This Art-Focused Initiative Supports Women Living With HIV

This Art-Focused Initiative Supports Women Living With HIV

LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN is here to fill a very special void: supporting and uplifting women living with HIV. Founder Jessica Whitbread tells PAPER that the project, which took root in 2013, was created to not only be a "two-week holiday focused on love," but to make positive women around the world living with stigmas, sadness, and in many cases, violence, "feel at least a tiny bit of the love and support that is around them."

Love Positive Women has become a global movement that started in 2013 with over 100 different organizations engaging each year. In New York City, Whitbread partnered with the premiere AIDS awareness-centered arts organization, Visual AIDS, and papermaking nonprofit, Dieu Donné, and the Fire Island Artist Residency, to literally spread love through art. Bringing the arts communities together with activists and women living with HIV, Whitbread and her partners encouraged participants to personalize paper valentines to send to women around the world. "The idea is that anyone and everyone can do acts of kindness for or with women living with HIV in their community, or themselves," Whitbread explains.

Now in its seventh year, LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN will send out more than 800 handmade cards to women all over the world living with HIV, with a global reach of 40+ countries. Additionally, Visual AIDS has inspired groups in Ukraine, Jamaica, and Canada to join the initiative by also making and sending valentines, leading their own de-stigmatizing love-focused projects, because as Whitbread notes, "kindness and caring can be tools for social change."

PAPER caught up with Whitbread to learn more about LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN, and we meet some of the women who make the project so special.

LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN founder Jessica Whitbread

What motivated you to launch LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN?

Jessica Whitbread: As a woman living with HIV, for the most part I've been rather fortunate in regards to love, sex and limited stigma — though I know this is far from the reality of the vast majority of women living with HIV globally. I've heard so many stories about isolation, stigma, violence and sadness that I really wanted to create something that made those women feel at least a tiny bit of the love and support that is around them. So LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN was an idea that I had in 2012, actualized in 2013—to start a two-week "holiday" to focus on love. The idea is that anyone and everyone can do acts of kindness for and with women living with HIV in their community or themselves.

How has the project molded your work as an activist?

I have been living with HIV for 18 years and doing activism for most of that time. At a certain point, I was sick of all the toxic drama sometimes involved with activist movements and wanted to focus on kindness and caring as a tool for social change. LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN showed me that we can work differently together — and that the infighting in movements creates a toxic cesspool that I am not interested in being a part of. I use the feeling I get during LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN to remind me that when we work together and are kind to each other, that amazing things can happen.

What do you learn from the women involved with the project?

My goodness, I've learned so much from them! I am deeply inspired by every one of these women. Like Sita Banjade from Nepal, who this year brought a group of women living with HIV together and gave bags of rice and warm clothing to elder and disabled women for LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN. Or L'Orangelis Thomas from Puerto Rico, who was born with HIV; when I told her there was a group of trans women living with HIV in the Dominican Republic, she brought a group of poz youth together to make cards and handmade soap to send as a surprise present. Or CZ from India, who magically inspired local pop stars to dedicate music videos to positive women, and had a dance party with an HIV-positive kissing booth to stop stigma. Or the groups in Canada that wrote letters to incarcerated women living with HIV, and sent special cards. Most of the projects for LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN come from the heart and are about as grassroots as you can get. I'm inspired by the women's creativity and dedication to making their lives and the lives of other women better.

"One misunderstanding that comes to mind is the thought that women living with HIV are not or should not be sexual [...] Positive women are sexy and desirable and amazing lovers and total gems."

What are the most common misunderstandings and misconceptions about women living with HIV that you encounter?

That's a hard question. I guess one misunderstanding that comes to mind is the thought that women living with HIV are not or should not be sexual. This is totally outdated and has always been a misconception. Positive women are sexy and desirable and amazing lovers and total gems! I often look at the difference in the way that gay men living with HIV are depicted in relation to women — in particular when it comes to sex and dating. I remember a friend was complaining about this workshop that she went to where they gave the women's group cupcakes with little penises on them. She was like, "This is so patronizing! I don't want a fucking cupcake dick, I want a real dick."

What do you hope this project achieves? What's your biggest hope for it and the women involved?

2018 marks the 8th year of LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN. My hope has always been that by year 10, it runs itself and is 100% owned by the community. That it remains a time for people around the world to reflect and celebrate the lives of women living with HIV. Because positive women — cis, trans and femme-identifying folks — are incredible, and I really want to entire world to know this because honestly, if you are not engaged with these ladies, or the ones in your own community, you don't know what you are missing.

Joyce McDonald, Visual AIDS Artist+ Member

What does receiving a valentine mean to you?

I was carrying a burden. I was really, really sad. And I went to the mailbox one day, and I took out the mail and there was a bid red envelope. When I opened it, it was a beautiful card, and then it said it was to me! And it just melted me. I was in tears, because at that moment, when I opened that card I felt the love. It really, really impacted me and I'm a hard person for something to impact.

Photography: Michael McFadden