Drag tour aims to slay stigma of what it's like to live with HIV

The tour is an initiative of POZitivity, a campaign that is dedicated to challenging the stigma surrounding people living with HIV, enhancing access to services and testing, and raising awareness about prevention.

Performance tour features a RuPaul contestant, local talent and a Q&A session on living with HIV

Drag queen Felicia Boneè performed at the Slay Stigma drag show on Friday night at Twisted Element. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC News)

Drag queen Trinity K. Bonet took the stage at Calgary's Twisted Element on Friday night, and not only to entertain the masses.

The RuPaul's Drag Race season six contestant is openly HIV positive, and travelling across Canada with the Slay Stigma drag tour to raise awareness about the infection.

The tour is an initiative of POZitivity, a campaign funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada that is dedicated to challenging the stigma surrounding people living with HIV, enhancing access to services and testing, and raising awareness about prevention.

It features local drag performances and a Q&A with Bonet and the tour's host, Randy Davis, about living with HIV.

"Not only is [Bonet] an amazing, amazing drag queen, but like me, she's someone living with HIV," Davis said. 

"That's really what the heart of this campaign is all about — talking to folks about what it means to be living with HIV in 2019."

Years of misinformation and fear

Davis is a gay men's sexual health coordinator at the Gilbert Centre in Barrie, Ont., which provides support for people who are HIV-positive. 

He says that he is open about his own HIV-positive status in an attempt to dispel "years of misinformation and fear that is still in the minds of far too many."

"There's a lot of folks who still feel that if someone living with HIV touches them, they could become infected with this illness. If someone living with HIV makes a meal for them, they won't eat it," Davis said.

Painful inaccuracies like these have endured in spite of advances in medication and education, and according to the campaign, the consequences are dangerous.

POZitivity's website emphasizes that the stigma surrounding HIV "makes people not want to get tested, not want to go get their results, nor tell their friends, families, or partners."

This is a large reason why POZitivity and the Slay Stigma drag tour put a spotlight on Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U).

It's an initiative launched by the Prevention Access Campaign in 2016 to signify that medications can result in undetectable amounts of the virus in the bloodstream — called a "viral load" — which cannot be sexually transmitted to others.

A January 2019 article in the Journal of American Medical Association stated that U=U "has broad implications for treatment of HIV infection from a scientific and public health standpoint, [and] for the self-esteem of individuals by reducing the stigma associated with HIV."

According to the Prevention Access Campaign's site, U=U still isn't widely known.

"Despite the monumental importance of the U=U message," it reads, "many socio-cultural, political, economic, and systemic barriers have prevented people living with HIV from being accurately and meaningfully informed."

Davis says it is critical that U=U becomes better known and understood.

"People living with HIV, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, need to hear [the U=U] message first and foremost more than anyone else; that's how we end this epidemic," Davis said.

"The vast majority of individuals — if they get on their antiretroviral medications within three to six months [of contracting HIV] — they will become undetectable."

Davis says he takes medication every day, and as a result, his own HIV is undetectable.

"I am a zero-risk when it comes to HIV transmission, and a lot of folks [who are living with HIV] don't know that."

Those who are detectable 'still not a risk'

Those who are living with a detectable viral load in their bloodstream are "still not a risk to the general public," Davis says. Medications can be taken to limit the chances of transmission, and the campaign emphasizes this.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis — or PrEP — is a combination of antiretroviral drugs that, taken regularly, can reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV.

Post-exposure prophylaxis — or PEP — is an "emergency drug" that can be taken after exposure to reduce chances of becoming HIV positive.

"There are so many ways [for those who are detectable] to protect … their partners against the risk of transmission," Davis says.

"Whether it be having their partner on PrEP or using condoms … the scariness of HIV doesn't have to exist any longer."

To get that message across, Davis acknowledges that "there's a lot of work to be done."

HIV still an epidemic

"People living with HIV, both diagnosed and diagnosed, need to hear [the U=U] message first and foremost more than anyone else; that's how we end this epidemic," said Randy Davis, who hosts the show. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC News)

Part of that work involves accessibility, Davis says. Social determinants of health impact access to treatment and care; HIV medication isn't cheap, and coverage varies from province to province. 

The result, according to Davis, is that HIV is still an epidemic.

"We need to have universal care and treatment for all folks living with HIV, because there are just so many disparities," Davis said.

"We still see outbreaks of new HIV infections, and that shouldn't be happening today, when we have all the tools in the toolbox to end the epidemic. We just have to have commitment from essentially levels of government to make sure that it happens."

Asked what he wants the audience to get out of the drag tour, Davis says it's to continue the work once the curtain has fallen.

By sharing what they have learned, he hopes attendees can lessen the stigma and empower others.

"What I ask everyone when I'm up on that stage is, 'Don't leave the message here when you leave. Take this message with you.'"

With files from Hala Ghonaim