwe, Driffin says they missed a key component.
“Good reporting must start with someone being connected and willing to do the work of touching the people on the ground most impacted,” he says. “I think many felt this was not the case concerning this article… I [also] think the media has to be willing to not always sell HIV from a doom and gloom perspective but showing people living and thriving with HIV.”
With his plate so full it’s hard to believe Driffin still has a clinical medical degree in his future, though he is currently determining if that is as a nurse, physician’s assistant, or as a medical doctor.
And besides that medical degree and impacting the lives — hell, perhaps saving the lives — of people living with HIV, Driffin says he’s got dreams like everyone else: buying a house, travelling, a long-term relationship.
What he’s not interested in, though, is bragging about his own firsts, saying the question seems egocentric to him.
“I don’t think I do this work to say, ‘I am the first at this and that.’ I hope to be the first person to remind people, especially Black SGL men living with HIV, that they deserve quality, culturally-affirming care regardless of ability to pay.”