Chris Richey’s journey with HIV has taken him to some unexpected places — including the White House.
Richey, diagnosed HIV-positive in 2011, responded to the news first with shame, then with action, founding the Stigma Project the following year with friend Scott McPherson (a former HIV Plus art director). The Stigma Project is dedicated to using social media campaigns in hopes of creating a world that is “HIV neutral” — that is, where there is no stigma attached to the virus — and educating people on HIV prevention, to the point that someday the world will be free of HIV and AIDS. And they want to involve both HIV-positive and –negative people in the effort.
“The night I was diagnosed with HIV, I felt a great deal of shame,” says Richey, a 26-year-old Texas native now living in Los Angeles. “I was most definitely not thinking that I wanted to be a leader in the HIV community, let alone starting an HIV organization.” Eventually his fighting spirit kicked in.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always been a fighter, standing up for things I thought to be right and fighting things I thought to be wrong,” Richey says. “At some point, I felt I needed to stand up and fight back against HIV stigma. And that passion has only a grown stronger as the CEO of [the Stigma Project], as I feel a great deal of responsibility to make sure I am doing everything I can to help put an end to this epidemic.”
His decision to be open about being HIV-positive, he says, came when he was watching Milk, the feature film about pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk, which showed Milk proclaiming, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
“He was making the case for coming out of the closet and telling your friends, family, and coworkers because there was no better way to put a human face on those who were gay,” says Richey. “I thought the same thing could be true with HIV and in fact, when I started talking about living with HIV to my friends and my family, they learned far more than they ever did from anything else because now it was personal to them too.”
Last year was a big year for The Stigma Project. It was legally incorporated as a nonprofit organization, but even before that, it received an invitation from the White House to participate in a panel discussion on HIV. “It was surreal to think that our little organization, which at that point in time wasn’t even a real organization in the legal sense, had gotten the White House’s attention,” Richey says. Also, The Stigma Project partnered with Gilead Sciences for the Engage campaign, encouraging people with HIV to get engaged in treatment and stick with it. The Engage campaign booth was a major attraction at both the U.S. Conference on AIDS in 2013 and the 2014 Creating Change conference.
The Stigma Project continues to be a “little organization,” with the founders working out of their homes, but it’s already made a big impact. “To date, we have reached 3 million people in 156 countries and started 150,000 conversations about HIV,” Richey says. “We have a huge social media following and are constantly working to engage them and inspire them to engage their networks. And we will continue to grow our reach and develop creative ways to inspire people and move them to action until this plague is over.”