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.
Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga is our second advocate and she has used her experiences as a trans woman living with HIV to advocate for legislation in Atlanta that supports marginalized communities. The LGBTQ+ liaison for State Rep. Park Cannon has championed bills that promote inclusivity and worked with various organizations, such as NAESM and Empowerment Resource Center, to provide accessible testing and counseling throughout the city.
Barnes-Balenciaga, a mainstay in the ballroom community, knows that her positive diagnosis for the HIV virus was the cause of her dropping out of college but promises that her story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
Advocacy work started for me about a decade ago after finding out that I was HIV-positive. I received my preliminary results at a club event. I’m from a very small town outside of Cincinnati. I was brought up in a household with two parents who were married. Condoms weren't something that was ever really talked about or discussed. I was raised conservative Baptist, so I was very reserved when it came to sex. I wasn’t just free and all out. And then, when I got to Atlanta, that was a whole different pot of men. I had a lot of fun at that time.
For about five months after receiving my diagnosis, I refused to take medication. I was in college at the time and the meds started to mess with my system and wouldn't let me exist as I had prior. Ultimately, grappling with the virus led to me flunking out of school.
I was down for a little while, but I had a good support system of friends. I just started showing up for myself. Different hearings were happening at City Hall that I was asked to be a part of by Georgia Equality, a statewide organization that advocates for the equality, fairness and safety of the LGBTQ+ community. I became a youth policy advisor for the organization and eventually ended up being linked with State Rep. Park Cannon about four years ago. I was doing work as her advisor on HIV needs consulting on some of the legislation that her office could push forward.
Though there is PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a pill that reduces the risk of getting HIV, studies do not include those who are born female. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done because there are men of trans experience who need and have to have preventative measures. I have a boyfriend who is a man of trans experience, and I am HIV-positive. Of course, I’m undetectable, but if he wants to take precautions for himself, he has to take medications that aren’t even tested for him.
I’m applying for college now. I deem it necessary to get educated and give myself something that was taken away from me because of HIV. I’m going to become successful in all forms that I desire. There's a lot of greatness around me, so I’m going to join it. Not having done so well in college previously, I had to look for specific programs that allowed for a second entry. I'm going back to school to major in political science and minor in psychology. But I ultimately want to obtain my Juris Doctor degree.
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 courtesy of Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga.
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