Ronald, 23, is an African-American gay man from Baltimore. When he walks outside of his east Baltimore apartment building every day, he comes face to face with discrimination, rejection, and stigma. While he says these are tough “elements to his life,” the toughest one yet is coming face to face with the reality that HIV adversely affects his community, his friends, and himself.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) feels just as strongly as he does. With the launch of a national multi-million dollar campaign, the CDC is focusing on reducing the spread of HIV among African-American men who have sex with men. It has debuted in five major cities across the nation, and a month ago, the project made its stop in the city of charm.

“I’ve been waiting for something like this to come to Baltimore… this is for me,” said Ronald.

It is called Testing Makes Us Stronger, and no matter what you are doing—riding the bus, browsing the internet, visiting your favorite hangout, or reading your favorite publication—you cannot help being drawn in by the campaign’s captivating photography and bold message.

According to the CDC, Testing Makes Us Stronger is part of Act Against AIDS—a five-year, comprehensive national communication campaign to refocus national attention on the importance of HIV prevention and testing. Previous campaigns have included a general awareness campaign, an awareness and testing campaign targeted toward African American women, and a pilot of Testing Makes Us Stronger called Know Where You Stand.

The official local campaign launch of Testing Makes Us Stronger took place March 8 at the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center—just blocks away from Baltimore’s gayborhood. The event included remarks from the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, Oxiris Barbot, and an overview of the local epidemic in Maryland by Heather Hauck, Director of the Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration. Baltimore continues to rank in the top percentile of new cases of HIV, and national data collected in 2008 shows that 29 percent of black men who have sex with men (MSM) were infected—doubling the level of infection among white MSM—and of those, 59 percent did not know they were infected.

Those were the figures that Rashad Burgess, Chief of Capacity Building Branch for the CDC, reflected on when he spoke to audience members. Burgess is one of the driving forces behind the campaign and says, “The campaign’s messages emphasize that HIV testing is a source of strength, not a reason for fear. Knowing your HIV status is a powerful tool—whether you test positive or negative, you can use that knowledge to take better care of yourself and your loved ones.”

Aside from his extensive educational and professional background, Burgess is the recipient of the Bayard Rustin Award from the Greater Chicago Committee, and was recently named one of the “generation’s next mavericks, pioneers and agitators [who] will make this the last decade of AIDS” by POZ Magazine.

It comes as no surprise that he is responsible for over $50 million dollars in programmatic funds and the Testing Makes Us Stronger campaign.

Burgess has had input in the design of this project and its launches across the country. This campaign is designed to meet people where they are and “reach black gay and bisexual men in their everyday lives,” he said.

That is an important factor for guys like Ronald, because he and his friends do not typically talk about HIV or the importance of getting testing. Ronald said, “I just don’t, but this ad is just right in my face. The pictures just draw me in and make me want to find out more about these guys and stuff.”

That is exactly what the CDC is hoping to deliver to the targeted population. With diverse images—including couples and groups of friends—the goal is to show the diversity and uniqueness of this community. They chose to use images that are reflective and offer affirming messages to the community. Burgess says the message is “one that reminds them that HIV testing makes us safer, wiser, and stronger.”

We want black gay and bisexual men from all walks of life to see themselves in these ads. The images reflect the diverse range of strong men in the community, including black gay men and couples in loving and supportive relationships. The goal is to deliver an affirming message to these men—one that reminds them that HIV testing makes us safer, wiser, and stronger.

This campaign comes just one year after the launch of the HIV Stops With Me campaign, which focused on promoting a message of care and treatment to men who have sex with men and are living with HIV. The campaign featured four spokespersons that shared their stories and encouraged their peers to keep themselves and their partners healthy. Baltimore residents Ben and Mayo showed their support for this new campaign at the launch last month by sharing a few words. They were elated about the new project and shared a message of optimism.

“This is serious. I hope this campaign will encourage everyone to go out and get tested,” said Mayo.

The HIV Stops With Me campaign was launched through the University of Maryland, under a program that focuses on the health and wellness of sexual minority youth.

Jamal Hailey, Manager of HIV Prevention, Education, and Testing Services and Sexual Minority Programs at the University of Maryland, orchestrated the local adaptation of the campaign and believes that Testing Makes Us Stronger is the perfect follow-up to HIV Stops With Me.

Hailey explained, “HIV Stops With Me focused more on positive individuals, and now Baltimore has a campaign that focuses on the rest of the community. This is something that’s needed and will hopefully encourage people to get educated, take the test, and be aware of their status.”

Thanks to the Baltimore City Health Department and Baltimore Black Pride, Inc., Testing Makes Us Stronger is the message that everyone is seeing and talking about.

There seems to be no one in Baltimore that opposes the presence of Testing Makes Us Stronger in Baltimore. Carlton Smith, Co-Founder of Baltimore Black Pride, was the last to speak at the celebratory launch event last month. Smith is recognized for the preliminary work he did to assist in bringing this campaign to the city of Baltimore, and while many viewed his speech to be poignant, Smith says that he supports this campaign because “young people are dying.” In a statement that silenced the room, Carlton Smith allowed reality to set in and captivated the hearts of many.

Burgess said that Baltimore can expect this campaign to be around throughout the year. “As we approach the summer, when materials and testing information will be available at Black Pride events across the nation—providing even greater visibility among the campaign phases’ target audience,” he said.

Although this campaign will not be around forever, organizers hope that the effects of its message will last forever. ■

The campaign’s dedicated website (HIVTest.org/stronger) provides visitors basic facts about HIV/AIDS, an overview of the campaign and local events, campaign graphics and resources that individuals and organizations can download and use in their own communities, and a tool that allows visitors to find HIV testing sites near them.

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