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Battling HIV-associated Stigma for "A Positive Tomorrow"

Tanner White, a marine who has been diagnosed with HIV is making strides in fighting HIV-associated stigma by providing the public with education on the virus through the creation of his nonprofit organization called, “A Positive Tomorrow.”

HIV remains a global problem; around 1.2 million individuals are HIV-positive in the United States alone. Of those who are infected, about 13% are unaware, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition to the trying health implications of being diagnosed with HIV, infected individuals also have to deal with all of the different stigmas that have become associated with the infection, one of them being “uncleanliness.”

Twenty-four-year-old Marine, Tanner White, contracted HIV while out on active duty and since his diagnosis, he has been on a mission to battle HIV-associated stigma through education.

In a recent press release, White said, “Honestly, I was scared as soon as I found out I may be HIV-positive. I thought the Marine Corps was going to force me out. But I learned that I could stay in and even be promoted.” However, he did concede that there were limitations to his new diagnosis. He elaborated, “(HIV-positive service members) have to be in supportive units, and we can’t have any special assignments: no combat instructor, recruiter, drill instructor, or Marine security guard. It’s upsetting that I can’t deploy or go on special duty, but I am still in and I still have a career.”

After trying to donate blood to the Red Cross when he was 19, he was informed that he had tested positive for the infection. His results were then sent to his chain of command and the medical service contacted each individual that White had sexual relations with in the previous year to make them aware of White’s diagnosis. Ever since then, White has grown accustomed to the different stigma associated with being HIV-positive that mainly results from people not fully understanding HIV or how the infection can be transmitted.

In the press release, White said, “There have been times when other Marines refused to go out on a cruise with me, didn’t want to shake my hand, or didn’t use the same restroom as me. They were worried about what would happen if I cut myself; they didn’t want to take risks. The majority of the stigma comes from not being educated on how HIV is spread or how one becomes infected.”

Realizing this, White decided to create a YouTube channel in order to discuss his experiences and let other individuals living with the virus know that they are not alone. White speaks to them as their “favorite positive Marine.”

According to the Marine Corps Equal Opportunity Manual, their policy is to provide equal treatment and opportunity to every single Marine, depending on “individual merit, fitness, and ability.” Additionally, the Marine Corps acknowledges that any kind of discrimination would have a negative effect on morale, which is needed in order to be combat ready. Any kind of discriminatory conduct is “unacceptable” because it will “eventually poison a unit’s cohesion and morale.”

White commented that when it comes to harassment in the Marine Corps, his command is “pretty good” at keeping it at a minimum. However, White said, “Like right now, I want to be a recruiter but I can’t because it’s an order. And not being competitive for these special assignments may give the military a reason to eventually force me out.”

Despite these obstacles, White continues to make strides in his work to defeat the stigma. As a continuation of what he had started on YouTube, he has created an organization called A Positive Tomorrow. His organization aims to completely defeat HIV-associated stigma through educating the public and speaking up. According to their website, “We vow to be on the front line of the fight to end stigma, and our mission will not be over until stigma no longer exists.”

When speaking of the organization, White said, “One of the ways to end the stigma is through education. I saw a need to be open about my HIV status and a need for the nonprofit. I’m the type of person that tries to help everyone else, and this is just one more way that I’m doing that.”

White recently spoke with Contagion on how his organization aims to achieve its goal. He wrote, “Some of the things that A Positive Tomorrow is doing in order to end stigma include posting articles that highlight what those of us who are positive go through on a daily basis. Standing up and letting people know that we are out there and letting them know what we go through is a great way to begin to fight stigma. We also try and attend as many local events as possible to set up a booth to educate those in our community about HIV, which will help further our fight.”

In addition to the commitment to break HIV-associated stigma, A Positive Tomorrow reminds everyone that they are not alone. In fact, they have a page on their official website entitled “We Are Not Alone,” which allows people to share their own personal stories with others, reminding them that they are not alone and providing them with a safe place to share their own experiences.

By the end of the year, A Positive Tomorrows aims to raise $10,000. With this money, they strive to develop programs for HIV education that can be used in local health facilities and create a support group where anyone who is affected by HIV can go to share their own experiences.

As the organization reaches its goals, White will take on a number of challenges. According to the website, when they reach $500, White will complete an “Ice Tub Challenge,” when they reach $1,000, he will complete a “Hot Wax Challenge,” at $2,500, he will take on a “Karaoke Challenge,” at $5,000, white will complete an “Eat It or Wear It Challenge,” and at the end goal of $10,000, White will take on a “Ghost Pepper Challenge.”

Additionally, White told us, “We are also working on hosting a color run this year for the first time which will help to gather attention to our fight and further increase our strides we are making against stigma.”

The Color Me Red 5K will be held on November 19, 2016, at Jacksonville Commons in Onslow County, North Carolina.