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What HIV testing is like when you’re queer, black & undocumented
August 8, 2014

Last fall, I received a call from an old partner I had not spoken to in six-months. In the middle of debating whether to answer or not, I accidentally accepted the call and heard his voice. I went to get tested and I’m HIV positive, you need to get tested, he quietly explained. He sounded tired, filled with the kind of panic that comes after days of shock and denial. It was the same tone I remembered carrying in my voice one day in Boston as a glass bottle flew towards me—then shattering as it hit me—followed by an older White male calling me “illegal.” I heard his voice and I could not breathe. I was scared for him, for me, for life.

After the phone call, all I could think was: Can I even get tested?Growing up undocumented and queer on the East Coast meant only seeing a doctor when my temperature was over 104º or there were free clinic drives at local non-profits.

I could not sleep for more than two hours. I could not eat. I could not concentrate. During the week after the phone call, I kept running through scenarios in my head about how to go to the doctor and not disclose my immigration status. I was afraid that if I had HIV, the government would think I was a threat and deport me. I could see the headlines blaming undocumented immigrants for the HIV virus. I was afraid of the attacks on my community, my family, and myself. But above all, I was afraid that if my mother found out, her body would be too weak to endure the shock. My mother’s shoulders, limbs, and spirit carried the trauma of not seeing her mother in about twenty years, of having a deceased daughter, and of surviving years of domestic violence. If I was diagnosed with anything, I could not tell her. I could not burden her with another worry when she is still healing from the open bruises that hide underneath her clothing, her vulnerabilities only exposed in 30-minute phone calls to Abuelita Belen. I could not disclose negative news with the face of my younger sister still blurring in her mind, the remnants of a grave abandoned almost two decades ago when the cemetery did not receive the seventh-year payment.

The phone call scared me. It was about more than just papers and sexuality. I had just moved to Connecticut and didn’t know the area. I had to come out to a new friend as undocumented, queer, and potentially living with HIV. She dropped everything, not knowing exactly what to say, and took me to get tested. Stop one was Planned Parenthood. Approaching the glass window felt like I was about to enter an immigration check point. I had to act American: make sure my accent did not slip off my tongue; make sure I wore colors that didn’t make my skin look too Black; make sure I rubbed the nail polish completely off of my fingernails; remember to wear the button-up I would never have been able to afford if it weren’t for the $1/pound section at the thrift store. I was finally going to get tested.

Planned Parenthood turned me away from getting an HIV test. I did not have a U.S. ID. I had a Mexican matrícula. We’re sorry, but you need a state or federal ID. If you can’t provide that, you must pay full price for any check-up, test result, or anything of the matter. I walked out, something I was used to after living undocumented for sixteen years. As I pushed through the door, the thought hit me that maybe I experienced this not just because of just my immigration status, but because the lives of poor, queer, people of color do not matter to society.

Stop two was a free clinic a few miles away. Denied.

Local college clinic next, wait list. Maybe in two months.

Crying in a borrowed car outside a Rite Aid parking lot at 3:47 p.m. on a Tuesday appeared to be the only type of healthcare I would receive.

Hours later, many miles away, I finally found a clinic that would test me. No questions asked. Negative.

I moved to Los Angeles three-weeks ago, where, for the first time, I have seen organizations that work to gain healthcare for undocumented immigrants. It’s unbelievable to me that we even have to fight for such a basic human right. I am done feeling that I don’t deserve my health. This country has systematically conditioned me to think that I’m not good enough because I’m too Latino, too Black, too Gay, too easy to Mispronounce, too Savage—Illegal Alien. Healthcare is a human right, but in the US healthcare is only for those who can pay. I cannot live a healthy life when I can’t remember my last eye doctor visit or experience the security of a bi-yearly checkup.

My blackness does not make me invisible. My queerness does not make me illegitimate. My immigration status does not make me alien. I am in these positions because of a complex colonial history that has enslaved people that look like me; burned people who painted their nails like mine; shot people whose coffee tasted like the coffee in my backyard in Mexico; trafficked people that would do low to no-wage work like those in my family.

I am afraid I can’t even afford to die. Healthcare is the least this country could do for its people, our people.

Alan Pelaez Lopez is an AfroLatin@ that grew up in Boston via La Ciudad de Mexico, documenting his existence as an undocuqueer poet, jewelry designer, and bubble tea addict. Alan currently works at the Dream Resource Center in Los Angeles, which is a project of the UCLA Labor Center. He is a member of Familia: Trans*, Queer Liberation Movement.



Meet the Couple Who Could Be the First Humans to Travel to Mars [Wired]

Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum are planning a trip to Mars. They’ve been hashing out the details for 20 years now, and alternate between being extremely excited and utterly terrified by the prospect, refusing to discuss it after 5 p.m. to avoid nightmares.

The couple’s far-out dreams of space travel differ from those of many others because theirs could, potentially, come true. They founded a private space company called Paragon Space Development Corporation to find the most feasible way to send two people on a round-trip flyby of the Red Planet. Even the best possible plan will be extremely challenging. The list of things they still need to figure out is long and includes how to protect themselves against deadly radiation, how much food, water, and air to bring, and how to store their waste. Meanwhile, they must wait for Congress to agree to fund the project and allow the use of the NASA Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle for transport.

Learn about the progress of SLS and the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle in 2014.

And they need to figure this all out soon: They have only a brief window of time at the end of 2021 when Mars and Earth will align in such a way to make this trip possible.

The mission—called Inspiration Mars and spearheaded by millionaire space tourist Dennis Tito—is the most ambitious of Paragon’s many projects. The company is also one of the country’s leading designers of life support systems and body suits for extreme environments, and they are currently developing a vehicle for commercial balloon trips to the stratosphere and technology for private moon landings. But they have the most grandiose hopes for Mars: They say sending the first humans into the orbit of another planet could ignite a 21st century “Apollo moment” that will propel American students back into the sciences and inspire young innovators.

The couple’s drive to explore space was born in a giant glass dome on Earth called Biosphere 2 in the early 90s. Eight people, including Poynter and MacCallum, lived for two solid years from 1991 to 1993 inside the dome near Tucson, Arizona as part of a prototype space colony. The eccentric, privately funded science experiment. contained miniature biomes that mimicked Earth’s environments, including jungle, desert, marshland, savannah and an ocean all crammed into an area no larger than two and a half football fields. The crew subsisted on a quarter-acre agricultural plot and went about their lives while medical doctors and ecologists observed from outside.

Watch Jane Poynter’s TED Talk as she discusses “Life in Biosphere 2”

Six months into Biosphere 2, the couple began to think about life after the experiment and channeled their waning energy into a business plan. They wanted to build on the skills and ecological knowledge they were accruing during the experiment, while also playing off Biosphere 2’s space-oriented goals, and finally landed on building life support systems for an eventual trip to Mars. MacCallum blogged about this from inside the dome, and managed to sign up Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Grant Anderson as a co-founder, and signed legal papers with Poynter to incorporate Paragon.

Read the Space News interview between Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum on Paragon, R&D, and space exploration.

Neither MacCallum nor Poynter had gone to college or had any formal training in science, engineering, or business. But their trajectory toward space began early in their lives, long before entering Biosphere 2. MacCallum’s father was an astronomer and his grandfather helped build propellers for the Wright brothers. Poynter, who grew up in England and came to the U.S. after high school, says her deep fascination with space sprouted from reading Isaac Asimov and other science fiction authors as a kid. Their eyes had long been tilted toward the sky.

Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter.

After high-school, both began training with other Biosphere 2 candidates in remote conditions, including on a ranch in the Australian Outback and an ocean-research vessel that sailed around the world, both organized by the privately-funded Institute of Ecotechnics that invented Biosphere 2. MacCallum and Poynter met during this time and sparked a friendship that turned to romance and led to marriage 9 months after leaving Biosphere 2.

MacCallum, now 49 years old, says he wouldn’t necessarily advocate for others to skip college, but the path had worked out well for him. He and Poynter dabbled in classes after Biosphere 2, but ended up dropping them to work with a group from NASA to test an ecological experiment on the Russian Space Station MIR. Paragon’s co-founder and chief engineer Grant Anderson had valuable experience in developing space flight hardware with Lockheed Martin, and MacCallum and Poynter had extensive experience running closed ecological systems from their time in Biosphere 2. The team proved for the first time that small aquatic invertebrates, including amphipods and copepods, could complete entire life cycles in space, within a small, sealed-off Paragon-designed tube called the Autonomous Biological System.

In December 2012, Paragon teamed up with commercial space flight company Golden Spike to build a space suit, thermal control, and life support technologies for commercial trips to the Moon aimed to launch in 2020. In December 2013, they named former astronaut and personal friend Mark Kelly as the director of flight crew operations on World View, an effort to bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.

Learn more about Paragon’s World View Experience.

Over the past two decades, their company has grown to employ about 70 engineers and scientists and is still growing today, Poynter says. They hire for attitude and train for skill (within reason) in order to maintain good teamwork and creativity — things Poynter felt the Biosphere 2 community lacked at times, due to conflicting personalities and lackluster attitudes. Jonathan Clark, Inspiration Mars’ chief medical officer and former space shuttle crew surgeon who collaborates with Paragon describes the couple as “enablers, the kind of bosses you would love to work for.

Still, despite Paragon’s best efforts and accomplishments, many do not believe their ambitions to bring humans — perhaps themselves — to Mars by the 2020s will pan out. Former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones, told WIRED he thinks that humans won’t reach Mars orbit until the 2030s, and will struggle to do so without the financial and infrastructural support of NASA.

Dennis Tito, Inspiration Mars’ organizer, originally hoped to finance the project entirely independently. He looked to crowd-sourced funds and philanthropy, and had aimed to get the project off the ground in 2017, when Earth and Mars would align in such a way that a rocket could slingshot to and from Mars in just 501 days. But with further analysis, Tito and Paragon realized they did not have the resources or money to pull off the mission by 2017. They identified another planetary alignment in 2021 that would allow for a slightly-longer 580-day trip, but they still doubt they can achieve this without a bit of government support.

Dennis Tito’s 2021 Human Mars Flyby Mission Explained (Infographic)

There was really no way that we could find to practically use existing commercial rockets, MacCallum said. We were hoping we could pull together a mission using existing hardware, but you just don’t get to go to Mars that easy.

NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) revealing the compartment and structure for feasible capability regarding the Inspiration Mars mission configuration.

But regardless of whether Inspiration Mars is successful in 2021, Jones believes these commercial space efforts will help stir momentum and public interest in space that could ultimately help NASA build new infrastructure and convince Congress to allocate the money needed to complete missions like these.

I think it is going to lead to an explosion of ideas of how we can use space to make a buck, and that’s all to the good, Jones said. And so if these companies can develop a track record of success, and people have greater confidence that they can personally experience space, then it may become more relevant to our society and country, and then the U.S. may have a broader base of support for funding for NASA.

By this logic, Paragon’s involvement in an array of different space endeavors that embed space in the American consciousness could improve their chances of getting Inspiration Mars off the ground.

And so they keep moving toward their goal. At the end of last year, the team successfully completed the major components of the life support system for Inspiration Mars. They did a full test of all the major systems together in the lab. They recycled urine, made oxygen, and removed carbon dioxide from the system — all things they would need to do to keep a crew alive for an Inspiration Mars mission, MacCallum said.

MacCallum believes a trip to Mars that would use these life support systems could inspire the next great generation of innovators. He turned five on July 20th, 1969, the day that Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and cites that mind-boggling occasion as the major driver of his fascination in space and ultimate decision to enter Biosphere 2. What we learned from Apollo was that a very difficult and inspiring technical program that involves humans exploring new worlds that create new heroes and role models inspires people into the sciences, MacCallum said.

Coinciding with the legacy of the Apollo missions, Inspiration Mars will serve to stimulate ambition and the curiosity to explore new frontiers beyond LEO, reminiscent of the iconic Apollo moon landing.

Though they hadn’t originally intended to be space pioneers themselves when they founded Paragon — they simply planned to facilitate space travel, not necessarily partake in it — MacCallum and Poynter both say that they would throw their hat in the ring as candidates for Inspiration Mars. At the very least, they meet the basic credentials of being a fit middle-aged couple—in their late 50s by 2021—with experience living in isolation.

When their hearts aren’t racing with thoughts of tumbling along the empty black path to Mars, MacCallum imagines calling back to students on Earth and describing the scene as he watches the Pale Blue Dot drift away and the Red Planet approach. “That would have completely blown my mind as a middle schooler,” MacCallum said. “And we would have 500 days to have these conversations with students all around the world.

Visit Inspiration Mars Foundation to learn more.

Source: Wired

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