The twelve months from September 1994 to August 1995 were devastating for Steven Vargas. In the fall of 1994, he lost his stepfather to AIDS. On April 19, 1995, Vargas himself tested HIV-positive. And then in August, his beloved mother succumbed to AIDS.
As painful as that period was, it set in motion a chain of events that would lead Vargas, a self described “reluctant activist,” to become one of Houston’s leading advocates for people living with HIV, both at the state and the national levels.
During the past 26 years, he has served as co-chair of Houston’s Latino HIV Task Force, co-chair of the City of Houston’s Hepatitis C Task Force, and as chairman of Houston’s Ryan White Planning Council, which oversees the disbursement of millions of federal dollars earmarked for low-income individuals living with HIV. In 2015, he was named to the influential POZ 100 list of U.S. AIDS activists who have made an impact in their communities. The publication praised him as “a dedicated agent of change.” He was recently elected co-chair of the newly formed National HIV Aging and Advocacy Network, focusing on the needs of individuals over the age of fifty who are living with HIV.
“Steven has only risen to higher levels of influence as an AIDS advocate,” says Tori Williams, director of support staff for the Houston Area Ryan White Planning Council, who has witnessed Vargas evolve as an activist over the last 15 years. “Because he works with groups like the National Minority AIDS Coalition and serves on a number of national committees like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents, Steven is now hobnobbing with the big cheeses. As he does on the local level, he wins people over with his charm—and then he starts making ‘suggestions.’”
Born in Houston in 1968, Vargas attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where he excelled at playing the French horn. In 2004, he accepted a job with AIDS Foundation Houston and eventually rose to the position of case manager. In 2008, he joined the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, where he focused on developing the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program.
A turning point in his personal development came in 2005, when he enrolled in Project LEAP (Learning Empowerment, Advocacy and Participation), a months-long course offering advocacy training for HIV-positive individuals. “It lit a fire to do something with all that information I had just gained,” he remembers.
After completing the course, he joined the Houston Area Ryan White Planning Council, where he has served in numerous voluntary leadership roles for over a decade. “I love the Ryan White program because it’s empowering people living with HIV to make decisions about services to provide, based upon data about the needs of the community,” he observes.
Another passion project for Vargas has been The Oral History Project, which is chronicling Houston’s response to the AIDS crisis through a series of 100 interviews. He is a member of the group’s board of trustees.
“Gathering the recollections of people who lived through those early years of the AIDS crisis here in Houston was as important to me as capturing the stories of people who went to war for this country in foreign lands.”
And despite the devastating impact that AIDS has had on his own life, Vargas remains optimistic.
“I am hopeful that we’ll see a cure,” he says. “And I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if I saw one in my lifetime. I’d probably cry tears of joy if and when it ever happens, but I don’t think I’d be surprised anymore.”
For more information on Houston’s Ryan White Planning Council, visit rwpchouston.org.
This article appears in the September 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.