Growing up in a religious community in Atlanta, Larry Scott-Walker heard stigma preached from the pulpit. “Men who love other men are going to hell,” he heard.
Thank heavens, Scott-Walker didn’t believe those words. And since then he’s learned how to fight back against that kind of stigma. He gained that knowledge after testing positive for HIV and then working with other HIV-positive Black men as a program manager leading support groups in Baltimore and Atlanta.
He didn’t stop there. Scott-Walker also took the fight against stigma public by cofounding THRIVE SS with Dwain Bridges and Daniel Driffin in 2015. The nonprofit, based in Georgia, with branches in Tennessee, California, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., provides both in-person and 24/7 online peer support services for those living with HIV.
THRIVE SS, which stands for Transforming HIV Resentment into Victories Everlasting Support Services, initially started as a Facebook group where HIV treatment was discussed, but members also shared their personal interests and favorite pop cultural topics. After a few weeks, 45 members met for an in-person BYOB Sunday brunch — and the group was born into the real world. Now, in the Atlanta metro area alone, Thrive SS counts nearly 1,000 Black gay and bi men and 250 Black women as members. It has more than 3,500 members nationwide.
Beyond hosting events and connecting members to health services, housing, and employment, Thrive SS provides what it calls “Judy support,” a network where Black people can share their stories, advocate for one another, and collectively fight stigma. The term refers to the late gay icon Judy Garland. THRIVE SS calls its peer-support network the Undetectables Model due to its various programs that help members achieve viral suppression, which is also known as undetectable status.
This work is essential as Black men who have sex with men bear the brunt of the modern AIDS epidemic in America; 50 percent of this demographic will test positive in their lifetimes, predicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016. Nationwide, only 57 percent of those Black gay and bi men who knew their HIV status were virally suppressed at that time.
Among THRIVE SS members, however, 92 percent who participated in a 2018 survey reported viral suppression. Scott-Walker pointed to the power of the community he helped build in achieving this success. He also urged Plus readers to watch the organization’s film Outrun the Sky, a documentary that showcases five Black men living with HIV as a way to give faces to the statistics. The subjects, Eric Collins, Isaac Gilliard III, Lamar McMullen, Bryson Richard, and Boomer Woods, reside in American cities that have been hit hardest by the virus.
“I hope that my work will inspire Black same-gender loving men to love their full selves. To see that we are more than what our oppressors have put us through, and that we belong to a rich resilient community,” Scott-Walker told Plus. “I pray that THRIVE is able to continue providing life-saving support and innovative programming, like our film Outrun the Sky — featured in this year’s Out on Film festival, that rewrite the narrative of what it means to be Black, queer and living with HIV.”