Kevin Trimell Jones is the new national executive director of the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services. We speak with the Penn grad about living with HIV, combatting stigma of the virus nationally, and what tools the LGBTQ community can use to improve advocacy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and raised in Detroit, Michihan. I was fortunate to have my grandmother living in our house. She was a strong woman. Around her, we were never allowed to say “I don’t care.” She showed us the worth of caring for everything and everyone — and she really tried to care for everyone. I get this from her. My very first job, around the age of 11, was delivering papers in our local community neighborhoods. I hated waking up at 5 a.m. on the weekends. It taught me a work ethic. My favorite work experience was during my time at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008, and having the opportunity to travel to Gaborone, Botswana, to work with their professors and graduate students on developing HIV prevention interventions in their local communities. This was my first trip to the continent. I’m single. My best fury friend is Lulu, a dog I rescued in D.C. in 2016.
As an openly gay black man living with HIV, what are the ways you are staying empowered in a society that’s still largely misinformed and stigmatizes by the virus?
Developing skills of self-empowerment started long before I knew I was gay and before I seroconverted in 2009. As a young black boy growing up in Saginaw, issues around race relations were evident; it was clear that I was a dark-skinned black boy in Saginaw. Race was an issue that my family talked about, and we had a collection of Black encyclopedias that I would read often as a child. Our struggles and successes as a race fueled my understanding of my place and potential in the world. Moving to Detroit around the age of 12 was life-changing. In high school, I was never harassed because of my perceived sexuality or because my limp wrist. People made jokes, but never considered it harassment. It was one of my favorite life experiences. For the first time, I went to a school where the people on the wall had notable achievements. I felt like I was home! These lessons built a foundation for empowerment, and recognizing that validation would not always come from others. In fact, it often wouldn’t. I use these lessons to survive and manage today, even around my sexual orientation and HIV status. Misinformation is the basis for a person’s stigmatizing behaviors. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be an educator growing up. At the age of 40, however, I’m thinking more and more about my life and the impacts I want to make. Gardening and growing lavender have been keys to my own self-care. Also, working in the field for many years before seroconverting allowed me to adjust to people’s misconceptions about me. Most people thought I was HIV positive during the many years that I was HIV negative because I was doing the work. I’ve been stereotyped so much on other issues that I have been able to manage it. But I’m human, and there are times when the isolation becomes real and noticeable — even for me.
You’ve recently started a new position as national executive director of the Urban Coalition for HIV/AIDS Prevention Services. What are a few major initiatives you plan to tackle right away?
UCHAPS is the only national organization dedicated to ensuring local communities and health departments are working together to inform strategies to prevent HIV infections. To advance our advocacy, we are working with our jurisdictions to track key indicators to monitor our progress and to better educate federal lawmakers on the implications of proposed budget cuts. We want to ensure that the HIV epidemic is well-resourced and that local communities are informing the on-the-ground experience and managing thee resources effectively. As health departments integrate HIV prevention and surveillance activities (toward having a more coordinated response to HIV), we want to ensure that communities, organizations and health departments are aware of the implications — whether that is a potential change in funding or a new strategy that is being implemented. For example, molecular surveillance has been used for many communicable diseases. It is now being used more for detection of clusters of HIV — at the molecular level. For some communities, this may present concerns, especially related to known and unknown expectations from HIV tests, what data are collected and how data are used. In light of HIV criminalization laws, we want to ensure molecular surveillance doesn’t facilitate “HIV profiling” or prevent communities from wanting to know their HIV status. A dream project involves convening community members from our jurisdictions to review and learn organizing strategies that could help better inform the epidemic, as well as instrumental ways to advocate, educate and partner with stakeholders on the local, state and federal levels. UCHAPS has had a successful platform that brings communities and government officials together to work on and build strategies related to HIV prevention. This platform has demonstrated the types of strides that can be made when those efforts are informed by community and health department voices. We want to share this platform with our communities and other progressive leaders in order to advance local issues. I believe we will secure the funding to make this a reality.
What is one common misperception about HIV/AIDS that you wish would immediately go away and why?
While it’s true that HIV is no longer a death sentence for the majority of people, there are communities still experiencing the “crisis.” I remember my days of living in Philadelphia between 2003 and 2012. The number of young people, particularly Black, gay and under the age of 30, who I knew personally that died living with the disease was, and still is, concerning. Perhaps because of stigma, we weren’t talking as openly about those deaths. Even despite the work we were all trying to do. I want people to know that knowing your status helps. The medicines work — even when they are taken by HIV negative individuals. People will die of this disease if they don’t know their status or [are] not taking the proper steps to get the care they need. Removing housing and employment barriers, and ensuring that people have basic needs, including access to quality healthcare, will go a long way. Sound research demonstrates that viral suppression works, especially in not transmitting HIV to one’s sexual partners. We stand with our jurisdiction members, and all of those men and women who do the hard work to stay undetectable, to declare that U=U. But as someone who is HIV positive, I recognize that it’s not always fun or easy to take HIV medications. Sometimes I forget, or still feel nauseous in the morning. But like many, we do what we have to do to prevent new infections.
What is one tangible action you think will generate better support for the most vulnerable living with HIV/AIDS within our LGBTQ community?
Black and brown gay and bisexual men and transgender women continue to face great risks for HIV infection. I’m encouraged by the state of Georgia and their statewide MSM strategic plan. Their plan includes the “Georgia Same Gender-Loving Public Health Leadership Cohort.” These plans are exciting as they articulate an intentional, coordinated plan that could end the epidemic in Georgia. However, these plans must be well-resourced. I hope the Georgia community will use the plan to hold the state accountable, especially to ensure adequate funding matches the plan’s needs. It can serve as a model for other states and jurisdictions. Despite the plan, however, Black and brown gay and bisexual men and transgender women are not always given opportunities to serve in leadership capacities where they are steering the ship. They are often offered outreach and other para-professional roles. I believe that our health organizations should look closely at our workforce and ensure that we are making room for skilled, prepared workers to lead the HIV prevention and treatment fight — especially those who are most affected by the disease.