Making a difference requires more than viral YouTube videos and Broadway stage credits. It requires action, education, and above all, passion. Innovator and activist Todrick Hall has all these qualities in spades, and he’s using them to spark dialogues within the black community about HIV treatment and prevention. He’s teaming up with Janssen Therapeutics for their Positively Fearless campaign, which celebrates the bravery that inspires people living with HIV to seek treatment and fight stigma.
Since rising to prominence on the ninth season of American Idol, Hall has become a fan favorite with his ultra-viral YouTube videos — including my favorite, Beauty And The Beat (It’s hysterical!) — as well as being a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and starring in Broadway’s Kinky Boots. In fact, he’s gotten so popular among young people that his fans call themselves themselves “Toddlerz.” His new, acclaimed documentary Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall (released by Wolfe Video) is now available to stream on digital platforms.
Hall knows the influence he’s starting to build, especially among young gay and bi men of color, which is why hearing the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspired him to not only insert dialogue about HIV prevention into his work, but to do so in his every day life as well.
According to the CDC, if current HIV rates continue, one in two African-American men who have sex with men (and one in four Latino MSM) will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. Additionally, only 54 percent of African-Americans living with HIV are on treatment, and fewer (49 percent) are virally suppressed.
“When I hear those statistics, they’re just mind-boggling to me,” Hall says. “And that’s a 2017 statistic? That sounds like something that should have been over and done with years ago. And I just don’t want to rest and get off of this topic until those numbers have dramatically decreased.”
That may be easier said than done but Hall is not afraid to say that he, too, has been victim to shame and fear when it comes to testing. Yet with education, discussion, and trust, there is no reason for either to exist. Hall learned that the old fashioned way.
“There’s a thing that [still] makes me nervous to go to the doctor,” he shares. “But after I go there, I feel great about it, and I feel awesome just knowing what my status is and knowing that I can go out and be honest with the people who I’m meeting and forming relationships with.”
It’s no surprise that Hall is eager to share the resources PositivelyFearless.com offers visitors: a slew of information, catered specifically to gay and bisexual African-American and Latino men, including fact sheets, tips, and resources about HIV medication resistance and other frequently asked questions pertaining to HIV. For Hall, it’s a resource he wished he had growing up.
Above: Todrick Hall wowed the crowds performing at Atlanta Black Pride
“I have dated a few people that were poz and I was so afraid,” he reflects. “It was like a huge issue in my relationships and I had to go out and try to seek out all these pamphlets and stuff. But I felt like I was getting little scraps of information that I could kind of piece together and paper-mache some type of solution to my problem. But when I went to PositivelyFearless.com it [had] all of the information that I needed to know… I felt like all of the statistics spoke to me, and helped me have information that I wasn’t able to easily find whenever I was looking for myself.”
For many couples in serodiscordent relationships (when one person is poz and the other isn’t), there is often a fear of judgment when openly addressing the subject. Hall was no exception. In large part, the apprehension is due to recognition of the enduring cultural mindset that HIV is a death sentence. When in fact, HIV is a manageable condition that’s impossible to transmit to a sexual partner while one is on treatment with an undetectable viral load.
Furthermore, those who practice PrEP (medication that when used regularly prevents HIV from entering the body) — or are interested in doing so — are also experiencing judgement and shaming. These are the kind of stigmas that Hall is hoping to erase.
Above: Todrick Hall (left) and Deondre Moore, another advocate with the Positively Fearless campaign, tool around Atlanta Black Pride
“I was a little bit nervous in the beginning to openly say that I had dated people who were positive, for my own sake and my own reputation, but also for other people who I’ve dated,” Hall says. “When I realized that so many people were like, ‘Thank you for saying that, because I’m positive and I felt like no one would want to date me,’ I felt like it [became] this huge thing that the more we talk about it and the more people are open to dating other people, I think it helps crush the stigma. It makes people feel like it’s okay to go out and know your status. And whatever it’s going to be, you’re going to be better off for knowing it. You’re going to be healthier. And you’re just going to be a much happier person in the end.”
Hall continues, “Love is difficult no matter what situations you’re faced with. I think that everybody has their own problems about falling in love. I definitely understand where they’re coming from with that fear. I think it is a valid feeling to cross your mind. But I think that the more people are educated… the more they play their part in helping people that they fall in love with understand. It would have been very nice for me, when I was dating someone [poz], for them to give me information that they had found themselves, and to open my eyes to it…. It might not always work out, but I think the person that’s worthwhile—and worth you being with — will stick with you through thick and thin.”
Access to care, especially in black communities, have been a large barrier in eradicating HIV rates. Despite the U.S. seeing a 14 percent drop in HIV diagnoses among African-Americans between 2010 and 2014 (fueled by a steep decline among African-American women), according to HIV.gov, African-Americans are still the ethnic group most affected by HIV. That’s one reason it’s more important than ever to increase access to care in rural communities — especially in the South, where HIV rates are the highest in the country.
But access to treatment isn’t everything. It doesn’t fight stigma. It can’t make someone get tested, adhere to treatment, or use preventative tools like PrEP.
“I think a great lifelong strategy is to be honest and be open and having people who have the ability to reach millions of people use their voice to educate people,” Hall says. “That’s always going to be a smart strategy, which is why I’m really happy that I teamed up with Positively Fearless, because I have so many people in this community that follow me. They come to my show. And I want to just encourage them to take care of their health. And to jump onboard. To go get tested. To go get medication. Stay on that medication!”
Follow Hall on YouTube or Twitter: @Todrick.