World AIDS Day: Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga’s HIV Story

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.

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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.

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