Nationwide, HIV affects more youth than ever before. An estimated 42% of new infections nationally are in youth under the age of 30, and more than 60% of youth don’t know their status. To address this growing issue, ASA’s Mpowerment Program, the Q Austin, works from the bottom up to help young men take charge of their sexual health.
Juan Bences-Benitez joined the Q in 2014 after meeting Mpowerment Coordinator Marcus Sanchez. While Juan went to a small, accepting arts school in Austin and never felt the need to hide his sexuality, he also knew nothing about the sexual health issues faced by young gay men. Now Juan is the second youngest member of the Q Austin’s Core Group, which helps to plan events and educate the young MSM (men who have sex with men) community about HIV and safe sex.
“Even in a city like Austin, a lot of people don’t talk about getting tested,” Juan explains. “That’s why I joined the Q. I wanted to get involved with the gay community, specifically HIV prevention.” The Core Group is already gearing up for a Mario Kart-themed water stop at the Hill Country Ride for AIDS and a collaborative fashion show in April called Flawless. “My goal is to start bringing in younger people to the Q. I’m making it my mission to make more friends in the gay community so I can bring them in.”
Even though he’s friendly, funny, and comfortable reaching out to people, Juan knows a lot of his friends may be uncomfortable discussing safe sex with him in person. Instead, he takes every chance he can to talk to them about the Q online, using social media to share articles, testing times, and his own experiences in Core Group. “I’ve become a resource for my friends,” he says. “When I post articles, my friends will send me a message saying ‘Thanks for posting that.’ I’m hoping that through the posts, they get a hint about the need to get tested.”
Juan’s enthusiasm and dedication to the Q in just the last year has made an incredible impact on the community. This past year, during the Q Austin’s grand opening, Juan was selected to read a proclamation from Mayor Lee Leffingwell declaring August 8 to be the Q Austin Day. “I was really honored. I practiced it over and over before the opening.”
Not only has Juan contributed to the Q, but he has been changed by the experience as well. “Marcus told me [after I read the proclamation] that he saw the Q’s work reflected in me. I was just a young gay man who knew nothing. They molded me into the young man I am now. My favorite part of coming here is seeing people like the Q guys, socializing, and planning events. I love the diversity of the gay community.”
This month Juan’s contributions will be recognized at the statewide “Speak Out” conference where he was chosen as one of just 25 youth ambassadors in Texas to attend the four-day event!
In the future, Juan hopes to study marketing, but no matter what, he plans to stay involved with the Q as long as he can, impacting as many young lives as possible.