The Baton Rouge BTAN (Black Treatment Advocates Network) has gained a powerhouse chair in Kerry Auzenne. At 46 years old, Auzenne is using compassion to power the efforts around HIV/AIDS efforts in the city of Baton Rouge.
Auzenne’s journey into HIV/AIDS activism started with his own diagnosis with AIDS in 2004. Auzenne had witnessed the effects of HIV and AIDS in the lives of friends, but for him, the severity of HIV didn’t become tangible until he learned his own status. “That was a very dark time in my life,” the Baton Rouge resident recalls. “I spent a lot of time by myself. I couldn’t walk. I had to live with my mom, and when she would go to work, I would spend a lot of time on the recliner in front of the TV. I spent a lot of time praying.”
Auzenne remembers that the situation got very bad: “At that point, I wasn’t educated about HIV. I didn’t know about the things I know now. I had AIDS dementia. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t walk. My docs didn’t think I would live. They told my mother, ‘I would make his final arrangements.’”
But he did live.
While undergoing treatment, Auzenne says, “I met other people in the waiting rooms; people spoke to me and gave me courage. Them just listening to my story really helped me.” During recovery, he gained the passion to help others fight HIV/AIDS. “When I finally could communicate with people again, my experience gave me the fire I needed.”
Known around Baton Rouge as “Mama Kerry,” Auzenne is a gender nonconformist, who suggested for simplicity that we use the pronoun “him.” “None of that makes me who I am,” Auzenne says. “So much more than a sex, I am a human being. I have become comfortable in my skin. I am like BTAN: I am unapologetic. I have something to say.”
Auzenne’s 15 years living as a transgender woman and own diagnosis with AIDS fueled a passion for volunteering in the fight against HIV and equipped the 46-year-old with a unique and needed perspective. That perspective and volunteer work led him to events and gatherings focused on HIV/AIDS activism, including a chance encounter with BTAN during a conference on AIDS in Chicago in 2015. “I love BTAN and what they stand for,” Auzenne says of the organization he now chairs. “It’s for our people. It’s for our people to explain how we go through.”
Auzenne, who also works at Metro Health as a supportive case manager, began there as a counselor and tester, and eventually started working with clients who have received a positive diagnosis. In the current position, his entire focus is on finding the barriers to each client’s care—from calling clients to remind them of an upcoming doctor’s appointment, to going to their appointments with them, to finding fair and affordable housing, to helping with résumés, even finding mental health services for clients.
“My work may not be on the clock,” says Auzenne, whose goal is to lead clients to a point where not only is their virus at an undetectable level, but so is the impact of HIV upon them emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Auzenne’s years of involvement in AIDS activism eventually led him to become chair of BTAN Baton Rouge. In that role Auzenne wants to focus on access to and trust of the health-care system. “We don’t access health care like we should. We are afraid to go to the doctors, and we have to break that. Let’s get preventative; let’s go to the doctors.”
Auzenne is very excited about this new role: “This is who I am. This is what I am supposed to be doing.”
Whitney Alese is a writer and blogger whose work has been featured in BuzzFeed and other publications.