Local activist uses drag persona to raise awareness about HIV
Jose Colon-Uvalles was 20-years-old the first time he decided to get tested for HIV. He walked up the entrance of the Valley Aids Clinic, or VAC, then immediately walked back to his vehicle. It would take two more months for him to muster the courage to go back.
“Fear was the biggest thing that prevented me from getting tested,” the Brownsville native said. Now 29, Colon-Uvalles is a community organizing coordinator with VAC, and he walks through those same doors every day.
Growing up in foster care, he graduated from Brownsville Lopez High School in 2007 and went on to study film at the University of Rochester in New York. Before finishing his degree, he found himself in Austin and with a new creative outlet: drag.
Thus, Beatrix Lestrange, Colon-Uvalles’ drag persona, was born.
First, it was just a hobby for him, but after facing financial challenges and moving back to the Valley in 2013, the long-time activist realized that he could use drag as a medium for change in the community.
“Drag was kind of all I had going for me at the time,” he said. “I thought, ‘Man, if this is all I can contribute to my community, this is what I’m going to give.’”
He began making appearances at tabling events as Beatrix, and realized it was somehow much easier to tackle conversations about sexual health while wearing a large wig, heals and heavy makeup.
“There are some conversations people have with me as Beatrix that sometimes as Joe I don’t think I can have,” he said. “There’s just a level of trust people have when it comes to approaching a drag queen.”
In the past three years several drag queens from the Valley have begun participating in education outreach with VAC, and now it’s become something of a custom in many of VAC’s tabling events. Colon-Uvalles now hosts a training dubbed “Drag Out HIV!” in which drag performers learn how they can use their platform to promote sexual health.
Each performer has their respective way of tackling the issue. Some even go to VAC with people and wait in outside the building for emotional support. Something like that could have helped someone like young Colon-Uvalles, he said.
‘NOT ONLY A GAY DISEASE’
Though HIV affects more than gay men, the disease is often associated with homosexuality in men or promiscuity in women, both which are heavily stigmatized in Hispanic culture. According to the Center for Disease Control, that could be a factor as to why Hispanics are disproportionately affected by HIV.
According to 2015 CDC statistics, Latinos accounted for about a quarter of the new diagnoses of HIV in the United States in 2013, despite accounting for only 17 percent of the population.
Though sex education is becoming more common in public schools, diagnoses continue to rise. Between 2010 and 2014, the CDC report states there was a 2 percent increase in HIV diagnoses among Hispanics, and a 13 percent increase in diagnoses among Hispanic men who have sex with men (or MSM) specifically. If current rates persist, the CDC estimates that 1 in 4 Latino MSM will be diagnosed with HIV.
Oscar Lopez, director of education and prevention at VAC, said culture is the biggest obstacle in preventing HIV in communities such as the Valley. Other factors include poverty, education and lack of access to medical care.
“This disease is hitting the Latino community so heavily, and (in the Valley) we happen to be 89 percent Hispanic,” Lopez said. “It’s not that queer men have sex with other Latino gay or bi men that puts them at risk, it’s that the options in the Valley and in other Latino communities across the U.S. narrows down what your dating pool and sex partner options are, and if you can only have sex with a limited pool of people and those men already run a higher risk of being HIV positive.”
Though males are disproportionately diagnosed, Lopez said anyone who is sexually active, especially in a community such as the Valley, should get tested regularly. Some men might not identify as gay or bisexual but could still be having sexual relations with both males and females, which could put women living in areas like the Valley at a higher risk.
“This is not only a gay disease,” Lopez said. “Just because you’re a straight man or a straight woman doesn’t mean you can’t contract this… It’s a Valley-wide epidemic that happens to affect men who have sex with men the hardest, but not exclusively.”
Though the statistics remain troubling, at least culturally, the Valley has changed for the better.
“The Valley is a much better place than it used to be,” said Lopez, who started working with VAC in the late 1980s.
At that time, many funeral homes in the Valley would refuse to provide services to those who died of HIV, according to Lopez, adding that he and other VAC staff often had to transport their bodies from the hospital because funeral homes wouldn’t.
Education around the disease has also gotten better. When Lopez first began at VAC, medical professionals in the Valley would quarantine HIV patients despite the disease not being contagious through common interactions.
“It was as if it was Ebola,” said Lopez, who helped care for patients who weren’t able to interact with their families in their final days.
Even in the nine years since Colon-Uvalles first walked up to VAC, things have changed. When he was in high school, it was uncommon for someone to come out or have candid conversations about sex, he said. As he works with VAC to increase awareness about sexual health, he’s seen some of those barriers come down for the new generation.
“It’s amazing to see the level of comfort people have in being themselves now,” he said. “There’s a level of progress glow-up in the Valley that I don’t think we get credit for… The kids nowadays are a lot gayer, and a lot more proud that I could’ve ever been when I was younger.”