Jack Mackenroth Launches "HIV Equal" Media Campaign

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Tuesday October 29, 2013

Back in 2007, Jack Mackenroth made headlines when he announced his HIV-positive status on the popular reality show "Project Runway." Now, in an effort to end HIV stigma and encourage testing, Mackenroth has teamed up with celebrity photographer Thomas Evans to launch HIV Equal, a dynamic visual campaign.

"We're photographing people from all walks of life standing tall with the HIV= logo on their body somewhere," said Mackenroth. "It's not so much about a person's HIV status, it's about knowing your status. Instead of positive or negative we're all equal."

The campaign features snapshots of a wide range of celebs, from Broadway actors to drag queens, elected officials to porn stars and everything in between. As part of the campaign, everyone photographed receives confidential HIV testing to learn his or her status. The campaign is backed by the Connecticut-based World Health Clinicians.

"We need to take care of ourselves and each other, as well as to reignite the global conversation about HIV to stop the spread of misinformation, fear and judgment," said Mackenroth.

As Evans put it, "Regardless of our HIV status we are equally valuable human beings."

Subjects are photographed with the unique HIV= logo placed strategically on their body. But rather than just choosing to identify as positive or negative, the models pick a word of their choosing to appear in the caption "Status: ____."

"You notice in the photos, there’s a whole play on words with the word ’status,’" said Mackenroth. "Instead of positive or negative we have people pick an individualized status word. This alludes to the fact that who we are as people is much more important than an HIV status."

The subjects chose a wide range of words, from drag queen Bianca Del Rio’s ironic choice of the word "natural," to actor Nick Adams status as "showman," to Representative Jim Hines’ moniker of "Congressman," to porn star Michael Lucas’ status of "controversial." Mackenroth chose "fearless" as his own status.

Mackenroth, who has been HIV-positive for 24 years, said that the goal of the project was for Evans to photograph folks from all walks of life who support ending HIV stigma, regardless of their own HIV status. The "Project Runway" alum said that by using celebs, politicians, artists and other recognizable faces, he hoped to draw attention to the mission.

Timing is crucial, said Mackenroth, noting that 90 percent of new HIV infections are in men who have sex with men aged 13-34. For that reason, the campaign stresses testing and youth outreach. For Mackenroth, infected as a young man and surviving for decades longer than anyone expected, testing and treatment is a no-brainer.

"I was converted in 1989. I was expected to live 2-3 years, max. Now if you know your status and start treatment, the life expectancy is basically the same of an HIV-negative person," he said. "But because of that, there’s no visibility, you don’t see ’sick’ people and you don’t see people dying like they used to."

But if the scores of friends quickly succumbing to AIDS has ended, the stigma of HIV remains. For those who think otherwise, Mackenroth asks them to imagine writing "I am HIV-positive" on their Facebook status, and the shame it could bring. Because of this, he is all the more grateful for those celebs who were willing to pose for the campaign without a second thought.

"HIV is still a very loaded issue and other people may assume that they are HIV-positive just by association," said Mackenroth. "But that’s the great thing about HIV= ... we’re not labeling anyone. We’re starting conversations, and it’s perfect to share on social media and Twitter. The imagery is really compelling. If just one person sees it and gets tested it’s a success."

The campaign is generating momentum; rap singer Drake recently teamed up with OCAD (Olivia Cipolla/Arie Dixon) to record an old school R&B version of his new single "From Time," to support the campaign. For a free download, visit http://snd.sc/16S0v3X

The HIV Equal photo exhibition officially launched on Oct. 26. For more information, visit HIVequal.org or Facebook

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.