The first time I wrote about my HIV diagnosis was in this paper (formerly Gay San Diego), over ten years ago. I remember my editor back then calling me to double check I wanted to publish something that would publicly disclose my status as HIV positive. He was worried for me, though he did not articulate why.
It was important for me then, at 22 to share about my experience because I thought it might help some folks. It would make someone feel less alone and it might encourage people to seek testing and explore prevention services. When I wrote that first column about my HIV status, I thought about the first column I ever published. I was 18 at San Diego State writing for the Daily Aztec. My first column was a reminder to get regular HIV and STI tests. In connecting those thoughts, I remember feeling like I let myself down.
I have often considered writing and storytelling to be my most powerful tools. I use those tools as best I can to center my community, provide information, and resources. When writing about current events or legal decisions, I know I don’t need to convince this audience, but what I seek to do is to give people the context, language, and structure to own a part of the work.
This is why it’s special for me to announce and celebrate an achievement with another San Diego advocate for the sexual health and wellness of our community.
NMAC, formally the National Minority AIDS Council, announced its 20-member 2023 cohort for their competitive Gay Men of Color Fellowship for Biomedical HIV Prevention. Of those selected from around the country, two are from here in San Diego, Benjamin Ignalino and myself.
Benjamin Ignalino currently works as the Regional Program Manager for the Pacific AIDS Education Training Center at UC San Francisco and was formerly the HIV prevention services manager at Family Health Centers of San Diego. Ben has over 20 years of experience working in the HIV field as both a frontline team member and administrator of HIV prevention grants focused on PrEP, syringe service programs, and “Queer Care.”
Prior to his current role, Ben facilitated high-impact HIV Prevention trainings and tailored HIV-specific content for CDC-funded community-based organizations. His expertise on HIV testing, prevention, condom distribution, organizational development, and management have helped shape HIV prevention efforts in communities across the country.
I first met Ben when I was a teenager and he worked at the old Hillcrest Youth Center. I had just led our Gay Straight Alliance’s largest Day of Silence protest and we were asked to participate in the school’s health fair. Ben generously gave us a literal trash bag full of condoms and lube, which my boyfriend had to take on the bus back down to South Bay because we did not have a car.
My application for the fellowship focused on my work with the County of San Diego, serving on the HIV Planning Group where I chair the Community Engagement Group, Co-Chair Strategies and Standard Setting committee, and serve on the Monkey Pox Task Force, and the Joint City-County HIV Housing Committee.
Las Vegas, Sex, and HIV Prevention:
NMAC believes the best way to confront racism and HIV within at-risk communities is to work through existing networks to coordinate a targeted response The Gay Men of Color Fellowship trains and networks local educators and advocates about HIV prevention tools like PrEP, PEP, Treatment as Prevention (TasP), and U=U. Fellows will have an opportunity to learn from experts, present at conferences, run social media campaigns, and complete mini grants around HIV prevention.
As part of the fellowship, we attended NMAC’s seventh annual Biomedical HIV Prevention Summit in Las Vegas, Nevada the second week of April with over 1,400 attendees.
The conference’s goal and was to bring leaders, advocates, and educators all interested in sharing ideas and learning about new approaches to maximize the use of biomedical HIV prevention methods.
This year’s summit focused on sex and pleasure. “Since sex is the main way that HIV is transmitted, we need to focus on consensual sex in all of its iterations,” according to the conference website.
The Summit invited folks to “talk about kink, fetishes, sex work, etc. in an open, honest, and frank way. After all, if we can’t talk about sex, how can we talk about HIV prevention?”
Featured sessions included the need for a National PrEP program, community participation in research, sex positivity, insurance for PrEP and other topics.
Because of our individual experiences, Ben and I were each asked to help facilitate a workshop.
Ben helped lead a workshop entitled “No Fats, No Fems, No Asians” where they discussed the historical context and consequences of the systemic racism that fuel stereotypes of Asian men and woman and its impact of HIV prevention.
I helped lead a workshop entitled “Sex, Baby: Let’s tell stories about you and me.” We lead participants through exercises on the pedagogy of storytelling as a tool for social change and lively discussion on stories about sex, sexuality, and sexual agency. We also surveyed and critiqued the media’s representation of HIV in literature, plays, television, and movies.