From downward spiral to optimistic activism
Most people in the Nashville LGBT community will probably recognize Brady Morris, even if they don’t know him personally. Certainly anyone involved in HIV advocacy has probably worked with him at some level or other.
Brady’s journey as an HIV activist began with diagnosis: “Back in 2009, I had just moved to Nashville in March. I was diagnosed in July, and I had no family or friends here. The diagnosis literally stopped my life.” Making matters worse, by the time he was diagnosed he had already progressed to the stage of AIDS.
“For about two years,” Brady said, “all I did was sink into deep depression—there were suicide attempts—I thought my life was over, had no further purpose of meaning. Alcohol, drugs, it was years of me trying to just stay numb. It wasn’t until an acquaintance of mine who knew I was positive came to me and said, ‘I know we aren't good friends, but I know you have been going through this. I was just diagnosed, and I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?’”
This gave Brady a new perspective. “That flipped the script for me,” he said. “I knew I could use my experience to help others, and I don't want anyone else in this community to go through and feel what I did. That motivated me to be more vocal and out about my status.”
Brady decided to study all he could about the virus that had so changed his life, and how he could work to help more people. “Even before I became positive,” he said, “I had all the knowledge: I knew how it was contracted and spread and knew how to prevent it. All it took was one drunk evening and trusting the wrong person one time, and suddenly ‘It’ll never be me’ became ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’”
Since educating himself on the complex social, legal, and political issues related to HIV, Brady has gotten involved all across Nashville. He is perhaps most widely known as one of the smiling faces of Mr. Friendly. “Steven Bloodworth approached me one night,” he recalled, “and told me about the Mr. Friendly campaign, a new face of HIV awareness trying to eradicate stigma by having one open honest conversation at a time. It resonated in my soul, and that’s how it began.”
There, Brady met Larry Frampton, a long-term survivor who has been an HIV advocate for twenty-five years. “Larry took me under his wing,” Brady said, “and they talked me into going to AIDS Watch last year, where we met one-on-one with our senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., to discuss the Ryan White Care Act and how it affects those of us living with HIV and how it improves our lives. We also talk about other major concerns for the HIV community, like criminalization laws.”
After that experience, he said, “I became more up front on social media and use it to fight stigma, talk about what HIV is, and to try to advance knowledge about PREP.” He’s even been invited to begin making presentations on PREP for medical residents at St. Thomas Hospital.
He has also joined the Nashville Regional HIV Planning Council, chaired by Frampton and Robert Adams Magee, and was recently appointed chair of outreach. Part of his role there is “creating a safe space for people who are out or not out about their status—a safe space to come together to discuss what needs are being met, and where they think their needs are not being met, so that I can bring that back to the committee….”
Brady is also active in the Tennessee AIDS Advocacy Network (TAAN), which works to modernize HIV criminalization laws. “We are trying to shape laws that are more reflective of current science,” he said, “rather than the knee jerk reactions to the HIV epidemic which spawned most of these laws. Currently being HIV positive, even as open as I am, if I had a bad breakup and someone lied and said I didn’t disclose, I could be charged with a felony and registered as a sex offender. Intent doesn’t matter, and the burden is generally on the positive person to prove they disclosed.”
Most recently, Brady has joined the board of OutCentral as member-at-large, where he’ll be involved in development and fundraising. Asked why he’d add this to an already full plate, he explained, “When I moved to Nashville, the LGBT community center seemed to have its hands in everything and was a vital part of the community…. I wanted to be part of brining the LGBT community center back to the center of the community…. I’ve talked to a few other new board members, and there is a lot of excitement and commitment, so I think it's going to be a good year for OutCentral!”
In the coming months, Brady also hopes to host an event on Church Street to help raise awareness. “At first I considered a PREP presentation at one of the bigger bars, but I saw other big cities hosting ‘party nights,’ which are less heavy than presentations. It’s a non-threatening way to help inform people that there is a safe, once-a-day pill that can help prevent the contraction of HIV!”
“Just here in Nashville,” Brady said, explaining why he feels his work is so urgent, “about every month I have three or four people come to me through social media who confide that they were recently diagnosed and that they have nowhere to turn…. I know for every one that comes to me there are any number more who are too afraid. I want people to know there is no reason to be afraid with me, no reason to be ashamed. I’m here to talk and help….”
Brady’s own story illustrates why it’s so important to open up and seek help if you have discovered you are HIV-positive. “When I was first diagnosed I felt completely fine, I had no symptoms and hadn't been sick in forever. I was diagnosed with AIDS…. If I had caught a cold, I might have died. As of today my viral load is still undetectable…. That's how good medications are today.”
Stigma and fear remain major barriers to getting people into treatment, and getting everyone who needs it into treatment is the key to ending the epidemic, which is why Brady works to encourage everyone to get tested: “We all have a status: it’s so important to know yours!”