What was your journey to becoming a researcher and activist?
Since I was a little kid, I always knew I wanted to change the world. Once I embraced my queer identity, I understood that one of my missions in life was helping other folks be able to be themselves. My mantra is ‘Be yourself, embrace who you are, and let’s make the world a better place together.’
Tell me about the projects you’re currently involved with, and the roles you play in them.
I always say I wear many hats. Between 8 and 5, I’m an HIV clinical program manager for the Houston HIV/AIDS Research Team at UT Health, [where] I oversee the implementation of HIV prevention research. I’m also the president of Latinx Outreach and Understanding Division (LOUD), an affinity group for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Our mission is to motivate, advocate, and educate the Latinx community by hosting events and supporting other [groups that are doing their own] community events. I’m also a member of the HIV Latino Task Force.
What is the HPTN 091 ‘I Am’ study, and how can people get involved?
It’s an intervention that tries to enhance health care for transgender women. We want to prove that it’s better to be able to provide diverse healthcare services (such as gender-affirming hormone therapy and HIV prevention medicine) in one place, rather than having those services scattered around the city. This intervention also connects trans women to other trans women who work as peer navigators to help them get linked to other resources that they may need for employment, housing, and mental health.
HIV prevention focuses not only on new medications, but also on new strategies. The fact that we are able to build these great safe spaces for trans women, and also hire them to be the voice of this study, is amazing. People can [learn more] by visiting iamstudy.org and reach out to us at [email protected].
Tell me about the HPTN 094 study, also known as Project Integra.
This study aims to help people who inject drugs, and specifically opiates such as heroin or fentanyl. We are testing the ability to provide them with HIV prevention and treatment services, plus treatment for Opioid Use Disorder, in the setting of a mobile research unit. The mobile unit goes into “hot spots” in the city where we know there are many opiate overdoses, and we provide people with free treatment and linkage to care. [UTHealth] is the only site in the South for both the HPTN 091 and 094 trials, so it’s important to us to be able to put Houston at the forefront of HIV prevention research. People can contact our hotline directly at 832-422-6604 or email [email protected].
What is the status of the study involving long-acting PrEP options?
‘Purpose 2’ looks into the use of injectable PrEP that is going to be given every six months. Previous studies have shown that it’s a very promising drug. We keep focusing on injectables because we know that sometimes a daily pill will not work for everyone. Hopefully, we’ll be able to start enrolling participants at the beginning of November. We just can’t wait to engage with LGBTQ community members—men who have sex with men, transgender women, nonbinary folks, and transgender men. We want to be intentional to include underrepresented communities, so we’re aiming to enroll at least 50 percent people of color and at least 25 percent trans folks. Those who want to be on a waiting list for the study can reach us at PrEP [email protected].
Why is it important that people from underrepresented communities be included in HIV prevention research?
Diversity in clinical trials is absolutely fundamental. We need to really understand the communities that we serve. We know that underserved communities are the most impacted by HIV. Therefore, those are the folks that also have to be represented in these clinical trials. Clinical trials are also a great way to engage people in health care. We don’t just want to be able to provide folks with HIV prevention or treatment, but we also want to be able to connect them to resources.
What is your LOUD outreach group currently working on?
LOUD has had an amazing year. We started the Houston chapter in 2020, [and even though] we were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were still able to help a lot of organizations in the community. This year we were able to have our first [in-person] community mixer. We also hosted a back-to-school backpack and school supplies drive, provided HIV testing while partnering with local Loteria events, distributed pantry items in the community, and helped some people who were released by ICE at the border. We did a graphic campaign to raise COVID-19 vaccination awareness among the Spanish-speaking community, themed “Y tu, por quien te vacunas?” (Who do you get vaccinated for?).
Hopefully, by the end of the year we’ll be able to bring back Juntxs, a queer Latin festival that started back in 2019 while I was part of Impulse Group Houston. We’re planning a big celebration of life for World AIDS Day. There’s a lot coming, and we’re always looking for people who want to volunteer and have a positive impact on the Latinx community. For more info, visit linktr.ee/SomosLOUD or reach out directly to me.
Please share some thoughts on Latinx Heritage History Month.
I absolutely adore that we get a whole month to celebrate the Latinx culture. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the differences [among] Latinx people, because it’s not the same to be from Argentina, Colombia, or Mexico. It’s also [a time to embrace] those Latinx leaders who make contributions to this country and in Houston, which has such an amazing Latinx influence.
Outside of your activist work, what do you like to do for fun?
Biking. I enjoy putting on my headphones and listening to some Kylie Minogue while rolling around the city. I also love going to the Menil park with a good book, and exploring new breweries in the city.
Where are some of your favorite spots to hang out?
West Alabama Ice House and the amazing taco shop next to it—Tacos Tierra Caliente, which has some of the best tacos in town. I love going to the Buffalo Bayou Brewery to get some beer and see the view of the skyline. I also have a fascination with Kura Revolving Sushi Bar, the Menil Museum’s park, and the Museum of Natural Science.
Finally, where can people keep up with you?
The best way to find me is to slide in my DMs. If you need PrEP, want info about clinical trials, or are interested in volunteering, reach out to me on Instagram @jonatangio or via e-mail to [email protected]. I’m always happy to support my community!
This article appears in the October 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.