Hello, everyone. My name is Juan Benitez and I work at The Q Austin, an Mpowerment project here at ASA. The Q Austin started as a community driven organization to create a space to organize events, outreach, and other programs to reduce HIV transmissions in central Texas and that continues to be the central mission of The Q Austin. The Q is actually celebrating 20 years this year of serving young men who have sex with men in Austin.
The central theme of the work that The Q does is bringing people together. What we like saying is that to address a community issue, you have to bring communities together and that’s what we do with all of our programs. Whether it’s core group (our dedicated group of volunteers), whole packages (community driven conversations), QTS (queer, trans, socials), we bring people together to address social issues, cultural issues, institutional issues, and all of the different factors that play a role in someone’s sexual health and their HIV status.
One of those key social issues is stigma. Stigma around HIV, those living with HIV, and the barriers that stigma creates when accessing life affirming care and ultimately someone’s quality of life. When we look at HIV as a field, we’ve made so many advancements biomedically but we continue to see how stigma really affects the individual. Whether it’s a young gay man disclosing his status to his partner or maybe they’re wanting PrEP but in the eyes of their family there’s still the idea that HIV is a death sentence. We know that’s no longer the case. We have PrEP, we know the importance of adhering to medication, we know that U=U. Undetectable is untransmittable. Life affirming care is a reality.
Life affirming care is PrEP and knowing your chances of contracting HIV are lowered
Life affirming care is adhering to medication and knowing you can live a long, healthy, and thriving life.
Life affirming care is giving people the tools, skills, and information to live the stigma-free life that they deserve.
Life affirming care is launching La Q Austin. The new sister to The Q Austin that will be entirely Spanish programming.
And Life affirming care is changing the face of HIV away from it being a “gay issue” to a “human issue”
We often forget that the first word in HIV is human. But think about that. HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is a human issue at its core.
I often think about where I would be if I didn’t have these tools. If I didn’t have this information. If I didn’t have an agency like AIDS Services of Austin and its program, The Q Austin. I started volunteering at The Q when I was still in High School. The good ‘ol class of 2014. Here in Austin, actually. I would have never met some of the closest friends that I have if it weren’t for Core Group. I would have never had the courage to live openly as a young gay man with my family. I would have never known what it means to be an activist and to fight, and stand up, for vulnerable communities that are disproportionately affected.
What I’ve found is that my story is an all too common one for people who are touched by The Q Austin. Most recently, one of our Core Group members emailed me to thank me for the space and programs that The Q has. He said, “I just came out of the closet in October of 2018, and within two weeks I was at my first Core Group meeting. I held my tears in that day, as I thought a day like that would never come for me.” And let’s think about that. It’s 2019 now, but people still needs spaces like The Q and the services that we provide. The Q is not just welcoming, we embrace people for who they are, make a home for them when so many feel they don’t have a family to turn to, and reminding people that their fight is our fight.
I never intended for any of this to happen and that’s the beauty of the work that we do. Five years later, here I am, a staff member of ASA, and celebrating two years with this agency next month.
And that’s the goal, isn’t it? Creating leaders. Creating change. And creating a world where HIV is just another chapter in the history books. Like Gary and Richard just said, we started off as scared people at the height of the epidemic with just a shoe box to where we are now. Look around you. Look at your friends. Look at your loved ones. Look at your coworkers. We have come a long way. The field of HIV looks much different than it did in the 80s, but what hasn’t changed is the passion, the will to survive, and the drive to do better.
I don’t know a world without HIV in it. Many of us may have forgotten what a world without it even looked like. I urge you to think about that. Remember that world. Remember all the loving memories of the people that were lost. The laughs, the hugs, the smiles. Remember what it was like to be embraced and the feeling of belonging. Remember that that world can be a reality again. And it will be a reality with organizations like AIDS Services of Austin.
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