The following was contributed by AIDS United’s Thomas Ramirez, the 2023 Pedro Zamora Fellow.
During my time as the Pedro Zamora Fellow at AIDS United, I had the opportunity to learn from many seasoned advocates in the HIV advocacy space. It helped me better understand where the epidemic stands and where new advocates must push ahead.
I applied to the fellowship as I was finishing up my master’s degree in public health at George Washington University. I felt a deep connection to the HIV epidemic with its history of inequitable effects on communities like my own. As a queer man of color, you live with the painful history of many other queer people taken too soon: That anxiety and feeling of inevitability lives on even with our advances.
In undergrad, as an HIV test counselor for students, I saw firsthand the anxieties LGBTQ+ youth have surrounding HIV. The time I had with students was crucial for helping dispel false narratives my fellow students internalized, narratives still carried over from the beginning of the epidemic. I felt students were leaving with greater understandings in how to enjoy their sex lives without those fears.
It was a learning lesson, even for me: HIV is not a death sentence, it doesn’t only affect gay men and everyone deserves education to choose the sex that they want to have.
While at AIDS United, I worked closely with the director of advocacy and the HIV and drug user health policy manager to focus on harm reduction, sexual health, advocacy for sex workers and decriminalization policy. With their help, I facilitated focus groups into the new Sex/Health Alliance, bridging organizations focused on decriminalizing HIV, sex work, abortion services and more. I am extremely thankful to have been part of building this alliance’s mission, based off real concerns of impacted communities across the country.
I’m also happy to have created a new resource entitled “Sex Worker Criminalization in the United States,” exploring how criminalization of this community affects HIV outcomes and the reasons why it should concern all organizations providing services to people who engage in sex work.
I was fortunate enough to be in this position for both AIDSWatch and the United States Conference on HIV/AIDS, both unforgettable experiences that fueled my heart and spirit. At AIDSWatch, not only did I hear so many stories from our advocates, but heard many from those who are aging with HIV. It was a pleasure to uplift the stories of those community members and to gain experience advocating for them on Capitol Hill. Once you go to one AIDSWatch, you understand the how critical it is legislators to hear concerns from their constituents. I plan to be a lifelong attendee.
In addition, after AIDSWatch I shared a great conversation with Wanda Brendle-Moss for Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day. She emphasized the need to focus on older adults as a critical community, not only for continued treatment but for HIV prevention. Wanda gave me so much of her greatest advice. She truly cares about passing on the baton to a new generation of advocates so we can finally end the HIV epidemic in the United States and beyond.
As my time with AIDS United concludes, I’m more focused than ever to continue to eradicate HIV, to further advocate to end criminalization of public health concerns and to push for more comprehensive sex education. The Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellowship was the perfect next step following graduate school. I hope this fellowship continues to pass the baton from skilled advocates to the next generation of leaders. It was an honor to have this position as a queer Latine man, and I hope Pedro Zamora’s story and influence continues to influence another generation.
AIDS United currently accepting applications for the next round of Pedro Zamora Public Policy Fellowship. See here for more information on applying.