This is the story of a little hashtag that turned into a big shit show.
STD Awareness Month 2017 has only just begun and I am already exhausted. Still exhausted, to be accurate, because of what happened last year. Remember early April 2016? Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were squabbling over the Democratic nomination. Donald Trump had a lock on the Republican nomination but was dismissed as a wildcard with no real hope of winning by most mainstream publications. Prince was still alive. It was an innocent time, relatively speaking, and a small group of herpes-positive writers decided to start a hashtag campaign called #ShoutYourStatus.
Britni de la Cretaz, Lachrista Greco, Kayla Axelrod and I wanted to humanize people who have STIs in a culture that associates herpes with character flaws and massive fuckups. With help from Sarit Luban and Emily Depasse, we tweeted about our lives and STI stigma, and we were quickly joined on Twitter by other sexual health activists and writers. A few folks disclosed their STI status publicly for the first time on Twitter, making me weepy and optimistic. We also gained the support of a handful sexual health organizations and feminist publications including Ravishly and Scarleteen. It felt like we were on the cusp of a breakthrough: the moment when our marginalized conversations about our experiences would be recognized and represented by folks outside of our small community. We were only getting started.
And then the right-wing trolls descended. I don’t know how they found our hashtag, but in retrospect it was inevitable. Here we were, a small, vulnerable group of women discussing our bodies in broad daylight. We were scraping off layers of shame that had been caked on some of us for years, and we were doing it with a sense of humor and hope. Our message was anathema to the prejudiced communities who also called Twitter home.
We made a great joke: look at these feminists with herpes trying to celebrate their diseases. It didn’t matter that we weren’t “proud” of herpes—the nuance of us refusing to be ashamed anymore didn’t translate with the willfully misinformed troll army who found us entertaining. Waves of sexists, “Men’s Rights Activists,” conservatives and general detritus of the human condition began to use our hashtag on Twitter too, to scold us for not taking responsibility for the consequences of our disgusting actions. They took our tweets out of context and provided their own commentary. They made fake accounts using our photos. They poured an onslaught of slurs into our Twitter mentions and tracked down our Facebook profiles. They created YouTube videos and blog posts and eventually articles on Breitbart and Infowars about us. They turned us into the meme of the moment and even now, a full year later, they still use #ShoutYourStatus as a way to degrade feminists.
I have never felt like more of a failure as an activist and as a community leader than I did watching a hashtag I helped create be terrorized. As a public figure, I had experience with hate mobs and understood what was happening as it happened, which made it no less terrifying. But many of the women who tweeted with #ShoutYourStatus were blindsided by the backlash and furious with me for failing to protect them. Meanwhile, I was under the most severe, sustained attack of everyone because of my visibility. I’ve written before about the harassment I faced during and following STD Awareness Month last year and through the Spring and Summer, and I don’t want to revisit it. It severely impacted my mental health, my writing, and my ability to do this work. Even writing this blog post has taken a few weeks because I just haven’t wanted to talk about it anymore.
The young history of digital activism is already full of hashtag campaigns that have been corrupted and weaponized by trolls. But most people have no idea that the #ShoutYourStatus backlash even happened. I’m not surprised by the teeny blip we made on the radar of the larger activist community last year: STI stigma isn’t considered a real issue by the feminist community, the body positivity community, or the larger social justice community. People with STIs are invisible. We’re even invisible within STD Awareness Month. STD Month campaigns focus on encouraging testing and treatment, with an emphasis this year on Syphilis. If you already have an STI, you’re on your own. And if you’re harassed online for your STI, good luck with that. There’s no cavalry on the way.
I’m fucking sick of it. I’m furious that I barely write anymore online. I’m furious that I dread my tweets being taken out of context and twisted into disrespectful headlines by hugely trafficked conservative websites. I’m furious that no one shows up for us. Where are the articles about why STI stigma is a feminist issue? Where is the solidarity and allyship for us? Why does the conversation about STIs end after we point out that abstinence-only education and closing Planned Parenthood clinics lead to a rising rate of STIs? Why do we encourage getting tested and not talk about coming back positive? Why is it still acceptable within feminist communities to slut-shame people with STIs? Where is the push for counseling for suicidal teenagers who have just been diagnosed? Why is there no thread about informed consent in the larger conversation about rape culture on college campuses? Why don’t domestic violence services and resources address how people with STIs are more at risk of abusive relationships? Why are we still alone in this?
(Not to mention that most of the figures who stirred up the backlash to #ShoutYourStatus became key leaders of the Alt-Right. It’s almost like this shit is political!)
Last year, I wrote a blog post in early April called “It’s STD Awareness Month. Why Aren’t We Celebrating?” A woefully innocent headline, all things considered. I wanted to celebrate people who continue to live their lives every single day despite being told that they’re trash. I wanted to put humanity back in STD Awareness Month. I wanted our community to make itself known, to disclose online, to demand space for ourselves.
I wasn’t wrong, but I didn’t understand the full picture yet. We need help. We need help from socially conscious publications to provide real information about STIs. We need help from creators to tell our stories and have genuine representation. We need allies who will show up and spread our message and fight for us, really fight. We need our stories shared on social media and amplified offline. We need some goddamn help. And if I see one more progressive making a joke about herpes having a higher approval rating than Donald Trump, I am going to cut that bro a new asshole.
Happy STD Awareness Month. Get the fuck to work.