Queer people of color are contracting HIV at alarming rates in Space City, but the Houston Health Department has a new plan to change that.
Over 1,000 Houstonians were diagnosed with HIV in 2017, and three out of five of them were LGBTQ African-Americans and Latinos, according to the latest HIV Surveillance Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those most at risk of acquiring HIV are black and Latino men who have sex with men, and transgender people of color ages 13 to 34.
To combat one of the city’s top health epidemics, the Houston Health Department (HHD) has launched its first-ever campaign that reaches out directly to LGBTQ African-Americans and Latinos. The I am Life campaign will engage with those most affected by HIV and inform them about prevention and treatment options.
“This campaign isn’t your typical HIV public-service announcement. Instead, [we are reaching out in a way that’s] hopeful, positive, and empowering,” says Marlene McNeese, an assistant director with the Houston Health Department’s Division of Disease Prevention and Control. “[The City of Houston] was ready to promote something different. I hope our community is ready for this as well.”
I am Life’s advertisements are colorful, chic, and uplifting. With funding provided by CDC’s Project PrIDE Initiative, Gilbreath Communications is the advertising agency chosen to develop and design the campaign across social-media platforms that include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube—in addition to the houstoniamlife.com website.
I am Life features 21 ambassadors from Houston’s queer community who are students, activists, social-media influencers, healthcare professionals, and more. These individuals share their personal stories about improving their sexual health and encouraging their peers to take PrEP (a prescription drug taken daily by those who are vulnerable to HIV) or to use treatment as prevention if they already have the virus.
In the coming weeks, the fresh faces of I am Life will be displayed on Houston billboards, television announcements, discussion panels, and radio broadcasts. OutSmart spoke to six of the I am Life ambassadors to learn more about why they are advocates for HIV treatment and prevention.
Ballet dancer and social-media star
Harper Watters left home at 14 to pursue a career in ballet. Twelve years later, Watters is in his tenth season at the Houston Ballet, where he currently performs as a soloist.
Watters, 26, is also a YouTube sensation and social-media star with over 150,000 followers. Watters says he joined the I am Life campaign to further benefit the communities he speaks for.
“I believe the work I do off stage should be as valuable as the work I do on stage,” Watters says. “I [already] use my position as a classical dancer and my influence on social media to empower by example. Participating in [I am Life] felt like the right fit for me.”
As an openly gay African-American male, Watters believes it is important to advocate for the issues that LGBTQ people of color face. “HIV affects my community with the largest numbers,” Watters notes, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t change that.”
In the past, there have been many misconceptions about taking PrEP to prevent HIV infections. Watters is hopeful that the I am Life campaign can shift the discussion about HIV prevention and treatment into a positive light.
“Because of the stigmas [surrounding PrEP], it’s easy to be negligent about your sex life and not educate yourself about being healthy,” Watters says. “I am Life shows that there are simple steps you can take to protect yourself and the person you love.”
Watters hopes that as an I am Life ambassador, he can promote health and encourage people to be their authentic selves.
“I dance my best when I feel my best, and my health plays an important role in that,” Watters says. “[Through this campaign], I want to show my generation and people younger than me that they don’t have to sacrifice any part of who they are to achieve their dreams.”
Armando Villegas, an openly gay man, says he was “very closeted” while growing up in Houston’s Gulfgate area.
“I didn’t know anything about LGBT culture,” Villegas, 29, recalls. “Latino circles are very small. For most of us, what is available to us in our communities is all we know. I never learned anything about being gay, safe sex, or STIs in the place where I grew up.”
Villegas joined the I am Life campaign to spread awareness about queer issues in communities that rarely discuss them. He is impressed that the City of Houston is pushing ideas about HIV prevention and treatment into neighborhoods that are being affected by the virus.
“The I am Life campaign is major,” Villegas says. “This is Houston’s first-ever call to action about PrEP. Many Latinos don’t know what PrEP is, or where to obtain it. Some physicians don’t even know what the drug is. This campaign is going to change so many lives.”
Outside of being an I am Life ambassador, Villegas works even more directly on HIV prevention as a research coordinator at the Crofoot Research Center, a Houston-based medical practice for those seeking disease treatment. Villegas is currently researching a new formula for PrEP that will cause fewer side effects.
Gordon E. Crofoot has practiced internal medicine with special attention to HIV/AIDS for over three decades. Villegas, who has worked for six years under Dr. Crofoot, says that he has witnessed many lives that were changed because of HIV prevention and treatment.
“I have met dying people who were able to take medicine and recover their lives,” Villegas says. “It’s so amazing to see those people benefit after taking the responsibility to seek treatment.”
When Villegas came out to Crofoot, his boss thanked him for his honesty and bravery. Villegas’ family also embraced him when he told them that he was gay.
As a queer person who can now be his authentic self, Villegas hopes to encourage others to be out and healthy in their relationships.
“Live healthy to live longer by being real with yourself and responsible to others,” Villegas says.
PrEP outreach specialist
Ma’Janae Chambers is among several transgender I am Life ambassadors. Chambers, a 32-year-old black trans woman, was a perfect fit for the campaign because of her already-established experience as an advocate for HIV prevention through her work as a PrEP outreach specialist for AIDS Foundation Houston.
Chambers says her mission as an I am Life ambassador is to raise awareness about PrEP among other trans individuals who are unaware of the drug or have misconceptions about it. “Trans people should all be on PrEP as a precaution,” Chambers tells OutSmart. “I don’t want HIV prevention to be just an MSM or a cisgender thing.”
Trans people, especially trans women of color, are more at risk of facing violence. Chambers says that because of this, trans folks should always protect themselves—including their sexual well-being.
“You never know who you’re going to come across, so stay protected,” Chambers says. “You can avoid HIV 99.9 percent of the time if you’re on PrEP. And if you use condoms, you can also prevent a number of other [sexually transmitted diseases].”
Some trans people believe that taking PrEP negatively affects their hormones, but Chambers says that is false. Chambers has been on PrEP for three years, and her hormones have never been harmed by taking the drug.
“PrEP and your hormones can work hand-in-hand,” Chambers says. “So [to trans people] I say: get tested, get on PrEP, use condoms, get treatment, and live your life to the fullest.”
“HIV prevention will save your life,” Chambers adds. “It saved mine.”
Isaac “Issy” Joseph
Author and part-time home health nurse
Isaac “Issy” Joseph was in denial about his HIV status until October 2014, when he had to be rushed to the emergency room with symptoms of AIDS.
“All of the signs were there, but I didn’t want to know,” Joseph, 28, recalls. “I thought if I had HIV, life would be over for me.”
Before getting tested, Joseph, an openly gay black man, had been living with HIV for nearly two years. Within three months of beginning treatment for the virus, he became undetectable—meaning he can no longer transmit HIV to his sexual partners.
“The medication works,” Joseph says. “As an ambassador, it’s super-important for me to let people know that [an HIV diagnosis] is not the endgame. Instead, it is a chance to start over.”
After Joseph learned about the misconceptions of being HIV-positive, he began to educate others through activism. Joseph now works as an author and a part-time in-home nurse. In 2017, he released his first book, The Epidemic: Living with HIV in the 21st Century, a collection of stories that explore different HIV-related issues such as pregnancy, teenage HIV, and being black and HIV-positive.
“I just want everyone to know that people with HIV are just regular people,” Joseph says. “HIV is not what you think. It isn’t that big, scary demon that it once was. I hope I can continue to share that through this campaign.”
Although Joseph is HIV-positive, his partner does not have HIV. “This is why prevention is so important,” Joseph says.
“If you have a healthy, active sex life, PrEP is something that you want to be on,” he adds. “Go get tested and start treatment. It’s your key to survival.”
HIV research associate
After he moved to Houston from Buenos Aires two years ago to do HIV/AIDS medical research, Dr. Jonatan Gioia dated a person who was HIV-positive.
“[The man I dated] helped me reaffirm that a person is more than his or her status,” Gioia, 30, says, “and how important it was for him to take his medication daily to stay undetectable.”
Gioia, who identifies as a gay man, joined the
I am Life campaign because he is a queer activist with a scientific background who can use facts to
advocate for the importance of PrEP and HIV treatment in preventing new infections.
“There are approximately 1,000 new HIV transmissions each year,” Gioia says, “but living with HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore. There is treatment for HIV, and [we can now prevent new infections]. For me, spreading this message is what the campaign is about.”
Gioia says that LGBTQ people, specifically trans women of color, do not always have access to healthcare because of poverty, discrimination, lack of transportation, and more. In response to this, Gioia is working on a new way to take PrEP, a drug that is currently available only as a pill that must be taken daily.
“I am working on creating an injectable version of PrEP that could be taken as a shot every two months,” Gioia says. “I’m hoping that this will tackle the barriers that many LGBTQ people face when trying to get healthcare.”
Gioia believes that doctors should work as educators in the communities that they serve.
“I’m so excited to be a part of this campaign,” Gioia says. “I really think that it is going to help Houstonians be healthier, safer, and more responsible.”
Joelle Cheatem began his LGBTQ advocacy over a decade ago as an employee at True Colors, Inc., a nonprofit organization for queer youth in Hartford, Connecticut.
Cheatem, a 26-year-old bisexual Afro-Latino man, moved to Houston a year ago and now serves the city’s LGBTQ community. As an I am Life ambassador, Cheatem says he will use his voice to ensure that all Houstonians have the means to access HIV prevention and treatment.
“I used to help take kids off of the streets of Hartford after they were kicked out of their homes for being LGBT,” Cheatem says. “This is sort of a continuation of that work. I want to make sure that people in Houston are properly taken care of, especially when it comes to healthcare.”
Outside of the I am Life campaign, Cheatem works as a political consultant who travels across the country helping candidates succeed. He is currently the field director for Houston City Council candidate Ashton Woods, an openly gay man who founded Black Lives Matter Houston.
“Ashton is awesome,” Cheatem says. “He really captures what it means to be from Houston. You can look forward to his City Council race this year.”
Cheatem says he hopes that
I am Life helps reduce the negative stigma surrounding HIV, and
that folks will become more sex-positive.
“The topics [in the I am Life campaign] can be sensitive to a lot of people,” Cheatem says. “However, Houston keeps seeing more cases of HIV. We’re working to put a positive, human face on HIV prevention so that the numbers shift in the opposite direction.”
Akil Jones, 32
Akil Jones heard about PrEP for the first time about five years ago when his doctor recommended he take it.
“I didn’t even know it existed or was an option,” Jones, 32, recalls. “Most doctors didn’t talk about or prescribe PrEP back then, and some still don’t. Thankfully, my doctor knew the importance of it.”
Jones, a black man who identifies as gay, says he hopes the I Am Life campaign inspires people to seek education about HIV prevention and treatment. As an ambassador, he wants to inspire others to get the help that they need.
“I want people who look like me—and who may not think PrEP is for them—to realize their self-worth and understand that they are worth saving,” Jones says.
As an intensive-care nurse, Jones says he has encountered several HIV-positive folks. Many of these individuals were near death, but some were able to become stable again through treatment.
“HIV is something that is totally preventable now,” Jones says. “You don’t have to get HIV. But if you do contract it, you can reduce the risk of transmitting it to others by taking medication.”
Jones says that I Am Life will soon take over Houston with ads that will be seen on busses, in the malls, and more.
“I hope the campaign encourages people to take care of themselves by seeing a doctor, getting tested, and seeking treatment,” Jones says. “I want to see the rates of HIV in the city drop.”
For more information about I Am Life, visit houstoniamlife.com. Find the campaign on social media by typing “Houston I Am Life” in the search bar.
This article appears in the June 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.