These T-shirts are our armour against stigma

 
 
 

Charlie Jacobs was keeping silent. He’d discovered he was HIV positive by accident, and remained in denial for years, refusing treatment. When he found himself close to death, Jacobs realised he had to face reality if he wanted to live. He started taking ARVs – a major step towards accepting his status. But it wasn’t enough. Jacobs needed to speak out against stigma, and he found a way to do it with a T-shirt.

His fight began in 2011, when Jacobs became the first Mr Gay South Africa finalist to publicly announce his status. “I saw the opportunity and platform to actually tell my HIV story,” Jacobs says. Afterwards, he specialised in life coaching to support people who have just been diagnosed and liberate them from shame. But Jacobs understood that the misconceptions that hold adults back would be even more damaging for a child. “The most vulnerable are the kids that are born with HIV,” he says. So he founded the Change the Stigma Project to support Nkosi’s Haven, a home for children affected by the disease.

Through the Charlie’s Positive Angels programme, Jacobs frees the kids’ creative side. They create art ranging from sketches of their favourite animals to painted footprints. Their pieces are printed on T-shirts to raise awareness, as well as money for the kids’ education. While Jacobs is empowering those who are positive, he is also confronting harmful beliefs. “Everyone deserves a chance to live without being judged or discriminated,” he says. By breaking the silence, Jacobs is challenging the fear that fuels stigma. We can replace misunderstanding with acceptance. And when we do, we can save lives.