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 — economic, governmental, 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.”