Joseph Interrante is the outgoing CEO of Nashville CARES, the second-largest charitable organization in the Music City region, which provides services to those living with HIV or AIDS, or at risk of becoming HIV-positive. Interrante is a long-term survivor who tested positive in 1985, but says, “Since my first life partner was diagnosed with AIDS in Boston in 1983, I have probably been living with HIV longer than 34 years. I am 66 years old now.”
The fact that his partner was the first person diagnosed with AIDS in Boston who was willing to acknowledge his medical condition publicly became an extra incentive for Interrante to become an HIV activist. On a personal level, he says, “the support I received from others during the six months of my partner’s illness and death in 1983 showed me the difference that an AIDS organization could make in the lives of people living with AIDS and their loved ones, and compelled me to ‘pay it forward.’”
In 1988, he became a staff member at a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. Then he moved to Nashville in 1994, where he’s continued his HIV work ever since. In 2019, Interrante will retire after 25 years as the CEO of Nashville CARES. During his leadership, the organization has grown and reinvented itself in response to changes in the epidemic. Most recently, CARES changed its mission in 2014 to reflect the advances in prevention and treatment that have provided the tools to end the epidemic. That led to a paradigm shift in how Interrante thought about, carried out, and evaluated the organization’s work.
While Interrante is hopeful that we can end HIV and AIDS, he’s not as optimistic when it comes to our ability to eliminate stigma.
“If the last two years have taught us anything — not to mention, years of work before 2016 — efforts to end or eliminate stigma will, at best, produce mixed results. ‘Haters gonna hate,’ to quote a certain artist with Nashville roots,” he says. “We should spend less time and energy on trying to ‘end stigma’ and more time building people living with HIV and AIDS resilience to navigate stigma — as well as recognizing when we’re really the objects of stigma and when we’re just being treated in a lousy way that has nothing to do with HIV — which happens too frequently within some institutional medical settings. That will make us all stronger.”
Interrante says he’s flattered to be recognized for his work, but says, “I try not to give these lists too much weight. Every day in my work at Nashville CARES… I walk down the hall and run into staff and volunteers also living with HIV, who are just as amazing, courageous, and dedicated [as me].”