By Michelle Talsma Everson, January 2019 Issue.
Jason Jones and Jeremy Bright are one of those couples that have been to hell and back with each other – and love and support one another all the more for it.
Jones, 44, was diagnosed with HIV six years ago, only a couple months into their relationship. “It was really tough to find out my status,” Jones says. “My first thought was how to avoid passing it on to him. My primary worry was about him.”
Now an outreach advocate for HIV and AIDS, Jones reflects that it’s always interesting and heart-tugging to see what others’ first thoughts are when they’re diagnosed as HIV positive. Some focus on their own health, others on public stigma, on relationships, more. His first thought was Bright – and continues to be. “We fell for each other quickly; we both knew there was something there,” Jones says.
Once he was diagnosed, the couple began to seek out resources for what this now meant for them being in a serodiscordant (mixed status) relationship. “We wanted to know who else was like us,” Jones notes. “In 2012, we didn’t find that.”
What they did find, he adds, was more geared toward him and not them both. They even walked out halfway through one workshop, frustrated at the lack of mixed status education and resources. As their journey continued, the couple did their best to take care of each other, with Bright actually being the one to begin working and volunteering for organizations that support HIV and AIDS awareness and education.
“Fast forward a year [after Jones’ diagnosis] and a position opened up for a testing and outreach manager at a local HIV agency [Southwest Center] and I decided to take a leap and leave work in the private sector to move into this work, to help build programs for people like us — for people like my partner who I loved so much — in our community,” Bright says.
“I wasn’t surprised when he began volunteering and becoming involved in HIV and AIDS activism,” Jones says about his partner. “He has an incredible heart and is all about helping people.”
While Bright dove headfirst into activism, Jones was supportive, but preferred to volunteer and stay in the background. He was closeted about his status for a long time and began the process of coming out slowly — when it made sense or helped others.
“I needed my activism, community work and even coming out to be on my own time table,” Jones says. “That said, I knew we needed to keep doing this work.”
At one volunteer event early on in their activism work, Jones even left early because he “felt like a hypocrite” promoting condom use because of his status.
“He quietly volunteered hundreds of hours with IGNITE for several years — inching out from behind the curtain little by little,” Bright describes. “At Pride, you’d find him behind The Condom Bar, restocking and refilling. He hand-stamped tens of thousands of burlap Condom Bar bags from our living room and stuffed tens of thousands of safer sex kits that we delivered out in the community. He was there with me at 6 a.m. as we’d check in to set up at Rainbows Festival and would be there at 3 a.m. as we dropped newly diagnosed blood samples at Southwest Center after testing nights at Stacy’s for almost three years.”
Bright adds that, while he was the initial one of the couple to dive into this work, he looks to Jason as his guide and inspiration.
“While I do this work for our community, the most important person in the community I do it for is Jason Jones,” he says. “I’ve always been able to turn to him, as a person who wasn’t comfortable with his own status, to get a vibe for how much was too much to ask of our community, how to meet people where they’re at in a status-neutral way, and how to stay focused on why we were doing the work we we’re doing.”
This past spring, Bright left his position at Southwest Center, but he and Jones felt like they weren’t done reaching out, advocating, and educating the community. While having coffee together, they brainstormed how to start their own nonprofit and RipplePHX was born. The nonprofit is a “back-to-grass-roots project created for our LGBTQ community to address today’s HIV virus through impact-focused splashes of awareness, love, and celebrations of individual sexual expression.”
Bright works full-time running the nonprofit as his day (and night and weekend) job and Jones, while still maintaining a full-time position as payroll director for The Red Door by Elizabeth Arden, is the president of RipplePHX’s Board of Directors. Feeling a call to be fully transparent and authentic — and nudged by the fact he had an emerging nonprofit under his own roof — more than five years after his official diagnosis, Jones decided to fly to Texas to tell his parents about his HIV status.
“Over the years I was diagnosed I carried a lot of guilt for not sharing my status with my mom,” Jones says. “I came out to her the way I had come out as gay more than 20 years earlier — sitting in my childhood room. She said she loved us both, and we both cried. I explained how I maintained being healthy with just one pill a day and continuous doctors visits. I told her what ‘undetectable’ meant. I appreciated her questions.”
Now, fully out, Jones balances his day job with nighttime and weekend activism with RipplePHX. Supported by a grant from the CDC, RipplePHX focuses entirely on outreach through four PODS (prevention on demand) that rotate weekly. The PODs focus on condoms, PrEP and PEP, the stigma and U=U and HIV testing.
Jones notes that, while he’s always had great health insurance to help him pay for his meds and doctor’s visits, he knows others who aren’t as fortunate, so he feels a calling to pay it forward.
“The community has truly embraced RipplePHX, we love what we do,” he adds.
“From a man who spent most of his weekends drunk at Charlie’s, to a man running out of the HIV 101 workshop, to the man who helps me push a psychedelic mobile outreach unit down 7th Avenue — this guy has quietly channeled his status, one day at a time, to help thousands of people in our city,” Bright says.
Reflecting on where he is today, Jones wants others who may be diagnosed with HIV or AIDS to know that there is not a specific timetable for the journey of acceptance, outing yourself or even activism.
“I’m super happy and lucky to be where I am now,” he says. “And I hope to continue to help the community as long as I can.”
Of course, both Jones and Bright name each other as their biggest inspirations for the work they do.
To learn more about RipplePHX, visit ripplephx.org.