BET.com explores the lives of four people who are living with HIV and fighting on the frontlines to educate and empower their communities. While many areas around the country have seen declines in the spread of HIV, the infection rates in Atlanta, continues to climb. Meet four community organizers and health activists who are working on the ground to change that narrative starting with themselves.
Our first advocate is Jaquan Rich whose advocacy starts with meeting people where they are. From providing HIV tests in nightclubs to hosting game nights where he educates the LGBTQ+ community in Atlanta, he knows that an essential part of his job is to be an accessible, non-judgmental peer. In helping others, the 29-year-old is one of four Atlanta based HIV activists to talk to BET.com on World AIDS Day about how he has learned to make advocacy fun and accessible while continuing to navigate his own his life with HIV.
I tested positive for HIV at the age of 18, right after I graduated high school in 2009. That was a turning point for me. Less than a month later, I moved to Indianapolis. I got into care. Everything was great. I had a great caseworker who walked me through everything. He was so good at his job that he got promoted, but by then, I knew I had to learn how to advocate for myself.
In 2013, I moved to Atlanta and went a year without medication. I went to a local agency that provides HIV/AIDS-related services, but they told me that they required me to pay for labs out of pocket. They wouldn’t take my results from Indiana. They wanted money from me to run the labs. I’m like, how am I supposed to do this just moving here? I barely have an address. It was a lot.
I met this network of people, and a lot of them were connected to Impulse Group, an international organization mostly focused on HIV prevention, STDs and STIs within the LGBTQ+ community. Eventually, I started working with them. We know what gets people in the door for events. Free admission, free food and an open bar, but, there has to be a message behind the event. We create different games. For instance, we have participants name three STDs or STIs or tell us three ways to transmit HIV. Or tell us what’s the difference between HIV and AIDS.
Do you know how many great conversations you can have just sitting at the spades table? Usually someone from Impulse is also playing and we can have a conversation without it being too structured. It’s meeting people where they are. Sometimes that means we have to go to a club to do testing because everyone can’t get tested during the day.
It’s one thing to be tied to an organization, but you have to be personable. You have to be honest. I tell people I hook up but there are certain things that I will not do. How can they trust me if I’m judging them? I still have a social life and I know what’s going on. I have to know where the spots are where people have the most sex. I have to know where cruising spots are. I’ve learned not to come in as a public health advocate but as an everyday person. I get phone calls from people from people at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. freaking out because they had unprotected sex with somebody and now don’t know what to do. Being alert, listening and just being there, I’ve learned, are the best things you can do as an advocate. Once they get it off their chests, people will calm down. That’s when you can say, “I’ve been here; this is what you can do. These are your options.” It’s fulfilling to know that you’re a resource to someone.
All I’ve ever known is how to take care of other people. I’m the oldest of five and I helped to raise all of my brothers. I grew up early and all I know how to do is take care of other people. Sometimes the same thing that messes you up is the same thing that can set you straight. I didn’t know how long I would live when I was first diagnosed. But as the years kept going on, and I was still healthy and getting better, it’s allowed me to focus more on my future. I can’t keep trying to push everyone towards their own future if I’m not pushing myself.
Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based entertainment and culture reporter who has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, GQ, NPR Music and Atlanta magazine.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo provided by Jaquan Rich.