Many of today’s younger social media participants, including my own grandkids, know this month’s exclusive cover story, Jenna Ortega, through her Instagram and Twitter platforms. And she is swiftly becoming a household name thanks to her roles as the young Jane on The CW’s Jane the Virgin and the central character as well as narrator for the top-rated Stuck in the Middle on the Disney Channel. Not that many of her teenage followers may know everything about Jenna Ortega—that, as A&U’s Larry Buhl learned firsthand, she has become America’s latest AIDS activist, working with UNAIDS and AIDS Walk Los Angeles. But they soon will. Aided by the stunning photography from A&U’s Senior Editor, Sean Black, readers will immediately see why she commands our attention. She exemplifies empowerment, mixing brains and will power and a bit of glam.
Jenna Ortega wants to bring the message of empathy toward individuals living with HIV/AIDS home. Home, after all, is where her advocacy started. Although she was born twenty years after her grandfather died from the disease, she feels she knows him, as her mother Natalie has made sure his memory, including his values of compassion and courage, were kept alive as part of Jenna’s growing up. “So many people are embarrassed about HIV even today…it’s not an illness that affects who you are. It’s the personality that matters.”
She is using her voice to end bullying and stigma of all sorts, including HIV-related discrimination, which has affected another up and coming influencer, Jenna Vargas. As Larry Buhl found out, Vargas, who is living with HIV and out about her status, knows firsthand why activism is needed: “My friends would wipe their hands off after touching me and they spread rumors I was skinny because of HIV, rumors that weren’t true.” The two Jennas had never met before the photo shoot, but they hit it off. This camaraderie that they share is what makes activism so appealing and worthwhile.
What strikes me, too, as I review this month’s offerings, is that activists form a family out of diversity. In this issue, our features offer the insights of four activists living with HIV and they all approach their work in different ways, building on their different experiences: Nancy Duncan, whose focus on women and HIV has brought much needed attention to an underserved community: Tiommi Jenea Luckett, who fights for healthcare access and an end to homelessness; Rob Quinn, who advocates for the needs of long-term survivors; and Steve Schalchlin, whose HIV messaging has reached audiences through his blogging, the aptly titled “Living in the Bonus Round,” and musicals like The Last Session. Another activist who expressed himself through his art was Richard Hofmann. He died from AIDS-related causes, but his striking and raw images live on through his paintings. All represent different pathways converging toward the same homespun goal.
And if you are thinking about becoming an HIV activist, check out columnist Justin B. Terry-Smith’s handy guide to getting started. We need all the help we can get—whether that means fighting against HIV criminalization or fighting for global access to lifesaving medications, or whether your mode of activism is protest, direct lobbying, or social media consciousness-raising. Why is activism so urgently needed? Because the ostracization of the earliest AIDS comunities continues today, often in more subtle but perhaps more insidious ways. As Jenna Ortega so aptly points out, “What my mom had to go through, if I can help prevent anyone from going through the same kind of struggle I’m going to do it.”
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.