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HIV is NOT the END for Ashton P. Woods

HIV is NOT A Reason to Quit

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It’s a few minutes after 2 pm. The clouds mix hues of smoke and cool grays neutralizing the sun’s warmer tones for what most people would call an ugly day. In  Retrospect’s coffee bar courtyard, I’m stationed at an off-white, wooden table ambitiously waiting because of this conversation’s importance. My guest interviewee; Ashton P. Woods, originates from 3rd Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana, whose stay in Houston dates back to 2005. Attributed as an activist on many fronts, he’s most known as the Co-Founder and lead organizer of Black Lives Matter Houston, and I’m here at Retrospect Coffee Bar to discuss his HIV positive status.

In 2016 the city of Houston ranked 12th in the nation and 1st in the state for new cases of HIV. A study by End HIV Houston reports that 22,551 people within the Houston population have been diagnosed and living with HIV. Upon closer inspection, the disparity of cases weigh heavily upon homosexual interactions of African American men. However, that correlation was not the reason for today’s interview with Mr. Woods. In contrast, my motivations are based on an introspective look of Ashton’s life experience as a leading activist while living with the virus. Woods heads the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter; an inclusive, intersectional operation concentrated on systematic oppression inflicted on black communities. Communities that also disproportionately struggle with the spread of HIV.

           After setting up I receive a text reading that he has arrived. “I’m here in the back.” I reply. The small coffee bar is a convenient and quaint location in the Greater 3rd Ward community of Houston. Its 297-square-feet is small and peaceful, proving great for an uninterrupted conversation on a topic that I assume could easily get intense, making comfort paramount.

I suddenly hear footsteps to the rear-left of me disturbing the mixture of bark and rock landscape that fills the courtyard. It was Ashton straddling the rocks casually dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a black T-shirt that reads the phrase Civil Disobedience across the chest in blood red. We firmly shook hands as he took a seat directly in front of me that provided us about two and a half feet between us. Although I’m concerned what direction the conversation would steer, I didn’t hesitate to begin.

I stared down at my notes clarifying his résumé. “Just correct me if I’m wrong on any of this. You are the Co-Founder and Lead Organizer for Black Lives Matter Houston, Co-Chair for the Black Humanist Alliance, a member of Houston’s first LGBT advisory board, an active blogger, activist, veteran, unapologetically black, HIV positive, homosexual, atheist who’s appeared on MSNBC, and is also a rape survivor.” Ashton casually responds “Mm-hmm.” His demeanor was relaxed, yet I still hadn’t mentally gathered the right collection of words as a starting point to the conversation. I had so many questions, and each could lead the conversation down various paths. Instead, I stumbled my words to eventually ask, “How did you find out about your diagnosis?”

He inhales and begins, “So, it was 10 years ago in April, I was 23 years old and decided to take an HIV test.” He moderately shrugs his shoulders searching how to express it in words. “I’m sexually active, I mean, it is what it is.” He pauses for a few seconds to perhaps organize his thoughts. “Um, I started feeling sick towards the end of 2007, and began noticing symptoms. I actually turned out to be asymptomatic, but something made me get an HIV test. Jus– It was just something– I’ve been doing this since I was 15 years old.” Nodding in acknowledgement, my eyes engage as he continues. “I was told my test results came back positive, yada, yada, yada. I didn’t deny anything. I mean, it is what it is. I– had fun.”

I was surprised how nonchalant his answer was so far, and how unmoved he appears to be in regards to his initial diagnosis. He expressed detailed elements of the story in a syncopated fashion, like stones skipping over ripples of a pond. His speech and body language implied that I should already have an idea of how the diagnosis process works. His composure read as a man who has made peace with his status. However, I needed clarity so I asked, “Was the news shocking or—?” Ashton interjects, “I broke out in hives, I– knew how to handle it. It’s like I said, I came out at 15. I knew the type of sex that I liked to have at the time had a tendency to not involve latex or rubber– So– I did what I needed to do to get myself into care– And then I just went on with my life.”

Prior to the interview I couldn’t help but think how I would handle such a life threatening diagnosis. Furthermore, I knew I couldn’t handle it as composed as Ashton was openly telling his story. It was admirable. I remain unorganized with my words, but I continue questioning. “Has your status hindered any of your activism progress? Or have you felt any fatigue or anything where you needed help?”

He enthusiastically counters, “All the time! I mean, I’m a human, I know a lot of people think I’m fearless. And I pretty much am, I will admit that. But a lot of the time what I deal with is the aftermath for myself, and whatever it was I witnessed or took part in. So I’m getting attacked from all sides. Not only do I have to deal with that, I also have the trauma of death threats, and people hating on me. On top of that, I have the trauma of my skin cousins, or skin folk doing the same thing.” Ashton repeatedly scrubs the melanated pigment of his forearms to emphasize his skin-based word play.

“So living with HIV is the least of my worries because I’m taking care of myself,” he claims. I’m probably healthier than most people, but, the mental aspect of it all is sometimes very isolating, even with a network. The fact that everything that I say is scrutinized, is extremely isolating. I never asked to be Ashton P. Woods, who you’re interviewing. I always thought, hey, I’m just Ashton, I’m just doing this because I give a fuck.”“Now it’s turning into factions saying that I’m working with the police, or I’m doing this, that, and the other. The shit actually does hurt, you know? But, I typically don’t see it when they’re saying it because clearly– hoes don’t like to talk to nobody’s face, and I am the nigga that will swing.” Ashton emphatically leans in, his mouth angled towards my recorder placed at the center of the table. “Feel free to keep that in.” A smirk creeps up my face, “Oh definitely,” happy to have received his natural authenticity.

At this point the conversation is flowing in a natural progression interchangeably. Much of what Ashton has said regarding gossip felt relative, as my interests shifts towards ill-informed expressions in the black community. “I’ve regularly heard people in the black community reference the movie “Straight Outta Compton” as a reference to the feelings towards HIV. Particularly, the scene where rapper, Eazy-E is in the hospital and he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Shocked at the results he says to the doctor, but I’m not a fag? The rapper’s misunderstanding identified a common stigma that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease.” Ashton nods in agreement and responds swiftly. “According to the federal government it’s a gay disease.” He holds up his arms sarcastically performing an air quote gesture as he carries on. “The federal government came out with a report in the last couple of years that states that one in two black gay men, will contract HIV by the year 2020. What the government really meant to say was, this isn’t a gay white man’s disease right?”

Pausing he cynically glares at me, “The fact is that you have people who are born with it, you have people who contract it via intravenous drug use, and those that get it from needles and shit like that. Of course that includes sexual intercourse, but the thing about it is–” Ashton pauses, briefly, the chirping birds and traffic resonate prominently through the air. He gathers his words, “It’s happening literally less than a block and a half away from us. If you pull up the zip code in Houston alone in reference to HIV the biggest spike will actually be black women, not black gay men. And I’m talking about cisgender heterosexual women, and transwomen too.“

The graphic breaks down prevalence of HIV case in Texas by Race/Ethnicity & Sex, 2007-2016

Analytics support Ashton’s claims proving that he’s done his research. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, between 2007 and 2016 black females accounted for 37% of HIV cases per 100,000 population in the state of Texas. The black female demographic also represented the highest number of cases in the state of Texas during that period.  This further illustrates the necessity of confronting the issue beyond the LGBT community.

“It’s a multiple layered issue,” Ashton says. “Because some groups of people understand although, the people who call themselves good community leaders, standing in pews, behind pulpits, in whatever religious community are not talking about this to their congregations.” His tongue flared disappointment with the intent to verbally burn the intolerant religious communities in their own hypocrisy.  The lack of transparency and integrity within the religious community is often a source of frustration for the LGBT community.

Case in point, the late Bishop Eddie Long scandal. The former leader of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, one of the largest black churches in the United States, is an open opponent of LGBT rights. Long was sued in 2010 by three young men claiming he forced them into sexual relationships. The Bishop denied any accusations and the cases were settled outside of court for an undisclosed amount, adding conflicting fuel for skeptics. Numerous paradoxical religious controversies in similar context of Bishop Long’s scandal provide further evidence for Ashton’s frustrations.

“Religious leaders tell everyone that it’s not okay to fuck—or to wait until they get married, but we all know everybody’s fucking everybody, including the pastors!” Ashton sternly delivers. His shoulders relax, he settles back in and composes himself, “My life is not predicated on being a homosexual. I speak on it because I know that people pretend that we’re nonexistent, and I refuse to allow what happened to James Baldwin happen to me.” He adjusts his body upright as he concludes, “When you’re black, you live in a state of trauma. Regardless of your financial standing, or your societal position, we live in trauma. And because of that we have to wipe a tear, blow our nose with whatever we find, pick our shit up and move the hell on.”










End HIV Houston. (2016, November 18). Retrieved from https://endhivhouston.org/

Texas Department of State Health Services. (2017, December 21). Retrieved from                    https://www.dshs.texas.gov/hivstd/reports/epiprofile/sec03.shtm




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