Memphis Mother-Son Duo Unleashes the HIV Conversation

In the past 40 years, so much has changed and improved in terms of HIV prevention, treatment and care since. People living with HIV can have long, full lives. But, stigma is still pervasive and a fear of talking about their HIV status still persists. Unfortunately, this is often driven by misrepresentation in the media -- something GLAAD works day and night to change.

Stigma in the news and media is really just an extension of what’s happening at the local level. In cities like Memphis, TN, which has been on the top ten list of new HIV diagnoses for several years now, folks don’t openly discuss HIV with their communities, doctors, or even families. Fortunately, organizations like Relationship Unleashed are working to stop the disease from spreading in silence by ending the stigma through open conversation.

Gwendolyn D. Clemons and Davin Clemons, co-founders of Relationship Unleashed, are on a mission to liberate Black and Brown people from the epidemic with education, empowerment and enrichment. The mother-son duo started this grassroots initiative in 2014 to address the gap they saw. Now a multilevel nonprofit organization, Relationship Unleashed offers all types of treatment and support for people living with HIV, with the ultimate goal of reducing the spread. They focus their efforts particularly in Black LGBTQ+ communities in Memphis where cases are on the rise.

Both local ministers and members of the LGTBQ+ community, Gwendolyn and Davin are already fixtures in their community and for them, the work is deeply personal. Gwendolyn lost her Trans sister, Jewel Clemons, to HIV/AIDs in the 90s and watched as many friends were taken by the disease as well. Today, Black communities in Memphis are still disproportionately affected by HIV, accounting for 84% of current cases in the area. Gwendolyn was alarmed to see the continuous rise in new HIV diagnoses espeically among Black cisgender women and Black LGBTQ+ men — communities in which she and her son are deeply rooted.

“I only wish I had the type of information that’s available now and the type of treatment that’s available now. People are living long healthy lives if they stay in care and take their medicine”, Gwendolyn says, reflecting on her own family’s struggle. She started fighting the spread of HIV/AIDs and the corresponding stigma on her own turf because she “didn’t want to see another family go through what we went through,” and in Tennessee, it’s certainly an uphill battle.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, 2020 was a particularly rough year for Black households and LBGTQ+ households across the board. In response, Relationship Unleashed was able to provide rent and utility assistance during the pandemic to more than 75 people living with HIV in Tennessee. The relief was supported with a grant from Gilead’s Compass Initiative, which helps fight the spread and end the stigma of HIV in the South by supporting community leaders like Davin and Gwendolyn Clemons.

Gwendolyn and Davin, along with a few guests, took over our Instagram account last week to talk about the important work they’re doing on the front lines, and why this work to end the stigma and existence of HIV is a labor of love.

At GLAAD, we believe that championing and supporting radical change at the local level is key to ending HIV stigma. We honored Gwendloyn and Davin at the GLAAD Media Awards last month and invite you to listen to them directly in their Instagram Live here