Imagine a billboard-size photograph of your face plastered to a semi-truck that’s driving around your state — outing you everywhere for a “Faces of HIV” mobile art exhibit. That’s what Kamaria Laffrey agreed to as part of the Florida Department of Health’s HIV awareness campaign in 2015.
“Being from a small town, it was a little surreal to have people see my face or look up the video and know so much about me,” Laffrey admits, but it was worth it. “I know it has had a positive impact on people.” Although the campaign has ended, Laffrey continues to be public about her status and says, “As a woman of color in the southern region of our nation, I feel it is vital that I keep speaking to the issues of HIV and stigma. The mobile art exhibit awarded me a platform that I get to utilize and have open conversations about treatment adherence, issues with disclosure, and embracing the realities of managing a life with HIV.”
Although she’s been HIV-positive since 2003, this mom has only recently became involved in this type of HIV activism. But she has thrown herself into fighting HIV criminalization statutes, and is currently leading the Sero Project’s efforts to modernize HIV-specific laws in Florida. For the 2016 HIV is Not a Crime National Training Academy II, in Huntsville, Ala., Laffrey submitted her first abstract, Be the Change You Seek, which led to a workshop, that has now been presented in other venues.
As Sero Project’s Florida community organizer, Laffrey says she’s learned “to use my weaknesses as strengths and to embrace my strengths as tools that elevate my voice in my advocacy. I have learned that policy work is not a game. You have to commit and be patient. I have learned that there is no blueprint and we are all here for one another. I have learned I am more capable to handle this work than I give myself credit for.”
Thrilled to be honored as an amazing HIV-positive person, Laffrey says, “To be recognized by my peers, the community, and other influencers means everything to me.”
In the future, Laffrey hopes “to achieve modernizing the law in Florida,” and wants to see more community-based organizations “established in my county.” Perhaps one will be her own — emPOWERed Legacies — which she soon hopes to establish as an official 501c3 nonprofit. Laffrey says she wants what started out as a ministry in her church to end up serving “as a support hub for people living with HIV and more. I asked myself what would I do with my life if there was a cure tomorrow? The answer was there are still people that need to embrace healing from past mistakes, trauma, [and] experiences, and I want to give them inspiration on how to do that.”
Appalled at how things are “twisted to fit the agendas of leaders [who] do not have heart for people, but only for power,” Laffrey says, “As a Christian woman of color living with HIV in the South, raising a teenager, married to someone with a criminal record, and [being the] daughter of a disabled Army veteran, I constantly feel on edge to fight for the freedom to remain free.” But she adds, “For every mind-bending thing we see on the news of how principles are being ignored and leaders are not being held accountable, we the people have access to so many opportunities in our communities and online to fight... [those] that try to tell us we are not worthy to live in this democracy.”
— Tami Haught, Sero Project’s organizing and training coordinator behind the HIV is Not a Crime Training Academy, and Jacob Anderson-Minshall, deputy editor of Plus.