Red Running For Their Lives – The Aliveness Project Puts HIV Stigma Under There

Photos by Tyler Croat
Photos by Tyler Croat

Each of us has them:  the secret parts of ourselves which might be, if they stopped being secret, judged or condemned or shunned by society writ large—the greasy things, the goofy things, the guilty things, the dark quirks and the even-darker quirks we hide from the cold ignorance of the outside world by keeping them swathed, swaddled, buttoned, laced, and zipped.  

They are internalized stigmas.  

Despite the nigh-miraculous advancements in prevention and preemption, the stigma around HIV/AIDS has persisted like late autumn darkness…but that cruel branding can lead to more damage than just being judged, condemned, or shunned.  “HIV stigma is what kills people,” alerts Dylan Boyer, Aliveness Project’s Director of Development. “HIV stigma is what keeps people from seeking care, from talking to people in their community or their partners.” 

Boyer knows these stigmas all too well, all too personally.  “I’m a person living with a HIV,” Boyer proclaims.  “I was diagnosed in 2016.”  This stigma-inducing designation nudged Boyer to the Minneapolis-based Aliveness Project which describes itself as “Minnesota’s leading community-based organization of services, advocacy, and education for people living with or at risk for HIV.”  The Project was a place that was going to influence Boyer’s personal aliveness in a two-pronged way.  

“I first came to the Aliveness Project as a member,” Boyer continues, describing someone assisted by the organization.  “I received services and completely fell in love with the mission of this organization.  I wanted to be an active part of this community.”  That want crystallized when Boyer become the Director of Development for the Aliveness Project.  Thanks in part to Boyer’s unique perspective, the Aliveness Project provides an experience free of judgment, condemnation, and shunning for any who partake of their services.  Promises Boyer, “People can come here and be themselves regardless of HIV status.”

Then again, maybe Boyer’s perspective isn’t entirely unique.  “That’s the thing about the Aliveness Project:  so much of our staff, so many people on our board and in our leadership are people represented in the community,” Boyer reports.  “Whether they’re people who are living with HIV or who take PrEP or are in recovery or are part of the queer community, they’re represented.  You can really tell the difference.”  

Raising awareness of AIDS-related challenges is part of the Project’s mission…but awareness can’t be raised until awareness exists.  “HIV isn’t in the headlines anymore, and it’s not on top of everyone’s mind, but it’s certainly something that still happens,” Boyer observes.  “We’re still seeing the same number of new cases yearly.  One person a day, or about 300 Minnesotans, tests positive for HIV every year.  We have the tools for that number to go down, but it’s not [doing so].”  

Perhaps the unlikeliest such tool is the fourth manifestation of the Aliveness Project’s imminent fundraiser, an annual get-together that entails stigma-stripping at its stripiest.  “The Red Undie Run is a premier community event that brings awareness to World AIDS Day and the work of the Aliveness Project,” the Aliveness Project announces via its website.  On (or around) World AIDS Day–“an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection and mourning those who’ve died of the disease”–the Aliveness Project uses the Red Undie Run to raise awareness like goosepimples.  

As the Red Undie Run’s name implies, participants shall unswath, unswaddle, unbutton, unlace and unzip their outer wear, revealing their AIDS-ribbon-colored never-you-minds.  What’s not addressed in the event’s name is that the Run will be run during that most eye-watering, nipple-hardening, nose-reddening time of the year—December 2nd, 2023, to be precise.  

That day, registration will begin within Mill Ruins Park at 11:00 AM, as will packet pick up…although where nearly-nude Runners will store their picked-up packets is anyone’s guess.  A half-hour later, opening ceremonies and a pre-Run warm-up will take place.  At high noon, the Runners shall run from the runny Ruins end of the historic Stone Arch Bridge and back again, a distance of just over a mile.  Despite the awareness-raising and stigma-smashing, the event’s primary purpose is generating funds for the Aliveness Project’s work, so Runners will have made arrangements to exchange this back-and-forth for ponies, monkeys, and Benjamins.  At 12:15 PM, a warm-up party will begin at the Eagle MN, presumably attended in that moment by Runners blessed with super-speed.  Closing ceremonies will commence at 1:00 PM.  

All of these efforts will transpire in a space created, prepared, and maintained by groups of volunteers:  the Route Team will salt the bridge before the Run and offer moral support through its duration; the Registration Team will assist Runners with, well, you know, registration; and, naturally, all of this immodest razzle-faddle will be keenly screened by the Run’s Medical Team, all of whom will have presumably spent the previous night boning up on “The Treating of the Symptoms of Well-Intended Hypothermia.”  

Under other circumstances, half-naked zipping across an old bridge and back again might be considered embarrassing–even stigmatizing–but the Red Undie Run uses as its starting block the premise that unmasking a stigma is the quickest, surest way to strip it of its shameful power.  Showing up the day of the event to lend morale to the less-clothed is also highly encouraged.  Dylan Boyer will be there, his own internalized stigma long ago left in a fuzzy pile like discarded winter clothes.  Notes the Aliveness Project’s Director of Development:  “We love supporters to come out and cheer people on and enjoy the spectacle of the events.  They get bigger and better every year.”  

It’s not too late to participate in the Red Undie Run:

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