HIV-related stigma and homophobia are a major problem within the Latinx community here in the Rio Grande Valley. One person named Joe Uvalles is working on empowering his community by fighting against that stigma and promoting safe sex through drag.
Uvalles, 28, left his home in Southmost in Brownsville after he graduated from Lopez High School in 2007 to attend the University of Rochester in New York. During a break from school, he returned to Brownsville, and that’s when he truly started to discover who he was. He points to attending Valentino’s Night Club in Brownsville as being a life-changing experience and what started the journey for him to come out, and to one day become a ‘dragtivist’.
“I went because it was goth night,” Uvalle admits with a big laugh during a phone interview. “I went with all my friends, but I didn’t know the venue was a gay venue. So this one thing happened, and a lot of things started making sense. When I went back to New York, I started hanging out with and being involved with the LGBTQ group on campus.”
Once a part of that group, he started helping with drag shows on campus to raise funds for that student organization. One show he took part in coordinating featured Pandora Boxx.
“That was my first experience with drag. I didn’t really think about it. At the time I was still a ‘baby gay,’” Uvalles said while laughing.
After living in New York for more than two years, Uvalles found himself back in Texas. Working at a call center in Austin, he felt a bit frustrated not having a creative outlet. He began hanging out with the LGBTQ crowd in Austin and was introduced to the local drag scene there. He points to one queen named Christeene Vale as making an impression on him.
“She’s this alternative, shock queen,” Uvalles said. “The guy who does the character of Christeene, Paul Soileau, he studied art and performance, so for him, it’s performance art. But low key, it’s also drag.”
Uvalles got involved by making costumes, props, and helping queens get prepared for shows and competitions. He even performed several times under the name Bibi Gunn, but stopped using that name after he found out there was a drag performer that used that same name in California.
That was back in “el año del caldo,” as Uvalles described, but then estimated it was about four to five years ago.
“It was a lot different than the drag that was being done in the RGV, and I just remember the way people reacted to that here at the local club,” Uvalles said. “People were a little bit hostile…They thought I was doing it as a joke. They didn’t think I was serious.”
That reaction from people in Brownsville led to a brief hiatus for Uvalles, but he returned to drag in 2013 when he was asked to do Season Three of Drag Wars at Studio 69 in Brownsville. That’s where Beatrix Lestrange, Uvalles’ new drag character, established herself here in the Valley. Uvalles describes her as a “hilarious drag trash-witch” on her Facebook page.
“I did the competition. To everyone’s surprise, even my own, I made it to the top four,” Uvalles said. “Every time they had a different challenge for the competition, I would turn it on its head. See how I could make it different, but still do what they are asking me to do. Everyone started noticing, ‘Oh there’s this person that’s really different.’”
In 2015, Beatrix was hosting the “Coming Out Monologues” at Texas Southmost College during National Coming Out Week. Rubén Garza, as part of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), was tabling at that event. Afterwards, Garza talked to Uvalles about getting involved with TFN.
“At the time, TFN was working with this idea of artivism,” Uvalles said. “Using art and activism, in my head I was like, ‘Oh my god, drag is art. What if I do activism with drag?’”
That conversation led to a dance party that was used to encourage people to register to vote. It was that moment that marked when Beatrix took on a new chapter in her journey as she moved forward with dragtivism, becoming involved with TFN, Aquí Estamos RGV, Planned Parenthood Votes. During a protest at the Harlingen in Feb. 2016, Uvalles met some of the staff from Valley AIDS Council (VAC).
“I got to meet some of the VAC staff there,” Uvalles said. “Afterwards someone reached out— Oscar Lopez from VAC— and he was like, ‘Hey we have this idea: a ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ party. We want to use that as a gateway for us to talk about getting tested and for people to know their status. Would you be interested in hosting these events for us?’ I was like sure, this is totally something I could do.”
A short time later, Uvalles was hired to be a risk reduction specialist with VAC. He’ll be celebrating two years there in March. Uvalles notes that his life experience has helped him for his role at VAC.
“I always remind myself that the work I do with testing involves having people skills, and really understanding the struggle that people have sometimes in getting tested. The barriers people face in getting tested. A lot of that has to do with income inequality, no access to healthcare, no health literacy, people being afraid that they are going to be asked for an ID. I used to live in foster care, and all of my experiences growing up, [so I’ve been] dealing with all of these things in my own personal life. I remember one of the feedbacks that I received during my training was that people really opened up to me during my sessions because I could totally relate. I grew up in one of the poorest communities in Brownsville.”
One of the initiatives that was inspired from Uvalles’ work with VAC was Drag out HIV!, which is described as “a training and mentorship program for drag queens.”
“Drag Out HIV is a project in collaboration with (VAC) and the University of Texas in Austin. We have this empowering communities grant for prevention and HIV awareness. My vision was really inspired by the work we do in the community. Once I started working with VAC, I was still doing drag and I was still Beatrix, and people would ask me [at shows], ‘When should I get tested?’ I’m off the clock but I’m still a resource for people.”
Uvalles describes the trainings including sessions on HIV and PrEP 101, Social Justice 101 and Intersectionality, LGBTQ Valley History, and a communication skills training, where dragtivists learned how to use their platforms to make a difference in their lives.
This project also led to the production of a 2018 “Drag Calendar,” which included the queens that participated in these trainings. Drag Out HIV! had two previous release parties in Harlingen and Brownsville.The final one is taking place this Friday night, Jan. 12, at Yerberia Cultura in McAllen.
“I think people should expect a good time, but also a space where they could seek resources,” Uvalles said. “If they have questions about wanting to get tested, or what it’s like to get on PrEP, or what that process is like, they can approach any of the queens. VAC staff will be present as well.”
Beatrix will be hosting, and some of the queens featured in the calendar will be performing, like Asa Brooks, Kandi Kasket, Luna Lestrange, and Brooklyn Mars. There will also be free and confidential HIV testing at the event.
“The whole point of the calendar was to promote safe sex practices, and to have positive messages about getting tested, and people knowing their status,” Uvalles said. “Also giving people a chance within the community — when I say community I mean people outside of the drag community — to see that drag queens are more than what they think and that drag queens can be a force for greater good.”
What: Drag Out HIV! Official Calendar Release Party
Where: Yerberia Cultura (Indoors), McAllen
Date: Jan. 12, Friday
Time: 10 PM
Cost: No cover but donations are gladly accepted to benefit Valley AIDS Council
For more information on Valley AIDS Council or if you want to donate, visit http://www.valleyaids.org.