Needle Prick Project Discusses Being HIV-Positive Today
When Tyler Curry, 29, tested positive for HIV in July 2012, his big sister was the first person he told. Later, he shared his story with the world by founding The Needle Prick Project, a series of stories and photos about people with HIV who want to share their support for getting tested no matter who you are, to reduce the stigma, and help people open a frank discussion about what it means to be HIV-positive.
"It was the first thing I kept quiet," Curry told EDGE. But after awhile, the quiet started to feel like a burden. Plus, his roommate was telling people he was positive behind his back. "I wanted to find a way to own my own story again," said Curry. So he decided to write about it.
Curry is a freelance writer by trade. He also blogs for the Huffington Post and writes a column for the Advocate. He decided to submit his story, titled "The Needle Prick," to the latter, feeling that if you're going to come out, you might as well come out big.
"And coming out as positive really is the same as coming out as gay," Curry explains. "You have the same fears, rejection, what will your parents think, will you be able to get a job?"
The reactions he received were mixed. Some people were incredibly moved by his bravery. Others thought he had lost his mind coming forward like that.
"The older guard had a hard time with a younger person saying, 'Just get tested,'" said Curry, noting that others shared incredibly heartfelt reactions. "But my story isn't that special. It's just that mine is being told." Most importantly, it got people talking. And that is exactly what Curry wanted.
But he didn't want the conversation to stop with his article. So he went one step further by writing profiles of people and their stories of HIV. From that, the photo project was born. Curry saw it as a way of allowing people to become a part of the conversation and to spread the dialogue within their own circles. "Taking a photo is about committing to the conversation." It started out as a way to brand the profile series. But it has grown dramatically from there.
Reducing Stigma Increases Testing
"There so much stigma attached to HIV, which is why I started this," he told EDGE. "The project is supposed to create dialogue to decrease stigma. Decreasing stigma increases testing."
The Needle Prick Project was so named because Curry sees the prick of the needle as a metaphor. It’s about getting the medicine we need, both figuratively, as in getting the test to obtain our status is a medicine in and of itself since knowing one’s status is half the battle, and literally, as in getting the diagnosis that will lead to the prescription meds that the Positive person needs.
"Once you do it [become a part of the project] you always feel better," he said, noting that the project was about sharing your story and helping others to do the same.
"People are really critical and say I take it too lightly. I just make it digestible," said Curry. "It’s my reality. It’s not something super scary. It’s more of a psychological disease now. I take one pill a day. It can take zero years off my life if I manage my health: weight, diet and alcohol intake."
The Needle Prick Project Travels The Country
The project is taking Curry on the road. He just served as co-emcee for MC LifeWalk in Miami, where he will also do a photo shoot. Then he’s off to Washington, D.C. on May 11, followed by Birmingham, AL on June 2.
He shoots in Dallas out of his apartment. And he’s shot in
Little Rock, as well. But he’s hoping the NPP will take him further, much further.
"Once I have traveled the project and the profile series develops, I want to get a grant and take a six-month trip to Africa and do the same thing," said Curry.
The photos are all simple black and whites except for one small detail -- a Band-Aid that Curry colors red with a crayon. People who are both positive and negative pose for the photos, which aren’t about announcing status. No plans are in the works to show the photos as a group just yet. For now, they appear on the Needle Prick Project website and Facebook page.
The first photo was of himself. His sister’s photo came not long thereafter.
"After I got over the shock of the initial news about Tyler’s status, I had to change my point of view," said Curry’s sister, Amber Garcia, 40, a strategic consultant. "My brother didn’t need me to talk, he needed me to listen and learn about what it is to be HIV-positive today. I needed to evolve, just like the conversation about HIV/AIDS needs to evolve. The Needle Prick Project is starting a new conversation to get us beyond the stigma. I stand strong behind this idea and behind the unwavering strength and conviction that my brother has shown in the face of his own needle prick."
Another early subject was Joshua Stearns, 30, an account manager for a software company. As an avid activist in the community, Stearns said he was glad to be involved with his friend’s project right from the beginning.
"The project means a lot to me, having several friends who are HIV-positive, having to see them face the stigma behind HIV," Stearns told EDGE
"I’ve also had to face the stigma myself," Stearns continues, "being an HIV-negative man who has dated someone that is HIV-positive. It’s very important for us as a community, not just as a gay community, to talk about this and help educate and teach others what HIV is today in 2013, how it is much different than it was in 2003, and even 1993."
Licensed Psychologist Keith Bernardo, Ph.D., 48, was also interested in getting involved right from the start.
"I met Tyler Curry at the gym, and was taken by his intelligence and humor," said Bernardo. "He asked me if I would read his first article prior to it being published, and I happily agreed. I found his piece both very courageous and really refreshing; he was doing the opposite of retreating from his diagnosis. He was embracing it and using it as a force for change."
Bernardo said that for him, Curry represented the ’current’ voice of the HIV community; both respectful of history of the illness and its treatment, while working toward destigmatizing a positive status.
"I got involved in the project because I feel the dialogue he is creating has the potential to be very healing, and may create the necessary shift in perception in order to help people feel more comfortable speaking about their status, protecting others from contraction, while at the same time diminishing possible pejorative views of a positive status," he added.
As Reactions Flow In, Curry Continues to Grow Project
The reactions continue to roll in from all around the country. "Some people are still like, ’Well wait till you get sick and your body wastes away,’" said Curry. "Others say I have cut my dating pool in half. I figure it’s the shallow end of the pool then and I want to swim in the deep end."
Curry is amazed at how much he’s learned from beginning this adventure, saying, "I knew HIV wasn’t something I had to be afraid of but I didn’t know enough. This has taught me the importance of learning to be confident no matter what card you’re dealt. It’s about the difference between being afraid and being responsible. We cannot keep casting shame on one another because it just makes people sicker. The only difference between HIV and so many other diseases is that it is sexually transmitted. We connect shame with sex."
Of all of the emotions Curry went through when he found out he was positive, his biggest challenge was being confronted with his own mortality. Calling his diagnosis "a huge wake-up call," Curry said he was not going to waste a second of the life he’d been afforded.
Interestingly, Curry said facing his mortality in this way was exactly what makes others so uncomfortable about his being out and encouraging others to do the same. Others argue that people will assume anyone who participates is positive. That just makes Curry shake his head. He’s not taking any stock in those remarks.
"A rumor won’t actually transmit a disease," said Curry. Instead of swirling in rumors, Curry wants people to get talking and get tested. "All your doubts will drop to the floor and you’ll be ten pounds lighter," once you know your status.
Although he’s from Dallas, Curry has only been back in town since March. He was a kindergarten teacher in Korea and then lived in Austin.
"I’ve found a way to be happy here. But it took a minute," he said, noting that the project has certainly helped. "I don’t go to therapy. This is my therapy."
Of his haters, some of his worst argue that Curry is taking the issue of being HIV-positive too lightly, suggesting even that he is glamorizing HIV.
"But that would be like trying to Photoshop a picture of the Holocaust," Curry likened, adding that the nasty comments aren’t really about him at all. "The bigger the hater, the more likely they hate themselves, and this is about being honest and out with who you are."
As for the future, Curry said, "I want the project bigger. I want to keep it lean. I want it to be about creating conversation."