A 19-year-old student at San Diego State University, Zachary Willmore, received an HIV-positive diagnosis in February, and like many others, felt like it was the end of the world. After flying home to Missouri from school to be with friends and family, he took time to process the news privately before deciding to go public. Willmore created daily updates about living with HIV for his TikTok platform of 1.7 million followers, which have since garnered millions of views.
Willmore has used his social media power to educate others about the auto-immune disease, including sharing content about how the disease is spread, the science of HIV medication, and paying homage to pioneering HIV activists and scientists. Willmore wants to show that an HIV diagnosis does not preclude living a normal life and is on a mission to break down the stigma associated with it.
Although Willmore recorded the videos as he was motioning through day-to-day life, he did not post them until a week after his diagnosis, coinciding with when he began to take medication. Advances in science and technology have allowed people living with HIV to be undetectable and untransmittable.
While many have flooded his comments with praise and affirmations, some have criticized him, saying he’s an attention-seeker. Willmore has taken the criticism in stride and is more focused on supporting those living with HIV who may feel they need to keep their condition a secret.
Initially, Willmore was concerned that creating content about his HIV diagnosis would obscure other aspects of his identity and life. However, he found that creating these videos has been a healing process for him and has helped him cope with his diagnosis. Willmore said he wants to show that, contrary to his initial reaction, having an HIV diagnosis is not the end of the world.
Willmore will be transitioning from daily video updates to weekly updates, but he said he will still continue to think about having HIV every day since the diagnosis and gets sad at times. He added that he will be processing for a while, but he’s optimistic about his future. Willmore’s journey on TikTok has shown the power of social media in breaking down stigmas and spreading awareness about important issues.