The Mr. Friendly stigma forum comes to Nashville

Chances are you’ve seen the buttons around Nashville: those funny smiley faces with a + for a nose? If you haven’t, you will, if Stephen Bloodworth—the Nashville-based organizer of the Mr. Friendly campaign in Tennessee—has anything to say about it!

Bloodworth brought Mr. Friendly to Tennessee back in September 2013, and what began as a team of two has grown to include twelve team members. How does Team Friendly fight stigma? Through one-on-one conversations in the places LGBT people unwind: bars, clubs, festivals, and Pride.

The Mr. Friendly program—its symbol and its method—is the creation of David Watt, and got its start at a leather competition. In 2008, Watt competed for the Mr. Michigan Leather title, and HIV stigma was the social issue he chose to address in his speech. He used the image of Mr. Friendly there for the first time in public as well.

And indeed the image, those buttons and t-shirts you are starting to see on people, are the key to his program. It’s one thing to say you want to have a safe and non-threatening conversation about HIV in a bar or at a festival, but it’s quite another thing to actually successfully initiate and navigate such a conversation! The Mr. Friendly logo, however, serves as the perfect conversation starter: people ask about the buttons, or a team member asks if you are familiar with them? If you aren’t the symbolism of the button serves as a centerpiece for a conversation about HIV stigma.

“It’s about having those friendly conversations in a nonjudgmental way,” explains Bloodworth, “and letting people know that it doesn’t matter whether you’re positive or negative, you can still fight stigma. That’s what our logo stands for!” Banishing stigma is of central importance to the fight against HIV, many activists believe, because the stigma around HIV makes disclosure more uncomfortable, and it leads many people to avoid getting tested.

“Fighting stigma,” Bloodworth said, “is one key way of getting people tested. And of course that’s another mission of ours, to directly encourage testing. But it’s all in how you do it. Shame and guilt are terrible ways of motivating people, and when someone tests positive, that shame and guilt is hard to get rid of. With the support of Mr. Friendly team members both positive and negative, we hope we can make people comfortable enough that they want to get tested.”

To that end, Watt will be coming to Nashville for a special event, The Mr. Friendly Stigma Forum, on March 27, 2015, at the Vibe Entertainment Complex from 7pm—9pm. Bloodworth explained that “the training is on how Mr. Friendly works, the correct way to start a conversation with someone about HIV, the words to use and the words not to use. We want our team members and the wider community to understand that some of the language we use, like ‘clean’ and ‘DDF,’ create fear and shame, and discourage testing.”

Watt will also be bringing additional Mr. Friendly apparel to help participants start their own conversations. There are even t-shirts with Mr. Friendly bears and Mr. Friendly pigs! “There’s a misconception that wearing a Mr. Friendly symbol means you’re positive,” Bloodworth said, “but that is absolutely false, and a result of stigma. And wearing our merchandise means you are committed to ending that very stigma.”

After the workshop, Mr. Friendly will be conducting a bar crawl, where trainees can implement what they learned from Watt in a real life situation. Bloodworth encourages all who are interested, either in becoming a team member or in learning how to have different kinds of conversation about HIV, to attend the event.





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