Dr. Jonatan Gioia
My name is Jonatan Emanuel Gioia. I am 30 years old and I am a gay, queer, Latinx immigrant cis-man.
I was born in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina and was adopted by a middle class family.
I have been through a long journey in order to build, accept, express and be proud of my identity. Growing up, I always felt there was something different about me. I felt that I did not belong. People always labeled me as someone who was too emotional, too affectionate and somewhat weird. It was hard to express my vulnerability and my own discomfort with the fact that I did not know who I was.
Within my family, there was always this big elephant in the room about my adoption. I had always suspected my parents were not my biological parents – there was this big inner feeling all along in addition to the fact that there was no family resemblance with them or my extended family. It was not until the age of 23 that I took some courage and discussed the truth with my parents. Once again, I was moved by the fact that I needed to live my truth. We all deserve to know our origins.
When I finished high school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to help others find their own truths. I wanted to work toward a society free of hatred and prejudice against those perceived as different. I wanted to change the concept of tolerance into loving co-existence. That is why I decided that I wanted to be a doctor and also a teacher.
I got into medical school, but I also decided to pursue a career in teaching. My chosen cultural-spiritual path always fascinated me, so I decided to pursue also a degree in Jewish education. Three years after I finished high school, I got my degree and I specialized in history and human rights. I eventually became an expert in the field of Holocaust teaching and I was one of 30 experts chosen in Latin America to be trained in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Back home, I taught Jewish history in one of the most prestigious Jewish high schools and trained teachers in Holocaust and human rights didactics in the Anne Frank House teaching institute. One of the most important lessons about the Holocaust that I have learned is the importance of personal narratives.
It is so important to give a name to those who were murdered. It is crucial to understand that the Holocaust can be read in a different way other than death. It was the story of six million souls. Each of them with dreams, ambitions and struggles. In order to understand how they died, we need to understand and celebrate how they live. This perspective has helped me become a voice for those who cannot express themselves. This atrocious event against minorities in the past, has helped me understand the need to step up and become an advocate. We cannot stand still while others are suffering. We cannot really be free if there are others whose rights are trampled.
Working as a high school professor has also shaped who I am today. Teaching is one my passions and it was my privilege to share a classroom with teen-agers eager to discuss and build knowledge together. Coming out as a teacher was a very important milestone in my career. I remember I was discussing a book with my students and I mentioned I had seen a movie based on that book the weekend before.
One of my curious students asked with whom I had seen the movie. I panicked for a second. Took a long breath. “My boyfriend,” I said. There was silence in the classroom. The student said, “Cool, we didn’t know you were going out with someone!” My students taught me such an important lesson that day. My students did not actually care about the gender of my partner. They actually wanted to know if their teacher was dating someone! I stopped the class and explained to them how big of a moment that was for me. I felt that I did not have to hide that aspect of myself anymore.
One of my students said: “You’re our favorite teacher because you are passionate about what you do. Because you listen to us, you respect us as students. You want to learn from us. We really do not care who you sleep with. Our opinion of you won’t change because of it.” Since that day, my classroom became a stronger safe space for freedom and expression. Choosing your path, finding yourself can always be a challenge. A process never ends. My classroom became a non-judgmental place to explore through different historical narratives and all the questions regarding human rights. One of my quotes was set in stone for all my students: “Live your life as a great expression of your identity.”
I studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires. I got my medical degree after years of hard work and studying. As I attended a public university, I always felt the need to give back to my university. That is why I soon became an ad-honorem teaching assistant in the field of toxicology and I ended up being assistant professor by the time I received my medical degree. I enjoyed teaching and sharing my knowledge with future health care professionals. Moreover, I always told them one of the pillars of my practice was: “Doctors have to also be good teachers. As in the future, you’ll guide others not only to take their medicines correctly but also empower them to live healthy lives.”
Doctors and teachers have something very important in common: they need to build important human relationships in order to achieve their goals. As an openly gay professor, I wanted also to stress the importance of working with a diverse population, to be open-minded and to remind medical students that there is no book in the medical field that will teach you how to be a compassionate person. That journey you have to figure out for yourself. Patients are not multiple-choice exams. They are humans in pain, in need to be heard, validated and empowered. Teaching is what I miss the most here in the U.S.
When I finished medical school, I was a little bit confused. Openly gay, single, coming to terms with my adoption, and with two degrees and amazing jobs, I thought that was not enough for me. It felt weird to just get into residency for psychiatry, and spend hours and hours without sleeping. Real-life medicine was not what I really expected. I wanted to try to change the big picture. In addition, my always-restless sense of adventure was telling me I had to turn things over.
I believe that everything you do in life is, in the end, part of a big puzzle that suddenly comes together to reveal things. You need to be aware and open to receive these from your surroundings. Sometimes, new opportunities are just around the corner. That is how, one day, I was backpacking in Chile. I was in La Serena, a city by the sea. All of a sudden, I get a call from an old friend. A doctor who was doing an HIV fellowship in Houston. We had met a few years ago while I was assisting her doctor duties in a Jewish summer camp.
She said there was a research position open in her HIV research team. They needed someone who could lead an HIV prevention project. She would gladly recommend me if I was interested in the position. Without a doubt, I said yes. I still do not know what inner force drove me to immediately agree, but I do not regret it at all. However, I didn’t take into consideration all the consequences of moving away from your native country. What would it look like to be a queer, brown Argentinean immigrant in the United States? Was it a smart decision to leave my country, my family and my friends?
After a few interviews, they told me I got the job. I should have to wait a few months to get my VISA approved. That actually took almost a year. By September 2016, I had quit my job as a teacher and in December 2016, I was on a plane to Houston. A place I had only heard about in the space movies. As soon as I got to Houston, I had my first shocking immigrant memory. At the airport, the immigration officers took me to a special office where I was interrogated about the job I was about to do. They told me they wanted to make sure that I was not going to be an “illegal planning to move to Miami.”
The culture shock was too much at first. I was used to a big city like Buenos Aires, with public transportation and everyone rushing in the streets. I had no car in Houston, which meant I was somewhat doomed. It took me 11 months to buy a very old car that changed my life in the city forever.
In the meantime, I focused on my work. I lead the HPTN (HIV Prevention Trial Network) 083 study in Houston, which is the study that is comparing Truvada to Cabotegravir, a new, long-acting injectable drug for PrEP. The challenge was huge. My research team never had to look for volunteers outside the HIV clinic — Thomas Street Clinic — where the studies are held. I had to look for HIV negative people. I had to put research back on the Houston map.
That is how I started to engage with all the different LGBTQ organizations in Houston. Showing up in every meeting and committee that existed. Spreading the word about the study and about PrEP. I wanted to be a doctor for the community. I wanted to build a bridge between the community and the scientific community.
I always thought that a doctor must not be only at their offices, they must represent their community, be with them. I wanted this research study to be able to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ people. A place where they could talk about sex without judgement. To learn about HIV. To help eliminate stigma. As I always say, “Sex should be about pleasure, not about fear.” I am there for my patients, 24/7. They recognize me and respect me every time we run into each other in the gayborhood. They know they can count on me.
I became part of the HIV Latino Task Force, where I met amazing advocates who have inspired my work in the field. I engaged many community leaders and gave many lectures about HIV. For instance, FLAS (Fundación Latinoamerica de Acción Social) has collaborated with me to help raise awareness about PrEP in the Latinx community. I have made great friends within OLTT (Organización Latina Trans de Texas) where they kindly refer to me as “El doctor Jonatan.” I was chosen to be part of project L.E.A.P. (Leadership Empowerment Advocacy Participation). This is a 17-week course for people living or affected by HIV, funded by Ryan White. I met wonderful people there who have changed my life. These people reminded me about how important it is to be passionate about what you do and to keep on fighting to end HIV stigma. I plan to be a part of the Ryan White Planning Council and the Houston HIV Prevention Community Group in the future. I am also a board member at large for Impulse Houston, helping with the outreach in the Latinx populations.
My job outside my clinical research has also led me to do a lot of work in the field, spreading important messages about HIV prevention and treatment. We need to educate people where they are. Some people may never come to a clinical setting. Every chance we have to educate someone, we must take it. We may only have one shot!
We are living exciting times in the HIV field. We are the generation that can end the HIV epidemic. We have some amazing resources right now and there are new game-changer therapies in the pipelines as we speak. Being tested is crucial. If you are negative, we can discuss how to remain negative. Condoms? PrEP? How does sex look like for each of us? How can we have safer sex?
If you do test positive, it is definitely not the end of the world. We have come a long way to now consider HIV, a chronic disease. Living with HIV does not mean you are not healthy. It is not a death sentence anymore. We need to encourage everyone to learn about the importance of TasP and U=U. In order to end HIV, we need to act as a community.
We need to understand that HIV is not only associated with sex. Most people on Earth have sex, so why does HIV look so different among different populations? Why is the South so disproportionally affected? We must look at the social determinants of health. We must deliver encouraging messages – we cannot let HIV be associated with fear and death.
That takes me to my relationship status. I am single. However, I do need to recall that the first person I dated in Houston was living with HIV. This was the first time I found myself in that situation. He disclosed his status on our first date. We were talking about my job and, naturally, he said he had been living with HIV for a couple years. In spite of the fact that I had always been in contact with people living with HIV, this time I felt something different. He immediately destroyed all the prejudice that I may still have had in some corner of my mind. He always told me about how important it was for him to take his medication every day and to remain undetectable. We always had honest and open conversations about his status.
With him, I personally learned that someone is much more than his or her status. With him, it was all about life. He was the one who encouraged me to give Houston a chance. He is a proud Houstonian and I am glad he transmitted his passion to me. I fell in love with the city as we challenged ourselves to try new brunch places and new dive bars. Even though we are not together anymore, I will always feel empowered by his courage to live his own truth.
Queer people are not the only affected by HIV. We need to face the challenge to be our best version of ourselves every day. Mental health is a big issue. We still need to fight for our right to exist and love. For some people, even to fight for something as basic as using the restroom that matches their identity.
As an immigrant, I also face many challenges. People automatically assume I come from Mexico. You feel you always need to go the extra mile. There is always another obstacle to overcome, another form to fill out to approve your existence in the country. Even though I am a legal resident in Texas, I fear being pulled over by the police. I panic, thinking that there will always be a reason for me to be deported.
I want to be part of this campaign because I want to speak up and say, “Si, se puede” — Yes, we can. I stay active in many ways regarding these issues. For example, I have given a TED Talk on issues affecting the community https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCopNIpKTJI&t=204s.
LGBTQ people exist and are visible. Trans lives matter. It is not about gay rights, it’s about queer justice. I want to end HIV portraying all the colors of the rainbow, hearing all the voices of people who are affected. HIV is a product of longstanding oppression against minorities.
Houston has become a home for me. I love the Metro Rail, I enjoy biking around the Bayou and then to just sit down at Eleanor Tinsley Park and fall in love over and over again with the skyline. I could go all day on the things I love about this city!
As a proud Houstonian, I want to do what it takes to end HIV in the city. I want to empower others and tell them that if I could do it – that weird, queer teenager who wanted to become a doctor – anyone can do it as well. I want to be a doctor for my beloved Houston community. For everyone.
When I hear, “Live Healthy, Live Longer,” I think about the broad meaning of being “healthy.” Health is not only the absence of disease, but also the state where you can develop yourself. Health is a complex topic that needs to be addressed with an intersectional approach. For instance, what does health look like for a trans woman of color? With a life expectancy of 35 years old, living healthy must be a complex matter. Avoiding domestic and street violence, HIV, mental health, etc.
“I am here. I exist. I matter.” I love that phrase! It’s time to speak up and say, “we are here.” We are not going anywhere until we are healthy and equity is a reality. We need to share and learn from our narratives.