A New Narrative Podcast Aims to Raise HIV Awareness Within Latinx Communities…

By Arianna Marsh | Harper’s Bazaar

In 1998, Pedro Julio Serrano became the first openly LGBTQ+ and HIV-positive person to run for elected office in Puerto Rico. Vying for a seat in the United States territory’s House of Representatives, he was ultimately forced to run as an independent due to homophobia within his party. “Later, I withdrew my candidacy, because I received death threats,” says Serrano, a longtime human rights activist who now works as the director of public affairs at Waves Ahead, a nonprofit that provides aid to Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable communities. “The brake cables on my car were cut. Someone graffitied the door of my apartment. It made me move to New York City in the United States, because I didn’t feel safe.”

While much has been achieved over the past 25-plus years when it comes to quashing sex-based discrimination, the HIV epidemic—and the stigmas surrounding it—continue to disproportionally touch minority and disenfranchised groups including queer Latinx communities. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019, Hispanic/Latino people made up 29 percent of the new HIV diagnoses in the United States and dependent areas, despite making up only 19 percent of the population overall. What’s more, cultural factors like the valuation of machismo prevent individuals from disclosing their sexuality and HIV status, and seeking testing, treatment, and support.

In an attempt to speak directly to Latinx communities, ViiV Healthcare, the only pharmaceutical company solely focused on HIV prevention, teamed up with entertainment studio Harley & Co. on a new podcast that not only provides information surrounding testing and treatment options—including where to obtain PrEP, a widely available medication that, when taken correctly, can help prevent contracting HIV—but also crucially aims to generate empathy and acceptance from those not directly affected by the virus.

“When you see yourself portrayed in a podcast, a program, or a show, it tells you that you matter, that your life matters, and that your story matters.”

Titled Love in Gravity, the scripted series includes six fictional stories from gay, bisexual, and queer Latinx and Afro-Latinx writers that feature characters living with HIV. Thoughtful and nuanced, each portrait aims to represent individuals and narratives typically left out of mainstream media, and spark conversations about HIV that might otherwise feel uncomfortable to those living with it, and their family and friends.

In one episode, tensions rise when soft-spoken Michel brings his first boyfriend home to a Mexican family reunion; in another, a man named Andres is forced to discuss his open relationship with his mother when she discovers his PrEP. “When you see yourself portrayed in a podcast, a program, or a show, it tells you that you matter, that your life matters, and that your story matters,” says Serrano, who in 2003 founded Puerto Rico Para Todes, a nonprofit LGBTTIQ+ and social justice advocacy organization. “This podcast also helps educate a broad array of people that might not have ever interacted with someone who’s openly living with HIV.”

Adds Sarah Hall, the podcast’s executive producer, “It really feels like the work of this moment is to find ourselves in each other, and stories are one of our most powerful tools for doing that. They are the doors and the windows into experience, they help us to cultivate solidarity, they make the unknown into something familiar, and all of that helps us to see ourselves and each other differently.”

Among the show’s impressive roster of collaborators is writer John Paul Brammer, who pens the queer advice column ¡Hola Papi! and is the author of the memoir ¡Hola Papi! How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons; Glee’s Kevin McHale; and Robin de Jesús, a three-time Tony-winning actor, best known for his Broadway roles in In the Heights, La Cage aux Folles, and Rent, as well as for his part in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2021 musical drama film, tick, tick… BOOM! “The podcast is such a great tool, because it’s entertainment but also serves a very specific community need,” de Jesús says.

In October, de Jesús and other Love in Gravity cast members performed select episodes live at the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS as one of ViiV’s many cultural initiatives developed to speak to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. Held in San Juan, the event aimed to highlight the impact of HIV in Latinx communities specifically, with a focus on Puerto Rico. “What I felt more than anything was pride,” de Jesús, who is of Puerto Rican descent, says. “There’s something different about performing for people face-to-face; ViiV recognizes the importance of community engagement.”

While new HIV diagnoses are decreasing in Puerto Rico, ViiV reports that nearly one quarter of newly diagnosed people meet the criteria for an AIDS diagnosis. (AIDS is the late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus.) What’s more, the territory has the worst PrEP-to-need ratio in the United States, meaning viral suppressant therapies are not reaching those in need of treatment. While a lack of funding, government prioritization—as a United States territory, Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in American Congress—and a decentralized and understaffed health care system are partly to blame, the role of recurring natural disasters is also paramount.

According to research conducted by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, viral suppression decreased from 71 percent to 65 percent as a result of the impacts of Hurricane Maria in 2017, including transportation barriers, loss of electricity, the destruction of medical facilities, and a lack of basic supplies. Access to care was also reduced by 22 percent. Over the last four years alone, Puerto Rico has also experienced a string of deadly earthquakes, the COVID-19 pandemic, the monkeypox outbreak, and, most recently, Hurricane Fiona. “Crisis after crisis only compounds the problem and doesn’t allow for people to make sure that they can access the services and make sure that they maintain their suppression,” Serrano says.

When it comes to supporting Puerto Rico, both Serrano and de Jesús stress how important solidarity and investment is. “Americans need to invest in Puerto Rico and understand our goals, aspirations, and our history in order to make sure they do it correctly,” says Serrano, emphasizing the importance of support from Puerto Ricans living Stateside. “And it cannot just be when tragedy strikes,” he continues. “We do great things with little resources and with our hands tied behind our backs. For example, there are a lot of states that do not have a bill of rights for people living with HIV, but Puerto Rico does. If America starts looking at us, it might learn something.”

“It really feels like the work of this moment is to find ourselves in each other, and stories are one of our most powerful tools for doing that.”

“When you’re a colony, you’re consistently framed as the one that’s needing help when in actuality, the U.S. has taken a lot and not given,” de Jesús adds. “The first step towards solidarity is learning more about the history between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, visiting Puerto Rico, being respectful tourists, and providing for the local economies.”

Ultimately, ViiV’s grassroots approach to improving the HIV crisis in Puerto Rico and within other Latinx communities is what sets the company apart from others. As Marc Meachem, ViiV’s head of U.S. external affairs, explains, representation of the diverse communities impacted by HIV is reflected in their culture work, the diversity of their clinical trials, and beyond. For example, Meachem shares that through the organization’s Positive Action for Latinx Men initiative, ViiV is “engaging with local communities across [Puerto Rico] and funding critical work of local organizations to expand their reach.”

“The work they are doing is crucial, because they come to Puerto Rico, they listen to us, they work with us, they hire us,” Serrano says. “They make sure that our voices are heard and that we’re taken care of.”

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Devastation Impacts LGBTQ Residents Twofold…

By Tiana Randall | Teen Vogue

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico, dropping more than 30 inches of rain across the region. The storm devastated the island, wiping out electricity and infrastructure just five years after Hurricane Maria left an impact that Puerto Rico still has yet to fully recover from. As many on the island still reel from the effects of Fiona, some in the LGBTQ community — who often struggle in Caribbean societies — have been left particularly devastated as they deal with discrimination, lack of access to resources, and trouble getting life-saving medications.

«We’ve been living crisis to crisis,» says Pedro Julio Serrano, human rights activist and director of Empodérate at Waves Ahead, a community-based organization that aids people LGBTQ adults, including those living with HIV. 

During the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS in San Juan from October 8-11, the stories of the Island’s HIV positive LGBTQ community were told to attendees from across regions as part of a live performance of the Love In Gravity podcast — a show dedicated to shining light on the experiences of queer Latinx people living with HIV. The podcast, produced by Harley & Co and presented by ViiV Healthcare, tells stories about this community that reflect the universal experience of love. In shining light on the island’s HIV positive population, local advocates reflected on the ways that recent storms have hindered their ability to help, and how the power of community has stepped in to provide mutual aid.

Serrano says that Puerto Rico’s ongoing crises — economicgovernmental, and health — are amplified for queer people living with HIV, particularly in the aftermath of a devastating storm. For Serrano, Fiona’s aggression only emphasized the island’s delay in recovery from Hurricane Maria and other environmental incursions. Due to FEMA’s reported mismanagement of federal funds and unrest at the local level, «it just crystalizes the colonial status of Puerto Rico and how we cannot make decisions on our own, in our own land.» 

“We don’t see the community-based organizations that are doing the real work getting that [federal funding] and those resources to make sure we rebuild from a community-based standpoint,» Serrano continues. For Waves Ahead, that means people living with HIV risk not having access to their medication, along with the proper communication and education surrounding the virus.

«Sometimes we get companies and entities from outside Puerto Rico [that] come here and they just want to come in and do things without consulting us, without understanding our culture and history,» Serrano says. But according to Serrano, ViiV Healthcare, which says it’s the only pharmaceutical company that is solely focused on HIV, has been intentional in listening to the locals and organizing with the queer community in mind. Viiv is one of the producers behind the Love in Gravity podcast. 

Marc Meachem, head of U.S. external affairs at ViiV says, “we wanted to engage with local activists on the island who are engaged in their community to help spread the word and check in on how the community is doing.”

In the days after Fiona hit, Waves Ahead organized outreach toward their participants. «We made sure all had their medications, plus we distributed warm meals two weeks after the impact. Food boxes were also distributed,» Wilfred W. Labiosa, Executive Director of Waves Ahead says. 

Still, Serrano says continuing to provide these services as physical spaces recover poses challenges. According to the New York Times, in the aftermath of Maria, at least three popular queer establishments were forced to shut down, leaving even fewer places for regulars to socialize and feel connected to a larger community. Now, with Fiona’s destruction, the queer community is once again left without some of these safe spaces, Labiosa says.

«We have community-based organizations that are very good at providing medication in Puerto Rico, but there are some people who have transportation problems, don’t have adequate housing, or don’t have the resources to get their meds,» Serrano says. «Even though the services are there so many people are not able to access them due to the infrastructure problem.”

But the impacts aren’t just physical. Labiosa says that the organization, both before and after Fiona, prioritized providing mental health services to participants, alongside their other medical interventions. For 74-year-old Diane Michelle, an Afro-Boricua transgender woman living on the island, this is particularly important. 

«[The storm] has impacted me emotionally, specifically my mental health; I can’t believe that the heavy rains of Fiona impacted so much of the island. We are not ready for another,» she says. 

Michelle says the storm has made the role the queer community plays in supporting one another crystal clear. «Although we acquired so many experiences as a community, we continue to be marginalized and moved to the side,» Michelle says. “After the hurricane, many haven’t supported, contacted, nor maintained their cordiality for a better way of living…the only mobilization that I see is from community-based organizations.”

That’s where storytelling comes in. According to Harley & Co managing director Sarah Hall, using the Love In Gravity Podcast to spread stories about people living with HIV is a form of mutual aid. The production that was put into place was meant to recognize that the faces of Puerto Rico should be «visible all the time,» according to Hall. «With the hurricane, we felt like after disaster stresses systems, it’s often the places where we see mutual aid. And, people don’t consider artists a part of that — rightfully, they think of the most immediate things, they think food, water, power, but I think there’s always a place for art in recovery, resistance, and resilience.”

Puerto Rican local and RuPaul’s Drag Race season 14 contender, Alyssa Hunter seemingly agrees. «We need more people to start caring more about the health of Puerto Rico and with LGBT [communities] because the government doesn’t take the gay community seriously, especially with HIV,» she says. 

Hunter hosted and performed at the USCHA convention, working with the Love In Gravity podcast for the benefit of her community was «an honor to be a part of because it brought people from all over the world to this tiny island for one thing.» 

“The [LGBTQ] community has had to fight, we are always fighting, and as LGBTQ people we always have to keep moving forward,» she says. For Alyssa, working on teaching young kids about HIV and carving out safe spaces for her community has to start in the streets — something she’s hoping to achieve through her participation with the podcast.

As physical entities were shattered in the wake of Fiona, locals and community organizers have worked endlessly to make sure the voices and faces of the LGBTQ youth are kept alive. Love In Gravity’s stories have brought art as a use of mutual aid to expand access to critical information like housing access, HIV prevention, and queer safety back to the forefront.

«We are the community and we need to stick together,” Hunter says. “That’s why we have pride and podcasts like this — to speak our voices.”