Fighting HIV/AIDS Stigma the Red Shoe Way

Humor blogger and Red Pump Project co-founder Luvvie Ajayi blends fun and fashion with the serious topic of HIV/AIDS and stigma.

By Akiba Solomon Nov 29, 2012

For the first time in recent history, there’s actually good news to report on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. According to the UNAIDS, World AIDS Day 2012 report, 25 countries have experienced a 50 percent drop in new infections since 2001. Among the reductions taking place in the last two years, half have been among newborns, an indication that mother-to-child transmission can end with the right access to treatment. And in the Caribbean, which is the second most affected region in the world behind sub-Saharan Africa, there have been 42 percent fewer new HIV infections. (For a broad and deep examination of the global numbers and pretty graphics, I encourage you to check out the agency’s full report.

Now for some inevitable bad news: In 2012, some 60 countries have laws in place that criminalize HIV transmission despite the fact that punitive measures don’t do bunk to stop the virus from spreading. From the UNAIDS report:

As of 2012, about 60 countries have adopted laws that specifically criminalize HIV transmission, with some 600 convictions reported in 24 countries. According to a 2012 global review, more than 40% of United Nations Member States (78 of 193 countries) criminalize same-sex relations, with some jurisdictions permitting imposition of the death penalty for convictions under such laws. Similarly, a 2011 review found that punitive policies pertaining to drug use ? including criminalization of those dependent on drugs, compulsory drug detention or prohibiting syringe and needle programmes and other harm-reduction measures ? undermine efforts to deliver life-saving HIV services for people who use drugs. Laws deeming some aspect of sex work to be illegal are in place in the majority of countries and are often used to justify harassment, extortion and violence against sex workers by police and clients, which places them at increased risk of HIV infection.

Stigma lies at the heart of these kinds of laws–the shaming, the punishing, the gossiping, the isolating, the denial of basic care. Since this is rather than, I don’t have to tell you why stigmatizing people for having an illness is both wrong and ass-backwards.

What I’d like to offer instead is an example of how we can combat stigma on an everyday basis: By using Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pininterest, Instagram, personal blogs and other social media platforms to normalize conversation about HIV/AIDS.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good awareness day. These annual, event-driven tools give people who are otherwise unconcerned (or in denial) an incentive to learn, participate, donate, protest and even celebrate. What I’m suggesting though is that we stay in a consistent state of awareness, knowledge-sharing and communication about HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment.

Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian-born, Chicago-raised technologist, blogger and HIV/AIDS activist does this quite well. On her humor blog, Twitter feed and elsewhere, she integrates HIV/AIDS awareness and social justice messaging with her unique brand of silliness and camp. A visit to her site will provide you with fun-loving rachetness including twerking gifs, Real Housewives recaps and continuing coverage of her IHOP consumption. Ajayi applies this same lens to HIV/AIDS talk.

In fact, along with another popular blogger, Karyn Watkins, Ajayi founded the Red Pump Project, a personally funded nonprofit that urges folks to wear red shoes every March 10th to highlight National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. The goal is lofty–to popularize HIV prevention messages and dialogue, particularly among young women and girls of color. But their means of meeting that goal are fun, nonintrusive and sometimes involve cupcakes.

For successfully blending the sparkle of red shoes, the power of social media and accessible HIV/AIDS information, Ajayi won the Women’s Media Center’s 2012 user-selected social media award. Because she’s a nice person, Ajayi offered a few tips and insights for justice-loving folks who want to launch their own social media campaign:

Use your friends In 2009, Ajayi and Watkins were G-chatting about World AIDS Day and decided to do something small to raise awareness. "Somehow the idea of red shoes came up. Women love red shoes," she says with a chuckle. "We asked 50 of our blogger friends to put [a sentence like] ‘Let’s talk about AIDS’ on their sites and [provided] them with statistics about how the disease was affecting women. In the first year, 135 bloggers participated."

Don’t assume people already know what is familiar to you "When you work in this space, it’s easy to take your knowledge for granted. You’ll think, ‘Oh, this is everywhere, until you hear a 14-year-old say that you can’t contract HIV if your period is on. In my experience, we adults aren’t passing down what we know and due to the advancements in medical treatment young people have become apathetic. We have to grab young people’s faces and say, ‘You have to listen. It’s still bad."

Pick a relatable symbol "To me, the red shoe is a powerful symbol for a powerful disease, but it doesn’t make talking about HIV/AIDS depressing. Bringing fashion into our campaign allows us to normalize the discussion. We don’t have to limit our HIV prevention messages to town halls; we can talk about it on Twitter or we’ll be at a bar and talk about it there. The symbol allows us to fight stigma."

Don’t do something online that you wouldn’t do in person "You wouldn’t walk into a room full of people and yell out ‘Here’s my business card!’ So don’t go into an online space shouting, ‘Follow me!’" You have to engage with people, have conversations. That’s how you get people to follow you."

Be yourself. "A lot of people know me more for my foolery than anything else. But I didn’t think about how raising HIV/AIDS awareness would fit under my brand. The Red Pump Project was just something I wanted to do, something I was passionate about. With a simple question, ‘Why do you rock the red pump?’ Karyn and I created a way for people to start the conversation."

For more information about the Red Pump Project, visit, follow @RedPumpProj on Twitter or go to