Produced by Courageous Studios and Gilead Sciences and initially shown on CNN, the six-part series “Blind Angels: A Series on HIV in the American South” takes a look at how the virus continues to impact the lives of LGBTQ individuals and others throughout the south in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The film recently screened as part of the OutSouth Queer Film Festival in the Raleigh-Durham area and is of particular importance because of HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on August 20. The seven-part mini docuseries is available for free streaming on CNN.
There’s no question the face of HIV has changed dramatically since the virus was first discovered in the early 1980s. What was once a disease that found an opportune moment to sink its hooks into the largely Caucasian gay male communities in urban cities in New York and California has since changed course, chiefly infecting and impacting people of color, women and men who have sex with men (that may identify as gay or not) in the Black and Hispanic communities in the South.
José Romero, who identifies with the pronouns they and them, is just 30-years old and lives in Durham, North Carolina.
“I just turned 30,” they point out quickly and with a slight chuckle.
Romero, along with friend and chosen family member Joaquín Carvaño are the focal point of the North Carolina segment of the documentary. Both are HIV advocates working with Latinx communities throughout the region.
“I was born in Washington state,” Romero recalls, “and I lived in California but I’ve been in Durham for eight years now. It’s a special place for me. I stayed out of love for the city. It feels like home.”
Romero confirms that the HIV diagnosis coincided with the move to Durham and confesses initially coming to the Research Triangle city of Durham to seek out a PhD in cultural anthropology. Instead, they made the decision to work in the nonprofit sector with the LGBTQ community and for people living with HIV.
“There are so many people in the Latinx LGBTQ community that don’t have adequate access to healthcare,” Romero explains. “And there are many factors that can cause that. Barriers to transportation, which leads to barriers to getting medication. Then there can be language barriers, especially if you don’t speak English. Supporting others through language work is especially important for me, because English wasn’t my first language. I know the challenges people can face.”
It’s clear that Romero’s personal journey with HIV has had a strong impact on their career field and how they work with others who are also living with HIV.
“I was diagnosed in 2015,” they recall. “I am on medication, so that created a completely new set of responsibilities in my life. [Being positive] has also helped me find joy in new ways, and to find new ways to celebrate the power of the queer community. When I was first diagnosed I felt like I was running away, but now I feel like I’m running towards where I should be.”
Coinciding with HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Romero can’t stress the importance of being tested for the virus any more emphatically.
“There’s power in the knowledge,” Romero explains. “Consent is important. It’s important for you to know what your status is and what your partner’s status is, and for them [to know yours.]
“When we don’t take care of ourselves, we limit the way we can take care of each other. When you find out you are HIV positive you may think your sex life is over, but I think it means your sex life can get better! You’re able to engage in sex in a transparent manner.
“There’s also another point about testing I think is important to mention here. People living with HIV are less likely to get sick in general [than people without HIV] because they take responsibility for their health issues and visit the doctor more often.”
As seen through the lens of the camera that shot the documentary, Romero is a busy individual.
In addition to tirelessly working as an HIV advocate, Romero serves as a Spanish interpreter, a board member of the LGBTQ Center in Durham, an active member of Southerners On New Ground (SONG) and as the southern representative for the national organization LGBTQ Pride Foundation.
Romero was approached by the producers of “Blind Angels” while attending a conference for the Latino Commission on AIDS in 2019. “They had heard what we were doing and wanted to know if we would be interested in participating. When they came to Durham to investigate more, that’s when it all kind of came together.”
In each episode, a different activist is placed in the spotlight to demonstrate how they work towards bringing HIV education, prevention and awareness to their own specific communities.
If you’re interested in watching the seven-part mini docuseries, it’s available as previously mentioned on the CNN website, and on the gileadhiv.com website.