Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Conversation with Christopher Barnhill for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Award-winning HIV/AIDS activist, philanthropist and motivational speaker, Christopher Barnhill is changing the face of activism. At the age of 16, Christopher discovered that he was infected at birth with HIV. This motivated him to dedicate his life’s mission to promote HIV/AIDS and personal awareness. Christopher has spent the last 10 years speaking publicly to audiences of 100 to 10,000 about the impact and responsibility of being positive. He is also the founder and executive director of The Emily Foundation, which helps young people in Washington, DC, who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS or drug-related issues. 

To learn more about Christopher, read his full bio or visit his website.


SAN: What made you want to get involved in HIV activism?

ChristopherIt started out when I was 16, I discovered my own status of being positive and it changed – snowballed – and then the avalanche was there. I started out educating my high school about HIV. My health teacher would get permission from my other teachers to pull me out of class so I could educate her class because I was known as ‘the expert’ at school. So that is really what started it. But the purpose of me getting heavily involved was because I didn't want to run into any people my age finding out they were HIV positive, so I wanted to do everything I could in my power to educate them and to prevent them from contracting HIV.

SAN: Can you talk to our readers about the stigma surrounding HIV that exists in the African American community?

Christopher: Oh, well, there’s definitely a lot of stigma in the community. Historically, African Americans are very private with things, especially around health and health-related issues. It’s been passed down from generation to generation and what we’re starting to see is the effect of what stigma can do. You have people who live in a certain part of town going to the other side of town to get HIV tests and HIV services; because you have the stigma of someone finding out that you’re HIV positive by being associated with the organization that provides HIV testing. 

Stigma has definitely played out for me personally. There were people who didn't want to associate with me because I was positive. But the question is why do we allow stigma into our lives? Why do we allow stigma to run our lives to the point that we’re dying? And those are the questions that I just can’t answer.

SAN: If you’re comfortable talking about it, do you have any examples of times when you may have witnessed HIV-related stigmas or discrimination, or had personal experiences with HIV stigma?

Christopher: Oh yeah. The first time I told my high school about being positive, I was threatened with suspension for that because I did it over the announcements for World AIDS Day. The principal didn’t give me permission to share that, and also teachers were different towards me afterwards. But the second form of stigma I experienced is when I was dating someone who was HIV negative and he broke up with me because he thought I was just too open, too public about my status. He didn’t want to be involved with me because he thought it would make other people think he was [HIV] positive as well. So stigma plays out right in your face sometimes, but stigma can play out in the blind spots as well.

SAN: Do those stigmas play out differently when gender or sexuality is involved?

ChristopherWell, I've never been a black woman, so I really can’t speak for them. I would say yes, stigmas play out differently for black women and black gay men. But I do know that stigmas play out differently if you’re living with HIV and are a black heterosexual man, because not a lot of the services are geared towards black men who identify as heterosexual. They’re often afraid of being a part of anything that involves services because they’re afraid they might be associated as gay. For example, there may be a support group for black men living with HIV, but most of them will be gay. As a result, heterosexual black men don’t feel like there’s a space just for them to talk about their experiences with being straight and positive.

SAN: As it is it’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Friday, we would like to ask how you got involved with National Black AIDS Day and what work have you done with them to talk about HIV in the African American Community and the diaspora?

Christopher: Well, every day is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and World AIDS Day for me, so I think being part of the organization has allowed our work to be a little broader. I’ve done a lot of interviews, educated the community on HIV and AIDS and how it specifically affects black people. I also was able to assist with event attendance and organization. I actually got connected three years ago and since then I’ve become one of their spokespeople. I really appreciate what they are doing to ensure that this information is continuously being put out on the surface. If this continues I hope we can lower the rate of HIV.

SAN: What can allies do to better spread awareness about HIV and HIV stigma, for both NBHAAD and going forward?

Christopher: Well they can always:

  1. Go to and start sharing the statistics that are there and signing up to volunteer for events that may be happening in their area.
  2. Show support for others who they know are living with HIV they can start being there for them more, and it doesn’t have to be ‘have you taken your meds’, but what it can be is something as simple as being a shoulder to cry on or just being a listening ear.
  3. I know there are a lot of people who want to help and there are a lot of organizations that need help, like Us Helping Us, BlairUnderwood Health Clinic, Women’s Collective, Sasha Bruce, and Whitman-Walker. There are so many nonprofits in the DC area that are specifically providing HIV related services, and if you work with an organization that does not have health services talk to them and see what they might be inclined to do to support their clients who are living with HIV.
  4. As far as college students, get your Masters in Public Health and focus on chronic disease, and just continuously be on the front line of the work.
  5. And I know that National Youth HIV& AIDS Awareness Day coming up in April, so start signing up for events in your area!

There are a lot of things you can do. You've just got to do them!


A big thank you to Christopher for his interview. If you would like to stay connected to him, you can follow him on Twitter @Pozlyfe, or subscribe to his website.

The SAN is so excited to be partnering with #StigmaWarriors like Christopher and the National Black AIDS Day team for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, coming up this Friday, February 7th! Check out our FB and Twitter pages for more information about the unique stigma and discrimination the black community faces and how you can help reduce it!

For more information about what you can do to help those living with HIV, or to volunteer with organizations in the Washington, DC area which serve those living with HIV, please go to:

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