In the midst of Sex Week at the University of New Mexico, Josh Robbins spoke to students about living with human immunodeficiency virus and the stigmas that surround it.
Robbins is an HIV activist who was diagnosed as HIV positive, which became undetectable.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV is a virus that is spread through certain bodily fluids and attacks the body’s immune system, specifically the T-cells.
HIV.org says there are over 1.1 million people in the U.S. that are living with HIV, and 1 in 7 people affected are unaware.
Robbins said he created I’m Still Josh, his “HIV advocacy news and opinion” blog, after being diagnosed because he could not find anyone who was like him online.
Josh Robbins talks to UNM students about being HIV positive and his personal journey at UNM’s Kiva Hall on Oct. 25, 2017. Robbins’ personal blog, “I’m Still Josh,” gives HIV positive individuals a place to talk and find resources.
“I was really lonely…I figured if I felt that way, there were other people (who) felt that way and I didn’t want them to feel lonely,” he said. “I also wanted to be the one to tell it the loudest, first.”
He said he focuses on combating stigmas about medicine, undetectable HIV and criminalization laws.
Although his HIV is now undetectable, Robbins was diagnosed six years ago with a viral load of 5.5 million.
“The goal of when you get HIV is that you start taking a pill or two a day to get (your viral load) as low as possible,” he said.
Robbins said the transition from HIV positive to undetectable means lowering the viral load below 40, or as close to zero as possible.
“If a positive person is undetectable, (they) can’t transmit HIV even without a condom, even without pre-exposure prophylaxis,” he said.
Robbins said pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP, is an anti-HIV medication that protects HIV negative people from becoming infected.
“Once you become undetectable, you’re not gonna transmit HIV; that message is so transformative, it changes how (people) interact with us, it changes if they fall in love with us and it changes whether they believe we should be loved,” Robbins said.
He said one of the biggest fears people who are living with HIV have is being caught up in unfair laws that aim to criminalize HIV.
“The HIV criminalization laws across the country are horrendous,” he said. “There’s not really a way out.”
Robbins said 33 states have exposure laws that require people living with HIV to tell their partner they are positive or they could face up to 15 years in jail for each offense.
“There has been studies and data and these laws are not effective on prevention,” he said. “It actually has kept people from getting tested for HIV, because if you don’t know, you can't be responsible.”
Robbins said bringing this discussion to college campuses is important, because the students are becoming the leaders of our country.
“Students possess the biggest opportunity to reach the most people,” he said. “They are also experiencing an opportunity and the time in their life that they’re exploring themselves, and I think that they don’t get the full picture from community sex educators.”
Anna Allegertti is the executive director of the UNM group, the Student Alliance for Reproductive Justice, and a fifth year student at UNM double majoring in women’s studies and anthropology. She said that I’m Still Josh stands for sex education and combating HIV stigma, which is a part of Sex Week.
“Having I’m Still Josh (is good), because he still has a healthy life where he goes out and speaks out about these things,” she said. “I think that’s an important thing, so if things happen and you’re diagnosed with something, you know you can still enjoy sex and your life.
Brittany Capraro, a senior biology and criminology major, said she enjoys educational events like these during sex week.
“I think a lot more people should be coming to it and just educating themselves on healthy relationships, HIV, STIs, etc.,” she said. “The more we talk about them, the less stigmas there are.”
Robbins said his advocacy has taught him that there are marginalized communities who cannot speak for themselves and says he will continue to stand up for what is right.
“Once you’re an activist, you’re kind of always an activist, and doing the right thing means doing the right thing,” he said.
Madison Spratto is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Madi_Spratto.