Valley drag queens set out to educate community on HIV, testing services
Decked out in sequins and big hair, the queens of the newest Drag Out! HIV cohort headed to the Dog House Bar & Grill on Saturday to wrap up their series of performances spreading awareness about and knocking down stigma of STI testing in the Rio Grande Valley. They celebrated the release of their 2019 calendar, in which each participant portrayed an influential Latina.
Joe Colón-Uvalles II, Valley AIDS Council community organizing coordinator, said Drag Out! HIV provides mentorship and training to Valley drag queens on HIV and PrEP, medication to prevent HIV infection.
The queens in turn educate their friends and fan bases about how they can get free and confidential services, which he said is particularly important given that people of color are disproportionately affected by the virus.
“ This is kind of out-of-the-box outreach where queens get to be part of the calendar,” he said. “It elevates the queer community to be seen as impacting our community.”
The Valley AIDS Council partnered with the ACLU and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health on courses for participants. This year added information about Texans’ rights under SB4, which involves local law enforcement in checking people’s immigration status and is commonly referred to as the “Show Me Your Papers Law.”
“ After SB4 passed, the first person to call me was a drag queen,” Colón-Uvalles said. “We know a lot of these issues are intersecting.”
Divina Garza, who sports a Frida Khalo-inspired look in the calendar’s October photo, said she was already a volunteer with the Valley AIDS Council when she decided to apply for the Drag Out! HIV program. As a bilingual queen, she’s able to reach people who might otherwise face a language barrier.
“ There are a lot of people who are afraid (to get tested), or they think everybody’s going to know about it,” she said. “It’s very important because there are a lot of people who don’t understand the (English) language, so you need to explain it.”
The crowd cheered as queens Lolita LeVey and Edra Valencia kicked off the performances with duet lip-syncs to ABBA’s “Chiquitita” and “Voulez-Vous.”
“ It’s kind of unbelievable. We’re all getting together, and we’re all part of this really important project,” LeVey, whose June calendar photo was inspired by Chavela Vargas, said. “We’re doing something that’s actually helping people. It’s demystifying HIV.”
The mission of Drag Out! HIV is of special importance to LaVey, who is HIV positive. She recalled the bleak outlook given by the private doctor who delivered the news to LaVey and her mother. In the face of the anxiety and depression that followed, she said it was the Valley AIDS Council clinic that gave her hope.
“ I’m living through this experience first-hand. I would like to come out publicly and tell people … there’s treatment. The chances of surviving are 100 percent nowaways,” LaVey said. “I’m really blessed to have gone to that clinic. I didn’t think a free clinic would make you feel comfortable and like everything’s going to be OK. It was a weight lifted off my back.”
Valencia, who has a close friend living with HIV, added that the Valley AIDS Council offers counseling for people who have been diagnosed with the virus. He has found social media to be a powerful tool for spreading awareness about the resources available for people to get tested.
“ Drag is already a revolutionary act,” Valencia, who drew inspiration from Rita Moreno for his May calendar photoshoot, said. “People want to see, ‘What does she have to say that I don’t really hear from anybody else?’”
Learn more about confidential HIV testing and other Valley AIDS Council services in Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen at www.valleyaids.org.