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HIV/AIDS: The other U.S.-Mexican border crisis

VICE’s Paola Ramos looks at HIV epidemic in Brownsville, Texas

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Paola Ramos talking with Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka ‘dragtivist’ Beatrix LeStrange (Photo courtesy VICE)

The Trump administration’s unplanned “zero tolerance” family-separation immigration policy has created a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border. But while the focus is rightly on reuniting mothers with their children stripped away by government agents, there is a whole population of people desperately in need of help, many seeking asylum, who are largely being ignored: immigrants with HIV/AIDS.

Roxanna Hernandez, for instance, was a 33-year-old transgender immigrant with AIDS fleeing violence in her home country. After she turned herself in to ICE in San Diego last May seeking help, she was shuffled from detention in Texas to a correctional facility in New Mexico until she died alone on May 25. 

“Because (Roxanna) was trying to get a better life, and because she was running away from the violence she experienced in Honduras, she came to the U.S. to find death. The system is the one that killed her,” Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of the [email protected] Coalition, told a gathering in Los Angeles. “ICE separates us when we disclose that we are HIV+ and trans. That is what they did to Roxanna—they isolated her to let her die.”

But, as out journalist/activist Paola Ramos explains in a new digital series on VICE.com, border towns such as Brownsville, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley have a crisis of their own—a surging HIV epidemic in the Latino community.

“Brownsville is 90 percent Latino,” Ramos says. “Immigrants know what they’re stepping into. One thing they do not know is that in Brownsville, in this entire region, there is a huge HIV epidemic, particularly among the Latino community.”

Citing CDC statistics, Ramos notes that while HIV infections declined 5% in the US from 2011 to 2015, rates for Latino MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men) ages 13 and older increased 13.4%. And HIV is a crisis in the Rio Grande Valley: 85 percent of people who contract HIV are Latino; 75 percent of new cases are male, according to the Valley AIDS Council.

Why? Ramos asks in the first episode of her VICE series exploring the Latin-X movement. She turns to Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka Beatrix LeStrange, a local LGBT organizer, HIV/AIDS educator and “dragtivist” who started “Drag Out HIV!” in 2017 to fight the oppressive stigma surrounding HIV in the Catholic-heavy region. Texas is an “abstinence-only” state that fails to teach HIV/AIDS and sex education.

Colon-Uvalles and his organization are also helping immigrants during the border crisis.

These activists “are so brave. They’ve gone through so much and they’ve seen so much pain but now is when they’re shining the most in these moments of crisis, when people need them. This is when they’re stepping up and Joe is helping these immigrant communities,” Ramos tells the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. “I was so proud to have met him. That’s the hope that I have now—that there are people like Joe down there right now helping other people.”

In May 2017, Ramos, the former deputy director of Hispanic Media for Hillary for America, was honored in Hollywood by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Her Fueling the Frontlines Award was presented by her father, Jorge Ramos, the acclaimed Univision News anchor and journalist who famously stood up to presidential candidate Donald Trump and was forcefully removed from Trump’s news conference.

The younger Ramos has a similarly keen sensibility for fighting discrimination, sharing how Latinos are responding to the current humanitarian crisis.

“That’s when the Latino community comes together,” Ramos says. “Regardless of your status, regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of what group you’re working with and for and whether you’re gay or not, people are coming together and that’s something you’re seeing in the protests, you’re seeing in the way these incredible groups have organized. And that speaks to the Latin-X movement. It’s just these young Latinos that are trying to make change. And that’s exactly what you’re seeing right now in a moment of crisis,” she says.

Refreshingly humble for a millennial familiar with fame, Ramos says she’s had the privilege of meeting many incredible people, including Bamby Salcedo when she visited the Trans Wellness Center.

“If you want to talk about courageous Latinas and incredible stories, it’s them. On a personal level, to me they are one of the bravest human beings I’ve met,” she says. “Within our community, there are still stigmas and discrimination against our own people.” 

Ramos hopes the digital VICE series will galvanize activism. “How do I get young Latinas to care and to be educated and to understand what’s at stake for our community?” she asks. “Right now, it’s through content. It’s through opening people’s eyes through these stories—to have content on their screens, on TV, on their cells that looks like them and telling stories about them. To me, as a millennial, that is the first step that has been missing in this space. Content that looks like you, that’s uplifting voices like yours.”

But content is not enough. “You have to do something about it,” Ramos says. “You have to take action. My hope is, with everything happening with this administration, people understand that you need to vote in the midterms, you need to show up at that rally. It’s all tied to action. You’re not only seeing that there’s an HIV crisis, you’re also seeing what people are doing about it. Tying content to action is key to me.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

White House blocked from ending Title 42

Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ+ asylum seekers

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The Mexico-U.S. border in Mexicali, Mexico, on July 22, 2018. A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden administration from terminating Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The previous White House's policy was to have ended on May 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LAFAYETTE, La. — A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.

The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.

U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”

“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.

Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.

Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”

Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ+ shelters for asylum seekers in Tijuana.

The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”

“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”

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Maine

High school students in Maine rescue Pride parade & festival

Maine’s motto is “Dirigo” Latin for “I Lead.” In keeping with that spirit a group of teens stepped up to make sure Pride happens this year

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Belfast Area High School/Facebook

BELFAST, Me. – Located at the mouth of the Passagassawakeag River estuary on Belfast Bay and Penobscot Bay, Belfast is a coastal city of 6,938 people and county seat for Waldo County, 51 miles Southwest of Bangor.

The city is known for being a significant tourist destination in the region over the years due to its antique buildings, historic districts, theater and arts, delicious food, and opportunities to get out into nature.

This year it will be a destination for LGBTQ+ Mainers to celebrate Pride- thanks to some dedicated high schoolers.

The state motto of Maine is “Dirigo” which is Latin for “I Direct” or “I Lead.”  In keeping with that spirit, The Bangor Daily News reported that when no adults would revive the community Pride parade in Belfast, a group of motivated Belfast Area High School students stepped up to make sure that the event — which has been on a pandemic hiatus — happens this year.

The city’s first-ever Pride parade and festival took place in 2016, and became an annual tradition. But no adult organizers had come forward this year to keep the tradition going, the paper reported.

Enter members of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, which formed at Belfast Area High School eight years ago. According to the Daily News, Willa Bywater, 17-year-old president of the school’s GSA decided that keeping Pride alive, especially after the lock-downs and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, was a critical need not just only for Belfast’s LGBTQ+ community but others as well.

Bywater and her fellow 20 club members secured a permit from the city of Belfast, found sponsors, raised money for banners, flags and other expenses and grappled with the procuring of liability insurance. Ultimately, the high school agreed to cover the event under the school’s policy, a move that surprised and pleased the teens, Annie Gray, the club’s co-advisor told the Daily News.

Bywater noted that it has been a lot of work to organize the parade — but it’s well worth it.

“I think that this is the Pride parade for Waldo County, and it feels really important,” she said. “After all these years of COVID, it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re all still here and still going.”

The students found support from local businesses the Daily News also reported.

Seth Thayer, a local businessman who was delighted that the high school students have taken the initiative to organize the event and that it will happen again this year. There’s something special about the way that rainbow flags fly from homes and businesses all over the city during Pride, he told the paper.

“The thing I love about Pride is that the whole town is involved,” he said. “It’s such an isolating feeling, to have to hide yourself. And just to see that visual support from people that you don’t know, just seeing the Pride flag, it’s a powerful thing. I’m excited that it’s going to happen.”

Thayer said he was glad to make a financial contribution to the students, who have been canvassing for donations.

“I’m really happy that the high schoolers took it over,” he said. “I think they’ll do a good job. Kids always bring a new energy to things.”

Those interested in participating in the Belfast Pride parade are asked to meet at Belfast Area High School at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 4, and the parade will begin at 11 a.m. The parade will end just before the Public Landing and Heritage Park.

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

U.S. Army considering letting LGBTQ+ troops transfer out of hostile states

This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules

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Top Army G-1 officer & enlisted advisor speaking with Joint Base Lewis-McChord single and dual military parents (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

ARLINGTON, Va. – A draft policy is circulating among top officials of the U.S. Army that would allow soldiers to be able to request a transfer if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy.

Journalist Steve Beynon writing for Military.com reported last week the guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the Army amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ+ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army has a majority of its bases and major commands.

“Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there’s a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrimination,” Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. “In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members.”

This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules, which are oft times fairly vague.

A source in the Army told Beynon the new guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders including the Army Secretary or the Office of the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

“The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents,” Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring Soldiers and Families’ needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life.”

A base member wears rainbow socks during Pride Month Five Kilometer Pride Run at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 28, 2017.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valentina Lopez)

The Crystal City Virginia based RAND Corporation had published a study on Sexual Orientation, Transgender Identity, and Health Among U.S. Active-Duty Service Members in 2015 that listed approximate numbers of LGBTQ+ troops are 6% gay or bisexual and 1% is transgender or nonbinary.

A senior analyst for RAND told the Blade on background those numbers are likely much lower than in actuality as 2015 was less than 4 years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ and prior to the Trump enacted Trans service ban in 2017 which was then repealed by the Biden Administration which has had a chilling effect on open service. Another factor is that the current 18-24 year old troops colloquially referred to as ‘Gen Z’ are much more inclined to embrace an LGBTQ+ identity and that would cause the numbers to be higher than reported.

Also factored in is uncertainty in the tweaking of policy in light of the recent leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would effectively repeal Roe v Wade.

According to Military.com it’s unclear whether the Army’s inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.

One advocacy group pointed out that the current wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation will negatively impact the moral of service members:

“What we’re seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They’re not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members,” Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. “[Troops] can’t be forced to live in places where they aren’t seen as fully human.”

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