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2021's Amazing People Living with HIV: Activist Deirdre Johnson

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Deirdre Johnson is a woman on a mission to eradicate the stigma around HIV and end the criminalization of people living with it — and she’s winning.

“When I was first diagnosed [21 years ago], I thought I would have to live a life of shame and despair because of my HIV status. Instead, I live a full life following my dreams and passions without apologies and creating change along the way,” she says.

Johnson isn’t just thriving, however; she’s putting in the work and fighting so that others living with HIV can have the same outlook. The fight, in Johnson’s case, starts with justice reform. To that end, Johnson cofounded the ECHO VA coalition, which stands for Ending Criminalization of HIV and Overincarceration in Virginia, alongside Dr. Cedric Pulliam. This past March, SB1138, a bill Johnson advocated for, passed in the Virginia state legislature and effectively decriminalized HIV non-disclosure. In doing so, it ended decades of antiquated and ineffective laws that not only added to the feelings of mistrust people living with HIV had for the health care system, but added to the ongoing issue of mass incarceration.

While her peers might consider Johnson a leader, that’s not how she sees herself. Johnson’s all about collaboration. “The word ‘leader’ implies a single person, and none of the work that I’m involved in was done by just me. I like to refer to myself and others as a ‘partner in change’ instead of being called a leader,” she explains. “I think that it’s important for all of us to be partners in change among people living with HIV because the representation of all lived experiences needs to be seen, heard, and celebrated. One person cannot lead alone; it takes all of us to work collectively to lead.”

One project Johnson is excited about is her new website, DeirdreSpeaks.com, launched earlier this year. Through the site, Johnson is utilizing her experience of living with HIV for more than two decades to help educate and inspire others. And if you should know anything about Johnson, it’s that when she sets her mind to achieve something, she will — with a big, welcoming smile on her face.

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