Dave Watt has a simple message: Be stigma-free of HIV.
"Having lived through the 1980s, I've seen people living with HIV being treated rudely, like second-class citizens. So I've always been passionate about HIV," said Watt, 48. "Now we have great medications, lots of knowledge about how HIV is spread and the importance of low/undetectable viral loads. Yet still, people living with HIV are stigmatized.
"Wanting to make a difference, I created a visual symbol to help people show that they were stigma-free of HIV. My husband, Ken, took my sketch of HIV-positive and HIV-negative signs with a smile and used his graphic design skills to create the face you see today."
Watt launched the Mr. Friendly symbol when he competed for Mr. Michigan Leather at The Dunes Resort in September, 2008.
"Everyone seemed to like the symbol," said Watt, 48, who lives in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I used the symbol to have literally hundreds of conversations with people about [ the ] stigma of HIV. To freshen up [ the ] HIV messaging, I tried different phrases, such as, 'Know your status' or 'Knowledge is power.' But neither fit with a smiling face.
"Others suggested putting the round face on a condom packet. But Mr. Friendly is not really a safe-sex message. Mr. Friendly is unique because the message is for everyone, that we should all be having open, honest and educated conversation [ s ] about HIV with zero judgment.
"Mr. Friendly started in the leather community, expanded easily into the gay world and also works really well at straight and family events too. Mr. Friendly is not just for people who are living with HIV. With equal weight for both the positive and negative signs, the [ face ] does not disclose your own status. We all have a responsibility to the health of our community. Mr. Friendly helps people initiate conversations about HIV. The symbol is also an effective tool to promote testing for HIV."
Watt is an HIV Prevention Team Leader at Community AIDS Resource and Education Services ( CARES ) .
"Mr. Friendly is turning out to be very adaptable," Watt said. "HIV knows no gender, race, age, orientation, etc., and the smiling face seems to be welcomed by just about everyone."
The colors of the face do coincidentally run with the leather pride flag ( black, blue, white, red ) .
"I find that people often blame the HIV-positive community for the spread of HIV, while avoiding any level of personal responsibility for their own protection," Watt said. "My concern is that people use [ someone's ] HIV status as a main condition for dating or hooking up. Due to the window period of HIV and how the virus works, a person might test negative for HIV, yet have a highly infectious viral load just weeks after contracting HIV. A person living with HIV who is properly taking effective medication may have an undetectable viral load and is much less likely to transmit the virus."
Watt and Mr. Friendly will be traveling the country this spring, promoting its message, including late-May in Chicago at International Mr. Leather [ IML ] .
"I've had quite a few HIV-positive guys come up to me, hug me, and say, 'thank you' for the support," Watt said. "People are telling me that Mr. Friendly is working, that people are talking about HIV more using the symbol.
"A favorite 'success story' came at a Mr. Friendly event where HIV testing was being offered, and a group of guys convinced one of their friends to test for HIV. Fearing that he had contracted HIV, he had been afraid to [ get ] tested for over four years. His friends understood Mr. Friendly's message and let him know that they would be there for him no matter what his result [ was. ] With their support, he did get tested that day."
Watt has developed Team Friendly, which includes a four-hour training session to help fight the stigma of HIV, including, recruitment for HIV testing, finding people living with HIV that need support, and creating an atmosphere in your community that raises awareness about HIV.
"After a few years of trial and error with messaging about stigma, I finally landed on a few basic concepts that I hold true," Watt said. "Best practices with regard to Mr. Friendly are pretty specific, and require some training. The concept of meeting people where they are at, no matter where they are at, even if you strongly disagree with their opinions or choices, are crucial to effective one-on-one conversations.
"The training emphasizes a 'support and progress' model where you first say a supporting comment like, 'Yes, testing for HIV can be scary: it is a life-changing diagnosis.' Then follow by progressing the conversation toward fewer stigmas, such as, 'But HIV is very treatable now and there is a lot of support here in Chicago for people living with HIV.'
"I did the first training ever with a group of six guys in Chicago, at Touché [ bar ] . Since then, I've completed several trainings in Michigan and have two set up in South Florida and New Jersey."
Watt is expanding Mr. Friendly with two distinct programs. The first is: Disclosure of Status: Mr. Friendly Can Help, a workshop for people living with HIV. Next is: Friendly Chat about Unprotected Sex.
In the Disclosure program, "we first brainstorm on various situations where disclosure of status can be a challenge, and then we analyze each situation, discussing why/how/when to discloseand how Mr. Friendly can help initiate conversation about HIV safely. The symbol can be used to initiate a conversation about HIV and gauge someone's readiness to discuss HIV. The symbol is a great tool for people to use in disclosure of their HIV status as well."
Regarding the Friendly Chat program, it focuses on how to discuss un-safe sex with friends who choose not to wear condoms, Watt said. "We break it down into three categories of risk: safe, safer and good luck. The idea is to give us tools how to discuss [ un-safe sex ] without judgment, to really look at how we can meet people where they are at and help them consider safer options."
Watt and Mr. Friendly will have a booth at the IML marketplace for the third year in a row, with giveaways of buttons, temporary tattoos, and more.
Plus, Watt will launch IML Gets Friendlyattendees can get their picture taken with a button for a video to be posted on YouTube.
Watt also will judge IML this year.
"The last two years at IML have been amazing," Watt said. "We have had over 1,000 people visit the booth each year from as far [ away ] as Australia and South Africa. I am continually inspired and motivated by just how many people 'get it.' People like the symbol, a visual expression of how they feel: we are all in this together, no matter your status.
"Mr. Friendly started simply as a picture on a clipboard at a leather contest. Chicago resident Dean Ogren was one of my Mr. Michigan Leather judges, and has mentored me over the years. He comments often that he was there at the beginning, and has seen it grow from a 90-second speech to an international campaign. Mr. Friendly seems to fill a need to freshen up our messaging about HIV."
Watt said he typically does not talk about his own HIV status. "Some people have gossiped that I must be HIV-positive because I started Mr. Friendly," he said. "My good friend Joee Arteaga [ of Chicago ] puts them quickly in their place, saying: 'You are missing the whole point of Mr. Friendly. He's a great advocate.'
"With regard to my status, I am open about my participation in the HIV vaccine trial through UIC called Project Wish. They are still accepting new participants. They are wonderful people, working hard at finding a vaccine for HIV."
For more information, go to: www.mrfriendly.info .
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.