My Advocacy Experience as GE’s HIV Policy Fellow

by Torrian Baskerville

“Hey Torrian. I spoke with Devin and he suggested you speak at the
Georgia Legislative Black Caucus Community Hearing that is being organized… I think it’s a great idea. Are you interested?”, intently asked Emily Brown, my fellowship supervisor. In that moment, I was uncertain, afraid, yet intrigued by the opportunity I shook my head and replied, “yes, I think I can do it.” This was huge for me. This would be the first time I had every had an opportunity to speak to legislators about issues that are important to me and my community. The other reason, and most frightening one, was something not even my family knew. 

Preparing to write the speech was extremely stressful. I am also a perfectionist and so I wanted to make sure that whatever I said was articulated in a way that would be impactful and would invoke a desire to act. There was so much I wanted to discuss and express but no way I could do so in the 6-minutes given to speak. Engagement in care? Retention? Criminalization? STIGMA? Mental Health? All of them are very relevant barriers when discussing structural and social barriers to viral suppression for black gay men. Then I was reminded that personal stories are always more impactful and personable when trying to connect HIV to legislators. So, I just began to write and tell the story of a black gay man living with HIV and the barriers he encountered while journeying to viral suppression.

“My name is Torrian Baskerville. I am a Health Educator and HIV Policy Fellow with Georgia Equality… I am a black, gay, queer, same gender loving man living with HIV in the state of Georgia.” Was I REALLY ready for this, I questioned. Doing everything in my power to deter myself from exposing myself in this way, especially since my family had not known of my diagnosis. Despite the questions, I kept writing; “I recall feeling alone and outraged, as being also a tester myself, at how she delivered the results to me… An appointment was scheduled for 3 weeks out.” Before I knew it, I had expressed every subject I was debating earlier, i.e. engagement and retention in care, mental health, stigma, etc. and did so in a manner that was relatable and impactful. So much so, some of the legislators requested a copy of my speech and some other opportunities have since presented themselves to me. For that I am grateful.

My HIV Policy Fellowship experience has been one “for the ages”. It has provided for and facilitated so much growth and opportunities to get more involved in work that I’ve been wanting to do for so long. I am thankful to Emily Brown and Georgia Equality, as well as, Daniel Driffin and THRIVE SS for seeing in me the ability to fulfill such a responsibility of representing my community. I look forward to more work even beyond my tenure as the Policy Fellow.