story by Melinda Lejman | photos by Greg Campbell
John-Michael Alderson isn’t from Memphis, but that’s a good thing. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Alderson moved to Memphis from New Orleans, where he worked with the AIDS service organization Crescent Care (formerly No AIDS Task Force). After moving to Memphis, Alderson joined Friends for Life as a grant writer in 2016 and quickly moved into the position of director of development and community engagement the following year.
Since joining Friends for Life, he has put his knowledge of other markets to good use. “It’s pretty exciting to see how Friends for Life is evolving under new leadership and direction,” says Alderson, a nod to Friends for Life’s relatively new executive director, Diane Duke, who moved here from Los Angeles.
While Alderson sees Memphis as a city on the rise, he admits that the LGBTQ scene has dwindled while other cities have continued to grow. “I consider some of the big gay bars from the 80s and the 90s to be almost like churches,” says Alderson. “They’re these very sacred spaces in the sense that people could come and feel this freedom and connect with people and celebrate themselves with other people. And while that’s going away in Memphis, it’s not really going away in other markets.” Alderson points to cities such as his hometown Louisville, where bars continue to open and “play nice” with one another.
But what some might see as an unfortunate circumstance, Alderson sees as an opportunity. Hence, Friends for Life’s themed dance parties. Although they are by nature fundraisers, they also serve the purpose of creating spaces where the LGBTQ community and allies can come together in celebration. “When we do these big dance parties, I love it because I feel like it’s about people coming together from all walks of life,” says Alderson. “It’s an opportunity to not only lift up the spirit of community, but it also communicates the services that we’re all about.
I don’t think those things need to exist in silos, the way maybe they have.”
Breaking down silos and fostering a sense of partnership is a big part of Alderson’s mission, as well as a goal of his organization, which donates a portion of dance party proceeds to other charitable causes. “We work with community partners to recognize their good work so that all boats rise up with the tide,” he says.
Alderson also sees an opportunity in Memphis to change the conversation around HIV status through Friends for Life’s “Status: Memphis” campaign. “There’s still a lot of misconception around HIV status, and there’s a lot of language used on Grindr and other dating and sex platforms where people say, ‘I’m clean and you be clean, too,’” says Alderson. “Well, clean is such a stigmatizing word, so we’re really trying to get the word out, on a small scale but on a larger scale as well, with buses wrapped to say, “It’s time to talk about HIV without shame or judgement.”
In addition to de-stigmatizing HIV status, Alderson would like to see more people taking advantage of PrEP as a preventive measure. “What I became aware of before I was even involved with Friends for Life, having come from Crescent Care, was how many people didn’t know about PrEP, or didn’t know that prep was an option, or that
you could get prep at no cost,” he says.
“I’m a big believer that everybody should be on PrEP,” says Alderson. “I think women should be on PrEP. People are moving in that direction on the coast, but it takes 10 or 15 years to have that adopt into other areas, especially southern markets.” Again, he points out the stigma that prevails around sex and prevention. “I think there’s been some stigma in the community where you only take PrEP if you’re really over the top sexually active, or you’re a sex worker,” he says.
It’s a problem that Alderson admits can’t be tackled alone, and he is proud to partner with other organizations in Memphis to do the work of bringing new ideas and ways of thinking into the community. “That’s what’s important to me, is to create a space in Memphis where we are a little more open to having honest conversations without shame or
judgement,” he says. “It’s an uphill battle in the Bible Belt, but I think we’re getting there, slowly.”