When an 18-year-old Joe Uvalles II left Brownsville in 2007, he wanted to escape. After the trauma of growing up in foster care and years of confusion surrounding his sexuality, he needed out of the Rio Grande Valley. But it’s through performing in drag that he’s found his calling: providing invaluable information to a community with rising HIV rates in a safe, welcoming space – one that happens to be in the city he longed to leave behind 10 years ago.
As Beatrix Lestrange – a drag queen who prides herself on her sense of humor and trademark big glasses – Uvalles is raising awareness about safe sex to curb the rising rates of HIV in Latino populations. Through Drag Out HIV! – a program Uvalles created in partnership with the Valley AIDS Council (VAC) – local drag queens have become necessary resources for the LGBT community. The University of Texas, which funded the program, help them conduct this important work.
Whether it’s giving out condoms or providing information on getting tested, the drag queens – who go by the portmanteau dragtivists – support a community that Uvalles says often faces negatives stigmas attached to their identities.
It’s something he knows all too well.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the language to describe my experience,” Uvalles tells me. “I didn’t know that the feelings I was experiencing or the thoughts I was having were me being gay. [Latino] culture is very machista. I grew up feeling that boys had to be a certain way, so I started feeling like there was something wrong with me.”
“If you’re a Latino, [HIV] impacts you in ways that are much more devastating than they are for white counterparts.”
Those feelings often stop other LGBT Latinos from getting tested or even from seeking treatment at all, according to Uvalles. At VAC, where he also works as a risk reduction specialist, Uvalles often sees people come in wearing hoodies or hiding their faces in order to avoid being outed.
“If you’re a Latino, [HIV] impacts you in ways that are much more devastating than they are for white counterparts,” Uvalles adds. “A lot of that has to do with lack of access to information, lack of access to healthcare, language barriers, people fearing institutions of power, and then to top it all off, you have the machismo, the homophobia, being afraid someone might recognize you. In the Valley, todos se conocen, everyone knows each other.”
In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released this year, experts noted that if the current trend persisted, “one in four Latino gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetimes.” Oscar Lopez, director of education at VAC, says he believes the rising rates of HIV diagnoses are intertwined with Latino culture generally making people less open to discussing safe sex or non heterosexual relationships.
“We as a culture, we tend not to openly talk about sexuality or sexual diversity in general,” Lopez says. “We don’t talk about anything controversial and we feel embarrassment when our comadres and our tias find out someone in the family is gay. All of that impacts the health of our community.”
It was backstage before getting ready to perform that Uvalles realized Beatrix could combat these norms. Rather than having to head to a clinic and risk being recognized, people often felt more comfortable approaching Beatrix. Every week, as she prepared to take the stage, she would often get questions from attendees wondering how they could access PrEP (a pill used to reduce the risk of HIV), if they were at risk following a recent sexual encounter, or where they could go to get tested.
“People were opening up to me, telling me things before they told their families, because I didn’t judge them.”
“People were opening up to me, telling me things before they told their families, because I didn’t judge them,” Uvalles says. “If I could be there for one person, imagine what a group of us could do. That validated everything for me.”
For the past few years, Uvalles had been appearing as Beatrix to raise awareness for different community issues from women’s rights to voter registration. Now that he saw the impact she could have, he wanted to expand the idea. He applied for a grant from the University of Texas to recruit, train, and promote a team of dragtivists, who could refer people to clinics to get tested and also just be there for the community to lean on.
The grant was approved this summer, and since then, Uvalles has recruited a team of nine drag queens in order to give back to the community. Each is equipped training on queer history in the Rio Grande Valley, social justice, and communication skills. Each queen is also featured in a promotional calendar with dates marked for people to remember to get tested and a personalized makeup box where they can store safe sex materials. Now, the group is working on releasing its calendars around the Valley and making its first appearances as dragtivists.
All of this is a complete transformation from the life Uvalles was living when he returned to Brownsville two years ago. He’d hit a personal rock bottom and it was Beatrix who turned everything around. Since getting involved with the local activist community and starting this initiative, Uvalles has been nominated as citizen of the year in the local newspaper The Monitor and worked to make Brownsville declare June “Pride Month” — a first in the Rio Grande Valley.
“There’s a lot of progress that’s been made, but even when the [local] newspaper wrote a story about what we’re doing, the comments were unbearably homophobic,” Uvalles says. “In this current political climate, I really think you just need to be as visibly queer and brown as you can be, really living that truth in order to make a change.”