It’s been over 10 years since Cleveland native Bryan Jones walked out of his prison cell, having survived stage 4 cancer chained to a prison bed. But even while he was hitting rock bottom, Jones knew this wasn’t the end. Something much larger was in store for his life.
“I had come to prison to die because I didn’t want my family to take care of me in this ugly death, [but] something was in store for me,” the long-term survivor who has been living with HIV for over 30 years reflects. “When I got out, I said I was no longer going to sanction my words. I was going to speak out about HIV. I took back my power.”
Jones is one of the pillars in the undetectable equals untransmittable movement, which began with a simple Facebook conversation in 2015 with its creator Bruce Richman. Jones took the U=U message to Canada with the help of numerous other activists, including the HIV community in Ottawa, and in 2018 he was present when Canada became the first country to sign on the consensus.
“It’s funny to be part of history because you don’t know that when you’re in it,” he says. “Bruce made a point of being inclusive. I’ve been on stages I probably wouldn’t have got on if it weren’t for Bruce helping me. Most of the U=U ambassadors are people who don’t fit into the mold, we’re all people who are strong and opinionated, who don’t agree with the status quo of what’s been going on. I think U=U is the most important piece [of the movement] since ACT UP.”
As U=U continues to shatter HIV stigma, Jones argues that if we’re truly going to serve those who need the most help, we must have a larger conversation about privilege and how it impacts care and treatment.
“I think it’s important for the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and our government to start funding smaller organizations and community-based organizations,” Jones says. “As an advocate, I found that many providers, ASOs [AIDS service organizations], have their own agendas because so much is required of these organizations to include what the national agenda may be—and the national agenda I think looks very different in different communities.”
“The CDC and other organizations have to be careful with the branding they use,” argues Jones. “They lock people of color all under the same umbrella. Black, Latino, Pacific Islanders, and Native American people all have our [own] issues. But as it relates to funding, they have us under one umbrella. Then, there’s white people. So white people are getting their funding, but people of color, we have to fight for our funding.”
Jones has founded The Dirt Advocacy Movement, whose primary goal is to reach the most vulnerable and at-risk in his community, including hosting a food pantry that serves 15,000 people a month.
“There are no single-issue fights because there are no single-issue lives,” he says. “The government has to stop treating HIV like a single-issue fight, because there are more important things such as survival, feeding your kids, having shelter, things like that. People have enough to worry about.”
“We as people living with HIV have an insight, we have a powerful voice collectively,” Jones concludes. “U=U is another example that people with HIV are an intricate part of this fight. People with HIV are going to take it across the finish line.”