“We Gonna Be Alright”: An HIV Activist at the 1st National Movement for Black Lives Convening

By Waheedah Shabazz-El, PWN-USA Director of Regional Organizing



Waheedah Shabazz-El.
Waheedah Shabazz-El.

“Unapologetically Black” was a major theme amongst more than 1,500 Black activists and organizers in attendance at the 1st National Movement for Black Lives Convening, held July 24-26, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio, at Cleveland State University. I arrived of course as a Stakeholder and an HIV Activist representing PWN-USA, Philadelphia FIGHT, and HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA) — intent on helping to shape the landscape of the new Black Movement through identifying critical intersectional opportunities for movement building. Highlighting the implications of HIV Criminalization Laws and how they tear at the very fiber of the Black Community.

Something else happened for me as I disembarked the transit bus and approached Cleveland State University, something rather enchanting. I was eagerly greeted by young adults whom I had never seen or known, with unforeseen energy of reverence, respect, and appreciation. Warm smiles, head nods, door holding, bag reaching; along with verbal salutations of “good morning beautiful,” “good morning Black woman,” “good morning sister,” and “Black Love.” All this just for showing up, just for being there, just for being Black.

I soon realized there was another transformation going on here, because in my mind I was arriving as this “kick ass activist.” However, I was being seen and greeted through a prism of unanticipated reverence. I was being greeted as an elder — a tribal elder. Yes I showed up. Yes I was there. Of course I was Black – but beyond that, I was being bestowed the honorable identification as a Black Tribal Elder. A Black Tribal Elder who (now in my mind) had been summoned here to help shape the foundation for real Black Liberation.

Each person that greeted me was cheerful, kind, and jovial, yet maintained an unspoken seriousness which I came to understand to be a greeting from a deeper place inside each of us. It was utterly amazing. Our spirits were meeting, touching, embracing, and speaking in unison, saying to each other: “We are here to be free.


Day One, July 24

Waheedah with PWN-USA-Ohio Co-Chair Naimah Oneal.
Waheedah with PWN-USA-Ohio Co-Chair Naimah Oneal.

Day One of the conference and I was already hyped. Feeling grand and safe and appreciated, it was time to get down to work. Registration was seamless (since folks at the front of line called my name); then we were off to the opening ceremony. Greetings, salutations and introductions of the founders of the movement, local leaders and honoring of family members of young lives taken much too soon. The highlight of the opening ceremony for me was when Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza took us on a poetic history journey honoring the city of Cleveland for their leadership in the history of the Black struggle: From Ohio’s long and rich history as a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity to the 1964 Cleveland schools’ boycott to protest segregation to the 1st National Movement for Black Lives Convening.

The panel connecting HIV to the Movement for Black Lives was next and entitled “The Black Side of the Red Ribbon.” Panelists Kenyon Farrow, Deon Haywood, “young” Maxx Boykin from HIV PJA, and myself were given the opportunity to bring Black AIDS Activism into perspective and shared our motivation and years of experience working alongside (the Black side) of other community members in the fight to address the HIV dilemma and the stigma surrounding it.

Later that evening, July 24, we were addressed as a mass assembly by several of the recent families who have lost loved ones to police brutality and state violence. Family members of Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice and Tanisha Anderson — both local victims of police murder. There was also cousin of the late Emmett Till.


Day Two, July 25

Day Two was more of the same “Black Love,” “good morning Black Man” and an opening plenary, yet something a bit different occurred. The Movement for Black Lives made its first essential internal transformation without any resistance. The challenge was eloquently articulated by a delegation of transgender and gender-variant participants who were invited to the stage: “The Movement for Black Lives must be a safe place for all, and inclusive of all gender identities and sexual expressions.”

The delegation introduced a list of logistic challenges that were overlooked, which included: an application with more than two gender choices; trans*-related workshops spread out on the schedule and not all in the same time slot; conference badges that allowed preferred name and pronoun preferences; and use of gender-neutral restrooms. In addition, the delegation offered some “not-so-gender-specific” language. Instead of referring to one another as brother and/or sister, we could use the word “Sib” (short for sibling) a more inclusive term. On the website, the Movement for Black Lives Mass Convening was framed as a space and time that would be used to “build a sense of fellowship that transcends geographical boundaries, and begin to heal from the many traumas we face.” So the transformation is to build a sense of siblingship, instead of fellowship.

Waheedah and panelists at "HIV Is Not a Crime, Or Is It?"
Waheedah and panelists at “HIV Is Not a Crime, Or Is It?”

“HIV Is Not a Crime, Or Is It” was the title of the panel I participated in later in the afternoon on Day Two, and it was a blast – aka a huge success. An expert panel with Marsha Jones, Kenyon Farrow, Bryan Jones, and I fiercely articulated how HIV Criminalization laws disproportionately affect and break down the very fiber of Black Community: their implications on Black Women, their children and Young Black Gay Men, and the impact the laws were having on public health within our Black Community.


Day Three, July 26

In the closing strategy sessions, HIV criminalization was kept on the agenda of the Movement for Black Lives. Ending HIV is a must and it will take a movement, not a moment, to take on the issue of ending yet another way of policing Black communities – this time through legal discrimination of people living with HIV.

All in all, the Movement for Black Lives was a gathering where we connected to Black love, Black leadership and Black power, Black culture, Black art, and the Black aesthetic in music. The convening included an amazing workshop on “Building Black Women’s Leadership.” The Movement for Black Lives’ journey continues as we commit our energy toward deepening and broadening the connections that were made at the convening. Again: It’s a Movement not a moment.

Black women, Black men, Black youth, Black elders, Black artists, Black straight people, Black queer people, Black trans* people, Black labor, Black Muslims, Black Christians, and Black Panthers. We laughed together. We cried together, and cheered for one another. We challenged each other and shared life experiences. We shared resources, studied together, and created new networks. We debated. We danced. We chanted. We partied together. We healed. I left there pumped with pride, chanting continuously in my head:


I believe

I believe that

I believe that we

I believe that we will

I believe that we will win! And #wegonnabealright.


Waheedah Shabazz-El is a founding member of PWN-USA and serves as PWN-USA’s Regional Organizing Director. She is based in Philadelphia.

We Stand with Michael Johnson: HIV Is Not a Crime

HIV and Justice Organizations Stand with Michael Johnson and All Black Gay Men, and Condemn Laws Criminalizing HIV-Positive Status

As organizations committed to human rights, social justice, and dignity for people living with and vulnerable to HIV, we release this statement in solidarity with Black gay men who have been organizing a response to the criminalization of Michael L. Johnson.

michael_johnsonAfter only two hours of deliberation by a jury in a trial that was fraught with misinformation about HIV transmission, misunderstanding about gay hookup culture, and inadequate legal counsel, a nearly all-white jury quickly convicted Michael Johnson, a 23-year-old Black gay man in St. Charles, MO, finding him guilty on five felony counts and sentencing him to 30 years in prison.

HIV criminalization is yet another tool used to police and incarcerate bodies that are too often poor, Black or brown, or queer-identified. In this case, Michael will be incarcerated for the next 30 years for allegedly exposing sexual partners to HIV, a condition that is chronic and manageable with proper care and treatment. This is atrocious. As a point of comparison, killing someone while driving under the influence of alcohol carries a sentence of 7 years in Missouri.

St. Charles is less than a half-hour’s drive from Ferguson, MO, a city that has made international headlines due to racist police brutality and a scathing record of racial bias in law enforcement.

HIV criminalization laws are widely understood to be based on hysteria, misinformation, and outdated science as it relates to HIV transmission.  Expert-led professional associations including the HIV Medicine Association, the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care, and the American Medical Association have taken positions supporting the repeal or modernization of these laws, and President Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS passed a resolution in 2013 calling for HIV criminalization laws to be reviewed and repealed.

This particular prosecution and the media hysteria around it were fueled by homophobia, HIV stigma, and anti-Black racism embedded in portrayals of Black male hypersexuality.  Michael Johnson is not the first Black gay man to be incarcerated under these laws, and it is unlikely he will be the last.

Black lives and Black leadership matter.  We stand in support of the agenda released today by Black gay men:

  1. Support Michael Johnson while he’s in prison, continue to raise awareness about his case, work to support any potential appeals or strategies to reduce his sentence or overturn this ruling altogether.
  1. Continue to dialog with Black gay men around the country in person and through social media about the importance of opposing such laws.
  1. Repeal the laws that criminalize HIV exposure, nondisclosure, and transmission, in Missouri and nationwide.
  1. Challenge our allies in Black progressive organizations, criminal justice reform, HIV prevention and treatment, and the LGBT movement to take more of an active role in challenging HIV criminalization.
  1. Develop more capacity for Black gay men’s grassroots organizing.

When people with HIV are prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws, no justice is achieved. Stigma, fear, and, in many cases, racism, win. And independently of HIV, criminalization, incarceration, and police brutality disproportionately impact Black and brown communities, LGBT folks, and people living in poverty.

Black gay men cannot and must not be removed. With the recognition that anti-Black racism, homophobia, and HIV stigma are at the heart of the epidemic and the verdict in the Michael L. Johnson case, we as an HIV community must commit to centering Black leadership and to ensuring that the police state does not factor into addressing the HIV epidemic. Incarceration and prisons are never the solution.

We echo and amplify the love from the open letter to Michael L. Johnson to all Black gay men; we will continue to stand with all of you in this fight for Michael’s freedom.

To Michael: we love and will continue to support you.

To Black gay men across the nation: we commit to fight by your side in service of justice, love, and liberation.

In solidarity,


ACT UP Boston

Advocacy Without Borders

The Afiya Center

African American AIDS Activism Oral History Project

AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts

AIDS Alabama

AIDS Alabama South

AIDS Arms, Inc

AIDS Foundation of Chicago

AIDS Project of the East Bay

AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA)

APLA Health & Wellness

AIDS Resource Center Ohio

AIDS United


Alabama HIV/AIDS Policy Partnership

American Run to End AIDS (AREA)

Amida Care

Arkansas RAPPS

Believe Out Loud

Berkeley Builds Capacity


BlaQueerFlow: The Griot’s Pen

The Body Is Not an Apology


C2EA (Campaign to End AIDS)

Cascade AIDS Project

CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies

The Center for Sexual Justice

The CHANGE (Coalition of HIV/AIDS NonProfits & Governmental Entities) Coalition

Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus

Desiree Alliance

End AIDS Now

End Discrimination & Criminalization Org

Fresh Anointing Ministries/Living Positive HIV/AIDS Ministry

Friends For Life

Full Of Grace Ministries

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD)

Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS-North America (GNP+ NA)

Harm Reduction Coalition

Hawaii Island HIV/AIDS Foundation

Health Initiatives For Youth (HIFY)

Hepatitis, AIDS, Research Trust



HIV Disclosure Project

HIV Justice Network

HIV Medicine Association

HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

House of Blahnik, Inc.

Housing Works

Houston HIV Cross-Network Community Advisory Board

Howard Brown Health Center

Intimacy & Colour

Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness/Advocacy Network

Justice Resource Institute

Legacy Community Health

LinQ for Life, Inc.


Louisiana AIDS Advocacy Network

Men’s Health Foundation

Metropolitan Community Church

Missouri HIV Criminalization Task Force



National Black Justice Coalition

National Center for Lesbian Rights

National LGBTQ Task Force

NIA Women in Public Health

NO/AIDS Task Force (d.b.a. CrescentCare)

Northern Nevada HOPES

Ohio AIDS Coalition

One Struggle KC

Positive Iowans Taking Charge

Positive Women Inc. New Zealand

Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA)

PWN-USA Bay Area

PWN-USA Louisiana


PWN-USA Philadelphia Chapter

PWN-USA San Diego Region


Project Inform



SERO Project

SisterLove, Inc.


Sophia Forum

Southern AIDS Coalition

Southern HIV/AIDS Strategy Initiative

Steps to Living on Facebook

Stopping  da Stigma

Sweet Georgia Press, LLC

Tougaloo Pride

Transdiaspora Network

Transgender Law Center

United Church of Christ HIV AIDS Network, Inc. (UCAN)

US People Living with HIV Caucus

Unity Fellowship of Christ Movement

Unity Fellowship Church Movement

Victim of HIV Criminalization

Visual AIDS

The Well Project

W King Health Care Group

The Women’s Collective

Women Together For Change

Women with a Vision

(List updated May 19, 2015)

Click this link to sign your organization onto this statement


Commentary: Stop Locking Up Black Men for HIV, by Keith Boykin

On Uplifting Voices, Social Justice and Listening to HIV Criminalization Accusers, by Mathew Rodriguez

‘Tiger Mandingo’ is guilty because Missouri law ignores three decades of science, Jorge Rivas

Guiding Principles for Eliminating Disease-Specific Criminal Laws, Positive Justice Project

HIV Criminalization: What You Need to Know, Sero Project


Two Women with HIV Join Obama’s Pool of Top HIV Advisors


Contact: Olivia Ford – oford.pwnusa@gmail.com – 347.553.5174

September 4, 2014 – Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA) congratulates two of our members, Gina Brown of New Orleans and Grissel Granados of Los Angeles, on their recent appointments to the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). PACHA is the premier federal advisory body on the HIV epidemic, and includes a diversity of stakeholders in the HIV field among its roughly two dozen members. Brown, Granados and other incoming PACHA members are being sworn in today in Washington, DC.

gina brown
Gina Brown

“As a member of PACHA, I hope to keep women a vital part of the conversation,” says Brown, a social worker and member of PWN-USA’s Board of Directors who is currently pursuing her second Master’s degree, in Public Policy. Brown brings 12 years of experience on the HIV community’s frontlines – as a case manager, primarily in a Ryan White Part D-funded program working with women, young people and families, as well as a leader in a number of regional and national planning bodies. “I also bring 20 years of being an HIV-positive woman,” Brown adds; “I am looking forward to this exciting new chapter in my journey!”

grissel granados
Grissel Granados

Granados brings a unique perspective as one of the youngest appointees to the Council, a champion for recognition of youth concerns in HIV policy, and an HIV and STI testing coordinator at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “My approach to HIV prevention is influenced by a sex positive lens, social determinants of health, and social justice for disenfranchised communities,” she says; “I am excited to do work at a national level, and I look forward to learning from other seasoned activists.”

“It’s exciting to see more women of color living with HIV coming onto the Council, and they have great expertise to bring,” says PACHA member Cecilia Chung, a PWNer and Chair of the US People Living with HIV Caucus.

“We are proud of Grissel and Gina, and know that they will represent the community of people living with and impacted by HIV well,” says Naina Khanna, Executive Director of PWN-USA and a member of PACHA from 2010-2014. “We look forward to supporting their fierce advocacy on the Council.”

“I welcome them both, as colleagues and advocates,” says Rev. Vanessa Sharp (Cephas), a sitting PACHA member, longtime HIV survivor and advocate, of Granados and Brown. “Together, along with all of the other new and current members of PACHA, we are agents of change! We have much work to do to stay the course and accomplish the goals set before us.”

An Open Letter to Tyler Perry

Dear Mr. Perry,

ImageWe write as people living with HIV and their allies to express our deep disappointment with your latest film, Temptation.  This disappointment is made all the greater because you have done much that can be applauded. Audiences see your plays and films not simply as entertainment, but as opportunities for inspiration, spiritual healing, and unity.

In Temptation, however, you have done a great disservice to people with HIV, and particularly to the African American community, which, as you know, is disproportionately affected by HIV.

As you may be aware, one of the greatest barriers to addressing the HIV epidemic is the high level of stigma and misinformation attached to this simple virus.  Stigma prevents people from getting tested for HIV, from protecting themselves during sex, from accessing care when they test positive, and from disclosing their HIV status to family, friends, and sexual partners. Myths and outdated perceptions about how HIV is transmitted and the implications of an HIV diagnosis have resulted in discriminatory treatment towards, and violence against, people living with HIV.

Unfortunately, Temptation can only serve to perpetuate stigma.  Your film depicts people with HIV as untouchable and unlovable, doomed to a lifetime of loneliness, and unable to tell their own stories.  It implies that men with HIV are sexually irresponsible and predatory.  And the final image – that of a woman who has been infected with HIV due to an extramarital affair walking away alone and unhealthy – sends the message that HIV is a punishment for immoral behavior.

Mr. Perry, as a leader in the African American community, is this really the message you want to send in 2013, over three decades into this epidemic?  Your impact on beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in the community is not insignificant.  And if you portray people with HIV as sinful, secretive monsters, unworthy of love and incapable of reproduction, what incentive do people have to learn their HIV status or for people with HIV to disclose their status?

HIV is not something that “guilty” people get. It is not a punishment for cheating, lying, using drugs or alcohol, having more than one partner, or not asking the right questions.  It is a virus whose transmission is fueled by poverty, ignorance, racism, sexism, homophobia, fear, violence, and many other factors – not by people with HIV.  In fact, studies show that the overwhelming majority of people with HIV fiercely protect their partners once they know their HIV status. Many of us are in long-term relationships with HIV-negative partners. And yes, we even have children!

We call on you to undo the damage that your film has undoubtedly already caused.  We ask you to meet with people living with HIV and hear our stories. We know that you are deeply committed to the communities that have supported your work and we ask that you make a public statement and consult with us to develop storylines that will help end HIV stigma so we can get to the real business of ending this epidemic, together.

Your response is greatly appreciated and we look forward to hearing from you in the very near future. Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

We await your response.


A Cause Worth Fighting For
aChurch4Me Metropolitan Community Church
ACT-UP New York
ACT-UP Philadelphia
AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA)
AIDS Action Baltimore
AIDS Alabama
AIDS Foundation of Chicago
The Afiya Center for HIV Prevention and Sexual Reproductive Justice
BABES Network – YWCA
Black AIDS Institute
Bond Community Health Center/MAACA INC
Bronx AIDS Services
Brothers Reaching Others, Inc.
Cascade AIDS Project
Christie’s Place
Community HIV/Hepatitis Advocates of New York (CHAIN)
Conscious Contact of New York, Inc.
Detroit Legal Services
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, North America (GNP+ NA)
GRACE of Greater Kansas City
Global Justice Institute, MCC
HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV PJA)
Housing Works
International Foundation for Alternative Research on AIDS
The LaStraw, Inc.
Let’s Talk About It
Living Faith Convenant Church
Louisiana Latino Health Coalition for HIV/AIDS Awareness
McLean county AIDS Task Force
Men & Women In Prison Ministries
Metropolitan Community Churches
Miami Valley Positives for Positives
National HIV/AIDS Disability Project
National Minority AIDS Council
Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services
People of Color Against AIDS Network
Positively Aware/Test Positive Aware Network
Positive Iowans Taking Charge (PITCH)
Positive Voices of Philadelphia, Inc
Positive Women’s Network – USA
Positive Women’s Network – Philadelphia
Positive Women’s Network – Colorado
Positive Women’s Network – Detroit
Positively U, Inc.
Rural Women’s Health Project
SERO Project
Sisterhood Mobilized for AIDS Research and Treatment (SMART) University
Sisterlove, Inc.
Spokane AIDS Network
SW Boulevard Family Health Care Services of Greater KC
Twin States Network
UMC West conference AIDS TASK FORCE
Unity Fellowship of Christ NYC
Unity Fellowship Church NYC
U.S. People Living with HIV Caucus
The Well Project
Women’s Health and Justice Initiative
The Women’s HIV Program at the University of California, San Francisco
Women With a Vision, Inc
Wright Method
Yellowstone AIDS Project

Please sign on at:

PWN-USA Statement on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

Updated:  Positive Women’s Network – United States of America Congratulates the PACHA for passing Criminalization Resolution

In observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Positive Women’s Network – USA (PWN-USA) urges the  Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) to pass resolution condemning HIV criminalization laws and end the pipeline of unjust incarceration of Black men and women living with HIV in the United States


February 7, 2013 — Washington, DC  Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and  Prevention (CDC) released a fact sheet entitled “HIV and AIDS among African Americans.” This fact sheet indicates that Black Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and to suffer worse health outcomes once infected. According to the CDC, young Black American gay men “now account for more new HIV infections than any other (population) group.” Furthermore, Black American women, despite a slight decline in new HIV infections, continue to “be more affected by HIV than women of any other race or ethnicity.”

But the disproportionate impact of HIV on Black Americans (and on immigrant communities of African descent, for whom no accurate national data are available) cannot be decoupled from the social and structural injustices that put people of African descent at increased risk for poor health outcomes – including racism, economic injustice, and disproportionate interaction with and treatment by the criminal justice system.  Overlaying the disparate impact of HIV on Black communities with disparate treatment by the criminal justice system, and superimposing HIV criminalization laws on top of that is a spark waiting to ignite a new wave of incarceration of people of African descent.

Blacks Americans comprised 12.1% of the total population in the United States. In 2008, Black American men made up 40.2% of all prison inmates and Black American women comprised 32.6% of incarcerated women. The same social determinants such as poverty, education, housing and employment which dictate high levels of incarceration also dictate high levels of HIV infection. Criminalization has always been used as a means to control people who are poor, discriminated against and otherwise disenfranchised. And the policing of the bodies, sexuality and reproduction of people of color in this country is nothing new.  HIV criminalization laws are just another tool in the toolbox to control communities of color and poor people. 

Further– despite the fact that in many cases where sentences are being served no transmission of HIV actually occurred — the criminalization of HIV is now being used to justify the creation of new laws regarding the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. A series of public health gymnastics that will, no doubt, once again disproportionately impact black Americans.

PWN-USA vehemently rejects the notion that criminalization of HIV exposure, non-disclosure, or transmission serves the public health of the American people.  Data shows that HIV criminalization laws may have a chilling effect on people’s desire to get tested, access care when needed, and stay on treatment.  HIV criminalization laws complicate disclosure – sometimes creating an incentive “not to tell.”  And as women living with HIV, we know from experience that the threat of HIV criminalization is often used as a tool of abuse, coercion, and manipulation in relationships.  Thus, criminalization of HIV makes us unsafe, even in our own homes.

It is the responsibility of public health advocates and the government to safeguard our collective health and individual rights.  Today, in observance of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we urge the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) to take real leadership on this issue and to pass a resolution condemning HIV criminalization laws as based in outdated science and detrimental to public health goals, including the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, especially for Black Americans.  

In sisterhood and solidarity,

Positive Women’s Network-United States of America (PWN-USA)