Alibi V.27 No.23 • June 7-13, 2018 

Feature

Silence Still Equals Death

Education, activism and MPower

Jax Sugars, Xian Bass and Josh Garcia
MPower managers and educators Jax Sugars, Xian Bass and Josh Garcia
Eric Williams Photography
A brief note on the history of HIV, AIDS and consequently, the epidemic that followed in North America during the mid-’80s through 1995:

In 1979 it seemed like the sky was the limit. As American culture grew in influence, boundaries were coming down everywhere. The struggle engaged by LGBTQ citizens at places like Stonewall and in noticeably progressive cities like San Francisco seemed to indicate that a sea change was coming. Accepting queer sexual identities as valuable parts of the over-arching American identity seemed inevitable.

The election of a right-wing, backwards looking president in 1980 certainly didn’t help things, however. A backlash inevitably followed and many wondered when the civil rights campaign undertaken by our LGBTQ comrades would once again gain traction, helping to change this place into a more inclusive, accepting and diverse society.

The situation became more complicated just a few years later when the first epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—the disease that follows infection with HIV—struck, displacing and destroying lives as a nation and its healthcare system dealt with a particularly cruel blow that seemed to inordinately affect gay men.

“Making sure we give young people access to education and resources, so that they can be healthy on their own terms—on their own terms—is an essential part of our mission. If you give the people access to the education necessary to make healthy decisions—and the access they need to tangibles like condoms and lube, you are giving them the power to fight their own fight.”

Here in Burque, much of the town’s creative class was shaken, as otherwise healthy young men—dancers, artists, musicians—literally took sick, withered and died. Among the profound losses, many were felt at the UNM College of Fine Arts, where up and coming creatives and contributors to the scene like flautist Frank Bowen and dancer Lee Connor seemed to just slip away into the gathering darkness.

These were very difficult times indeed, and before the advent of anti-viral treatment with AZT in 1995, there was much fear in the community: fear about the disease as well as fear that the pathology of the affliction would re-stigmatize the LGBTQ community in complex and imutable ways.

But in a subculture known for its tenacity, cohesion—and ability to weather the culture wars that always seemed to be hanging like clouds nearby—a message, an answer, more a call to action, was initiated.

Silence = Death is what that message read. The short phrase, created by Avram Finkelstein and his colleagues, was used by the activist group ACT UP to bring the rapidly spiraling situation into the light. And knowing one’s HIV status—and consequently engaging in safer sex to help stanch the disease’s horrible course through this country—became a rallying point that signaled empowerment and engagement for the LGBTQ community.

Flash forward more than 25 years later, to the year 2018. AIDS is pandemic in the United States. Advanced medical treatment and prevention have rendered the affliction, in many cases, survivable. But the disease still kills thousands each year. And the LGBTQ community is still fighting for its place in America, even as a right wing, backward looking administration does its best to shut such efforts down.

Given that education and prevention are still priorities, the same dictum applies then as now. Knowing one’s HIV status is of paramount importance. Practicing safer sex is not just a good idea, it’s a matter of establishing and maintaining public health priorities.

Into this realm of public policy, peer education and altruistic activism comes MPower, a local nonprofit tasked with providing local LGBTQ youth with the answers and support they need to properly and healthfully engage the future.

Weekly Alibi sat down with MPower’s HIV Programs Managers Josh Garcia and Jax Sugars, as well as HIV Prevention Educator Xian Bass, to find out how their program supports local youth, as well as how activism still plays a roll in the civil rights struggle faced by LGBTQ citizens here in Albuquerque.

Weekly Alibi: Josh, how did you get involved with MPower?

Josh Garcia: When I graduated from high school, back in 2003, I didn’t have any gay friends. I didn’t know much about gay sex or anything. I met a friend in college who told me about MPower. He said I might be able to make friends who you can relate to, who you can learn from.

Had you been educated about HIV as a youth?

No, growing up in a catholic family, I hadn’t heard about it. I heard that if you got AIDS you would die; that’s all that I knew. So I wasn’t well educated about HIV or AIDS.

Do you think that’s a common thing, that young people don’t generally know the pathology of HIV?

I think that it is, even in this day and age. In [public] schools, they talk a lot about heterosexual practices but not much about homosexual activity, or what people are going through, knowing that not everyone has the same [experiences with] sex. That’s okay because this program is focused on educating people about what to be on the lookout for, depending on what sort of sexual practices they engage in. That’s what MPower does.

Besides providing public health services and education, how does MPower create and sustain community?

So, when I came back to Albuquerque after college, I went into corporate America. I worked in the hospitality industry, but I wasn’t getting any fulfillment out of that. It wasn’t very rewarding, but I had always done volunteer work related to HIV awareness. It just came to a point where I began thinking that I wanted to support my community by being a leader in that community and helping it grow and flourish, through education and activism, in Albuquerque. Anyway, I met with a friend and he asked me to think about what I really love doing. It turns out I really love making sure people in my community know about their [HIV] status, making sure they know about the options available to them.

Now that you’re a programs manager here at MPower, what is your vision of what the nonprofit can provide to LGBTQ youth and to the city of Albuquerque at large?

My vision is making sure that everybody knows their [HIV] status. It doesn’t matter what your status is—if you are negative it doesn’t matter, if you are positive it doesn’t matter—but knowing is absolutely important to an individual and to the community. What follows that is knowledge of the resources available for people with a positive status. MPower, which is under the direction of Planned Parenthood now—it used to be under New Mexico AIDS Services, now it’s a national organization that oversees our work—may not be the place you want to go to get health services, but we are committed to helping clients find services that match their needs and wants.

How much of a concern is HIV? Does it remain a health threat to the youth of the city?

There have been amazing advancements in the past 20 years. The idea that HIV and AIDS are the same has changed. [A positive status] is no longer a death sentence. As long as you get into treatment, it can be managed. That’s one of our most important messages. In 2012, a medication regimen, called PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, came into use. This approach, when used daily and with the involvement of a heath care provider can help prevent an HIV-negative person from getting HIV from a partner who is positive. We want to make sure people know this treatment is available.

Is this an expensive course of treatment?

Just like any medication, it can be expensive, but there are many resources available here in New Mexico that are designed to get people the help they need. The drug manufacturer of Truvada [the name of the PrEP drug combo] has financial assistance available. We work closely with our community partners to find funding for our clients too.

How is your organization funded?

We came under the authority of Planned Parenthood about four years ago and get additional funding through the N.M. Department of Health. The great thing about working with Planned Parenthood is that our organization has shifted a little over the years. We’ve embraced the pro-choice platform. Just as women’s healthcare involves choices, so does engaging with us. We, as individuals, have choices. If you tell me that you don’t want to use a condom, I’m not going to gasp and say, “Oh no, you must.” Instead, I’m going to ask that we talk about your choice, about other preventative measures, like giving oral [instead of engaging in intercourse] or going on PrEP. So we are pro-choice and believe individuals have the right to choose what’s best for their body.

Jax, what sort of values do you want to embody and pass on to the community through your involvement in MPower?

Jax Sugars: I always wanted to work with LGBTQ kids. Getting to work with adolescents everyday and the different things they have to struggle with in their lives has been very awesome. Being a safe voice that is always present in their lives is very important to me. Teaching them skills about life, even as they struggle is valuable to everyone involved.

How is MPower important to the Albuquerque community?

I think it’s important because we don’t have many places our town’s LGBTQ kids can go and be themselves, where they can be surrounded by their peers and friends. This is a drug- and alcohol-free space where it’s safe to just be yourself and have a good time, getting to know one another. We also don’t have many places that are actively teaching our kids sex-ed.

Do you feel like the public schools have dropped the ball on sex-ed?

I feel like the public schools do an okay job, but it’s very heterosexual-centralized, very cis-gender centralized. That makes it a lot harder for LGBTQ kids to get information geared specifically towards them, towards the kind of sex that they are having. As soon as they figure out that most of it [sex-ed] is centered around pregnancy pevention, they tune out. LGBT kids really need to hear the message that, even if they don’t have to worry about pregnancy, they should still be concerned about STIs.

So that leads me to ask whether as a culture, we’ve lost some ground in the battle for LGBTQ rights. Have recent political events caused a backlash? Do you feel ostracized by the patriarchy?

There’s a lot more acceptance than there used to be. It’s easier for families to accept their LGBTQ kids and that’s great. But there is still a stigma. This is especially true for trans people. There are more and more laws being passed that discriminate against them, take away their rights. There is fear coming from conservatives who don’t understand, who view LGBTQ people, especially trans people as predators. That is absolutely not true.

Xian, what would you like to add to all of this?

Xian Bass: In my position, we talk about sex and sexuality through performing arts. I teach Afro-Caribbean based hip-hop dance here, among other programs. All of this functions with the intention of bringing up health-related issues.

Do the performing arts provide an accessible means of discussing issues that affect the lives of young people in Burque?

I would say yes, however, I think they need to be active too. Not everyone is interested in singing and dancing or reading poetry, but the really wonderful thing I love about this job is the drag shows we have for both youth and adults. And that’s a great entry, young people are already performing, expressing themselves, experimenting with identity and sexuality.

Finally, how is what you are doing important to this little village on the river?

Two things come up, similar to what Josh was saying. The first is safe-space making. I know that the term gets thrown around a lot, but when we’re talking about building LGBTQ community, especially for young people that may not have a safe space at home—and a lot of the young people I’ve worked with have been homeless because of their sexuality. So, safety is number one. Making sure we give young people access to education and resources, so that they can be healthy on their own terms—on their own terms—is an essential part of our mission. If you give the people access to the education necessary to make healthy decisions—and the access they need to tangibles like condoms and lube, you are giving them the power to fight their own fight. We are making warriors who can protect themselves.