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This woman is sharing her experience as an HIV+ trans woman to better health care options for all

Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga
Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga

The concept was simple: get an HIV test and you could skip the line and skip the cover charge at Traxx, a popular gay nightclub in Atlanta. Jennifer Barnes-Balenciaga was in her first year of college and says it sounded like a deal. She wasn't worried when she took the test. But less than a month later, she found out the test result was positive.

"I was so upset because I never — I was definitely one of those people that never expected that to happen. I was oblivious," she said.

She grew up in the suburbs of Cincinnati in a conservative Baptist household. Safe sex practices were not something they talked about. Neither was her sexuality or gender identity.

Barnes-Balenciaga's mission for years since her diagnosis has been to spread awareness about LGBTQ+ equity concerns to health care providers and other people in the LGBTQ community.

She's one of the featured speakers at the annual Equitas Health Institute Transforming Care Conference in Columbus, Ohio, and is presenting, “Healthcare Expectations from a Woman of Trans Experience.”

"This conference is unlike anything I've ever heard of. I'm very honored to be a part of this. And I'm so excited ... because this is something that has the potential to really include this wide range of the trans umbrella," she said. "And the understanding of how inclusive it can be for non-binary, gender non-conforming, as well as trans-identified individuals to get an understanding of how we — as people have different genders — can find solitude in our own form of normality, if you will."

Other speakers include LGBTQ health experts and people from the LGBTQ community who are sharing their experiences accessing health and human services.

About half of all transgender people say they've experienced mistreatment by their health care provider, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. And about a quarter report avoiding health care due to the fear of discrimination.

From college to homelessness and finally, the ballroom and activism

Barnes-Balenciaga says her own experiences drove her to want to be proactive in the conversation about trans and HIV health care, though it took about a decade after her diagnosis to find her way into activism.

Within about six months of testing positive for HIV in 2011, she received an AIDS diagnosis. She'd spiraled, failing out of school and becoming homeless.

"My father wouldn't even pay my phone bill because I was in Atlanta," she said. "He quoted to me — and I quote — 'I'm not paying for a lifestyle.' He didn't believe in being gay."

But she eventually found her family among people in the ballroom community where Black and Latino people combine dancing, modeling, lip-synching and posing as part of a performance for prizes and celebrity. People who participate in ballroom often form support groups in what's known as "Houses." Barnes-Balenciaga joined the famous House of Balenciaga.

After a few years of living with HIV, she found herself working with others to advocate for better treatment and awareness of HIV, especially within the trans community. She eventually became the LGBTQ liaison for State Rep. Park Cannon in Atlanta.

"I love going to places that we (trans people) are not," Barnes-Balenciaga says. "It is imperative that we're seen everywhere just because people don't understand the ability of yourself. It's not because I'm trans that I'm doing something, but I shouldn't be hindered from something because I am trans."

Tickets to a virtual version of the conference, Oct. 14-15, are available at the Equitas Health Institute website. The in-person event is at the Fawcett Center on the Ohio State University Campus in Columbus.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.