A New Generation of Queer Activism
UT Health research associate Dr. Jonatan Gioia transforms Houston both on and off the clock.
When openly gay Buenos Aires native Dr. Jonatan Gioia moved to Space City nearly three years ago to work for the Houston HIV/AIDS Research Team (HART) at UT Health, he brought his home country’s philosophy on wellness with him.
“I was taught that everyone deserves to be taken care of,” Gioia, says, noting that medicine is affordable, hospital visits are free, and quality healthcare is a right in Argentina. “That’s why I studied medicine—because I want to help people. I’m so happy to apply those lessons here in Houston, to build a healthier community and to see it thrive.”
As a research associate for HPTN 083—a study that tests a new way to take Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which is currently available only as a pill that must be taken daily—Gioia is helping to make this HIV-prevention drug more accessible to at-risk communities.
“What defines this era of queer leaders is the fact that we have access to information at all times. We have a responsibility to keep moving forward whenever we can.”
Over 1,000 Houstonians were diagnosed with HIV in 2017, 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.
Gioia says that the local HIV epidemic is likely due to the fact that LGBTQ people of color—specifically black trans women—do not always have access to healthcare because of poverty, discrimination, lack of transportation, and more. In response to this, Gioia is working on an injectable version of PrEP that could be taken as a shot every two months.
If the HPTN 083 study is successful, “It will be a game changer for PrEP,” Gioia says. Along with tackling barriers to access, he believes an injectable version of the antiviral drug would be more user-friendly.
“It can be hard to take a pill every day,” Gioia admits. “Taking a preventative shot once every other month is quick, lasts longer, and offers users relief from the stress of accidentally missing a pill. So far, the participants in our study seem to prefer injectables over pills because it gets taking PrEP out of the way faster.”
Now in its second year of trials, HART’s HPTN 083 study will continue to follow 60 participants in a double-blind trial comparing the effectiveness of PrEP injectables and oral tablets for a total of up to four and a half years. More information about the study can be found online at hptn.org/research/studies/hptn083.
In addition to his transformative research work at UT Health, Gioia is also a popular activist in Houston’s LGBTQ community. Known for his colorful hair, painted nails, and beaming smile, Gioia serves as the vice president of Impulse Group Houston, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy lifestyles for queer people through its community events and campaigns. He is also an ambassador for the City of Houston’s I Am Life campaign, and a member of the HIV Latino Task Force.
Gioia says the purpose of his advocacy, and the advocacy of many emerging LGBTQ leaders, is to serve underrepresented communities and bridge the gap among communities of color. He calls this movement “a new generation of queer activism.”
“I am eternally grateful for the work of the activists who came before me for paving the way and fighting for our rights,” Gioia says. “Now that queer people are being born with more rights, we must honor our elders by continuing to fight against injustices, including the indifference in our own community.”
For Gioia, that means creating safe spaces for LGBTQ people of color to thrive. In October, he led Impulse Group’s #Juntos, the first-ever queer Latinx festival in Houston. The week-long event occurred in various locations across the city, and featured drag performances, community socials, and an art showcase.
“There are so many struggles that queer people still face,” Gioia says. “I want to be invested in tackling those issues with an intersectional approach.”
“I may be a doctor from 9 to 5, but I can throw a party with a purpose on the weekends,” Gioia continues. “Activism is a 24/7 job. I think what defines this era of queer leaders is the fact that we have access to information at all times. We have a responsibility to [keep moving forward] whenever we can.”
With degrees in both medicine and education, Gioia believes that doctors should serve as teachers in the communities that they serve. After work, he can often be found in Montrose, and encourages everyone to ask him questions about any health concerns they may have.
Next year, Gioia will embark on several new and exciting projects. He encourages OutSmart readers to be on the lookout for the work of Impulse Group and the HIV Latino Task Force, along with new HART studies on comprehensive trans healthcare. The study will benefit from the assistance of internationally known trans activist Mia Ryan, who will serve as a health promoter and outreach worker.
“When I got to Houston, I saw that there was a need for more activism,” Gioia recalls. “I’m thankful that the city has embraced me and trusted me to do what I do. I’m so excited for the work I’ll be a part of in 2020!”
To keep up with Dr. Jonatan Gioia, find him on social media @jonatangio.
This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.