Life Well Lived
Jordan Edwards is a tireless advocate for people living with HIV.
Local advocate Jordan Edwards remembers learning about his positive HIV status at age 21 and not having anyone to turn to. Today, he serves as an educator who is there for others living with HIV at The Normal Anomaly Initiative (TNA), an organization that empowers Black queer people.
“I hope to be a voice for others, and I’m hoping to be someone who can help end the stigma by normalizing people living with HIV as human first,” says Edwards.
As the program director of the BQ+: Center for Liberation program at TNA, Edwards and his team take a holistic approach to helping people living with HIV. The program not only provides individuals with at-home STI self-testing kits (which test for a variety of conditions such as chlamydia and hepatitis C), but it also helps people find sustainable employment and get the transportation they need for medical appointments.
“If I was someone who needed housing, employment, food, and medicine, I’m not going to be concerned about getting my medicine because I don’t have money to pay my copay, and I can’t get my blood drawn because I don’t have enough food in my stomach. The Normal Anomaly eliminates barriers to actualize a new norm,” he says.
Edwards believes other organizations dedicated to people living with HIV must address the needs of the Black LGBTQ community on a case-by-case basis rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. “Not every Black man who has sex with men has the same healthcare concerns.”
A Houston native, Edwards has been helping people all his life. He helped take care of his sick grandmother, his mother who worked 12-hour days, and a family member living with HIV. Edwards’ family treated that relative without discrimination or fear by eating from the same dinner plates and using the same bathroom.
“Even though we didn’t have enough knowledge then—because oftentimes the Black community doesn’t have a lot of knowledge around certain health topics due to barriers—we still treated our [relative living with HIV] as ‘family first,’” Edwards notes.
Edwards was devastated when that relative died due to AIDS complications. And his stress was further heightened over fears that he was destined to contract HIV because of his attraction to men. “At the time, we were taught that if you are a man who has sex with a man, you will eventually contract HIV. I was in a space thinking, ‘I’m a Black man. I’m going to die of AIDS,’” Edwards recalls.
He did end up contracting HIV in March of 2013 from his partner at the time, who was not taking his HIV medication. (Effective HIV treatment almost always reduces a person’s HIV viral load enough to eliminate the risk of HIV transmission.) Edwards also grew up in an area fraught with drive-by shootings and other violence, so dying young was a real possibility for many. “I had just made it to age 22, and I thought, ‘This is it.’”
After moving from Houston to rural Virginia with his mother, Edwards discovered that the local HIV healthcare system was woefully inadequate. After being told not to touch any pens or share toilets with his family to avoid transmitting the virus, he was fortunate to find an educated caseworker who helped him understand that he was not at risk of harming his family by touching the objects in their home or using the same bathroom.
Edwards remembers a poster on the caseworker’s office wall that read, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always.” He also remembers when she told him he would make a difference helping others one day—and she was right.
Determined to share what he had learned about HIV/AIDS, Edwards started going to support groups for individuals living with HIV. Back in Houston, he has worked at AIDS Foundation Houston and served as a facilitator at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to educate individuals about HIV, STIs, and more.
Edwards’ life story is proof that listening to and caring for people living with HIV can be life-changing. When he was still a teenager, a friend who had just been diagnosed with HIV called him and told him where their body would be after they committed suicide. Edwards kept his friend on the phone while secretly rushing to the site to pick up his friend and reassure them that he would offer support and a shoulder to cry on. That friend is now living her best life as a trans woman living with HIV.
Circumstances for people living with HIV have improved since Edwards became an advocate. In his experience, people are now more likely to talk about who they are as unique individuals, independent of their health status. There has also been progress in HIV research, and a shift in terminology. People are now described as living with HIV, instead of simply being labeled “HIV-positive.”
Even so, Edwards knows that life for people living with HIV can always improve, especially within the Black community. Black people account for 13 percent of the United States population, but 40 percent of the population living with HIV in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also found that new HIV infections disproportionately impact Black gay and bisexual men and Black straight women.
Edwards encourages everyone to help people living with HIV in the Black community by donating to The Normal Anomaly Initiative and participating in their events to learn more about identity, sexuality, and their own health. People can also help by sharing what they’ve learned from these TNA events.
Edwards will be leading a curriculum-based training this month as part of TNA’s P.O.W.R. program to help people advocate for themselves and others living with HIV. The month-long program will teach participants how they can help eliminate stigma and barriers that harm people living with HIV.
And beyond Black History Month, Edwards notes that his advocacy work will continue throughout the year. “We often celebrate Black History Month but forget about the community during the other 11 months,” he says. “Caring about the community throughout the year would have more of an impact.”
Still drawing inspiration from the poster in his caseworker’s office, he also hopes that Black Houstonians will offer compassionate support to everyone in their community—including those who are queer, trans, and nonbinary. “We all matter,” he emphasizes.
For more information, visit normalanomaly.org.