I Am Life
With the Help of Ambassadors, the Houston Health Department’s Message of Hope Rings Loud & Clear
by John Francis Leonard
The numbers are troubling. LGBTQ persons of color still see markedly higher rates of HIV transmissions in their communities. African-American men, in particular, are the most adversely affected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, (all of the following statistics are from the CDC) in 2017 Black gay and bisexual men accounted for thirty-seven percent of HIV diagnoses among men. Roughly fifty percent of young black MSM are estimated to become HIV positive. Latino/Hispanic men accounted for twenty-eight percent of diagnoses among men. For quite some time, accurate numbers for transgender individuals were hard to come by, although it was known that they were high. In 2019, forty-four percent of African American trans women are HIV positive, twenty-six percent of Latina/Hispanic trans women. It’s a bleak picture, but now that we have tools like PrEP and viral suppression has been proven to eliminate the possibility of HIV transmission, we have the tools. The question is that how do we get this information, as well as access to the needed healthcare services, to these vital communities?
The Houston Department of Health, facing these issues head on, is showing us one path. With its I Am Life, it’s reaching out to their large LGBTQ community with a vibrant campaign with messages of PrEP usage and TASP from the members’ peers, faces and voices whose lives reflect their own. It’s Houston’s first campaign targeting this community specifically and hopes to set a national example in how to do so. Sure, we’ve all seen ads with maybe one black or Hispanic model, if you’re lucky, but these are real Houstonians and they accurately represent the community they hope to reach with their message.
A&U recently interviewed Marlene McNeese, Assistant Director of Houston Health Department’s Disease Control and Prevention Division to talk about this campaign about which she is passionate and justly proud. Here’s some of what she had to share.
John Francis Leonard: Tell me a bit about Houston’s I Am Life campaign and how you got started.
Marlene McNeese: The campaign was originally funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a demonstration project as part of their Project PrIDE Initiative and was funded to provide support in several key health departments and communities around the country to reduce the number of HIV cases as well as increase viral suppression among African-American and Hispanic gay and bisexual men and transgendered individuals of color. This particular campaign involved real-life Houstonians from the LGBTQ community—encouraging them to to tell their stories and encourage their peers to be safe, learn about and take PrEP, and if they’re already living with HIV, to get into and stay in treatment.
Why do you think that these communities in particular are so underserved by programs and initiatives like these?
It’s been historically challenging for these vulnerable communities to really access healthcare services in general, so when it comes to their sexual healthcare, and healthcare needs overall, we found that many in our own community were not aware of some of the resources and support that may be accessible to them. They may be marginalized, stigmatized, and in some ways attacked, so that they tended to shy away from what we have considered our traditional public healthcare approach. We knew we needed to create something different and something unique that spoke specifically to these communities.
How are you targeting these communities?
By really raising the awareness through the campaign with lots of information about HIV
specifics as well as prevention and treatment services. We’re doing that by using a multimedia campaign where we’re reaching out through social media, and traditional public service announcements on television, radio, and billboards. So it’s really a multi-faceted media campaign. But what we’re really excited about is that our unique approach will be using peers and real-life Houstonians to share the message and let them know how they can get these services. They can say, hey, I look just like you and I can relate to you and here’s how I’m participating in my own sexual healthcare.
How did you find these ambassadors? What were the criteria for bringing them on board?
It was a really great partnership with the media company we chose, Gilbreath Communications. They facilitated several casting calls, if you will, in the community where we put the word out through several of these mediums, telling people that if they were interested in sharing their stories of HIV prevention and viral suppression and learning more about HIV themselves, that they could come by and talk to us about potentially being part of this campaign.
So we did several rounds of theses casting calls and we had hundreds of Houstonians show up who were really excited about the possibility of taking part. Looking at some of the criteria, we certainly wanted a diverse and representational group where we had people who self-identified as gay, bisexual, or trans persons of color and that’s what we got. We did a little test to see if they would be able to get their message across and effectively tell their story. Also important was if they were able to articulate sentiments about what their challenges had been and some of the things that had worked for them and many of them rose to the challenge. So it was difficult, we had to narrow it down. We landed at about twenty ambassadors and those twenty are simply rock stars. We are delighted that they chose to partner with us.
I got a chance to talk to one of I Am Life’s rock stars, Harper Watters, a twenty-six-year-old African American man who identifies as queer. Harper is a soloist with the Houston Ballet, the fourth-largest ballet company in the United States. Harper is a passionate and talented young man with many career goals who takes PrEP with the goal of living a long and healthy life and dancing for as long as he can. He plans on opening a dance studio someday for people of all sizes and shapes, dancing with Beyoncé, and even dreams of walking the catwalk with Naomi Campbell. He moved to Houston at sixteen to pursue his ballet career and saw the campaign as a way of getting more involved with a community that he has come to love.
Harper has established a real social media presence and says, “I knew the importance of representation, what being visible can do, so I wanted to take part in this campaign. Looking at the numbers and hearing the statistics about how HIV affects my community, it just felt like the right step to put myself out there. I was a little apprehensive at first, there’s still stigma associated with HIV. It really felt like being put in a vulnerable situation, but I really feel that I needed it do this for myself and my community.” Harper understands that in today’s world, visibility is currency and wants to make certain that he’s using his platform for the greater good.
With voices like these, the I Am Life campaign is certain to be a resounding success. As a Southern city in a red state, the Houston Health Department has its work cut out for it. Texas is one of the state’s that opted out of the Medicaid expansion, but there are health resources available still. This campaign will help to reach a vulnerable community with those services and information about HIV letting LGBTQ people of color take charge of their sexual health. It’s easy to see this new and innovative approach being adopted by other communities across the country.
For more information, log on to: houstoniamlife.com.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.