HIV influencer Josh Robbins is practically a poster child for positivity these days. He runs a popular blog, I’m Still Josh, where he posts helpful information, videos, and news links in a youthful, accessible format. He’s active on social media, where he has thousands of followers. He’s spoken at places like Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and given a TEDx talk. He also recently debuted as a cute and single spokesperson for DatingPositives, a website catering to people with HIV.
Back in 2012, though, when he was first diagnosed with HIV, he didn’t really know what to expect. After coming down with intense flu-like symptoms, he went to get tested as a precaution. Turns out, he’d contracted HIV from a partner who hadn’t known he was positive.
“Anybody who’s had sex could be in my shoes.”
“Anybody who’s had sex could be in my shoes,” says Robbins. “That’s a hard thing for people to grasp. PrEP, the HIV prevention drug, was approved by the FDA shortly after I was diagnosed. Ain’t that a bitch.”
Robbins laughs. Hailing from Tennessee, he speaks in a charming Southern drawl which he insists isn’t an accent. (“Everyone else has the accent!”) The first days after his diagnosis were difficult. He’d cry himself to sleep on the floor, waking up with carpet marks on his face. Then he decided he was ready to tell people — and not just those closest to him but everyone.
“I couldn’t not talk about it,” he explains. “My decision to disclose on social media that I was living with HIV was because I had the weight of the world telling me to do it. I felt safe enough. It was right for me. I decided that it was OK if I was single for the rest of my life. I could lose my family or friends. I didn’t think any of that would happen but I was OK with it. I felt lonely and wanted to tell my story. Nobody had ever told me at that point that they had HIV.”
“I woke up on a Thursday morning and decided I had to start a blog.”
He had no formal plan behind the launch of his website. “I woke up on a Thursday morning and decided I had to start a blog,” Robbins says. “I thought about what to call it. I looked up everything related to being HIV positive. I started writing down all the things that I still was and wanted people to treat me that way.”
Sometimes, when his readers message him, they’ll insert their own names, he says. “I’m still Kevin or I’m still Kelly or I’m still Lisa. It resonates with people.”
“You’re not your virus!”
The first six months, Robbins blogged entirely about his own experience. “Then I hit a brick wall. I was out of stuff to say. So I decided to make it an encouragement blog. Step one: Don’t commit suicide. Step two: Get into treatment. Step three: Live your life. That’s when I started making graphics and videos. To try to speak life into people’s lives. You’re not your virus!”
He can never predict which content will make the biggest impact. His most popular video so far is about him wearing concealer because of HIV-related issues
“It’s like wearing a wig when you have cancer. If putting on some makeup makes you feel better, feel less obvious about your symptoms showing, then put it on and be happy. That video went as viral as anything I do is going to go — no pun intended!”
When the news broke recently that a second person had been “cured” of HIV, there was global coverage and celebration, despite the fact that the patient was only cured after an invasive bone marrow cancer treatment. Robbins says it would be a huge deal if there were a real cure someday, but that until then, “U = U” is nearly as good. U = U stands for “Undetectable = Untransmittable” and the science behind it is sound. An undetectable viral load means you can’t transmit the virus to a sexual partner. With daily antiretroviral therapy, this is achievable for many people with HIV.
“I wish publications would run this story like they did about the cure,” says Robbins. “It affects every person in the world that has sex. It’s very exciting to people living with HIV and to their allies who understand it. With treatment, we live a near normal life. That’s a functional cure I’m cool with.”
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