by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Aleksa Manila is no stranger to Seattle Gay News. She is featured regularly because of all the work she does in the community, both as an entertainer and as an activist. Whether she is running Pride ASIA or headlining a party to benefit a local charity, she remains in the public eye constantly, literally defining what it means to be a local celebrity.
She makes no secret that, as a self-identified gender-queer person, during the day her 'real job' is working at Seattle Counseling Service as a chemical dependency specialist and Program Coordinator of Project NEON, a leading harm-reduction model across the country. During the day Aleksa is actually Aleks Martin.
However, she doesn't ever shy away from being called Aleksa and would be the first person to tell you that it doesn't matter what you call her - after all, it is the same person doing the work.
And that is one of the many, many reasons why we love her so much. Aleksa is community incarnate - she is as much a part of our local and regional identity as any past icon has been. She is now being honored for her work in HIV prevention, and we can't think of a more deserving person to receive the prestigious Dr. Bob Wood Award from Public Health-Seattle & King County. The award will be given at a public ceremony December 10 (details below).
SURPRISED BY NEWS
'I am still in shock, actually,' Aleksa Manila told SGN on Wednesday, referring to when she first heard she had won the award. 'I didn't even hear about the nomination until I was notified via phone of the actual award. It was last Monday when I returned PHSKC Director Frank Chaffee's call in the late afternoon. I had a busy work day at Seattle Counseling Service so I wasn't able to call back right away.'
'Plus, when one gets a call from Public Health, it can be a bit scary, like, 'Uh-oh, what did I do now?' she joked.
'Frankly, it's overwhelming,' admits Aleksa. 'People like Tony Radovich, recipient of the first award, is a community hero and role model. How does one follow that?'
There's a real feeling of pressure, she said. 'It's a good pressure. But I ask myself, 'What else can I do? What more can I do?' because the work doesn't stop with the acknowledgment.'
Aleksa told SGN she sincerely shares this recognition with so many others who do similar work. if not
'I'm certainly not unique in the fight against this epidemic,' she said. 'I'm only able to do this because of my pioneers who paved the way for the rest of us, who we have actually lost because of the disease. And that saddens me.'
A RECORD TO BE PROUD OF
Don't believe her modesty for a second, however. Aleksa Manila has done a heck of a lot and earned this award tenfold. She's been in the field of HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and intervention for over a decade.
'After working in the Surgery Center at Seattle Children's Hospital [then Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center] while in nursing school, I switched careers into research,' she told SGN. 'I was offered and accepted the position of community facilitator for a local research study called the Young Asian Men's Study (YAMS), through the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS).'
In addition, Aleksa was part of a national 13-city study with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that looked at young Gay men and Queer youth using the MPowerment model HIV prevention program. Its purpose was to identify how building self-esteem and addressing issues like immigration, racism, etc., can impact one's safe-sex choices.
'I was responsible for recruiting, training, and maintaining young queer Asian/Pacific Islander men to become community health advocates,' she said. 'I organized social events that were fun but filled with safer-sex education and the like. Many of them were still in high school or newly immigrated to the U.S. I am happy to say that many of them have become lifelong friends to this day.'
Interestingly, the drag persona, 'Aleksa Manila,' was born out of one of these social/educational events, called Recess II.
'It was then held at the historic Nippon Kan Theatre in Seattle's Chinatown/International District, where years later I was actually crowned the 40th Miss Gay Seattle,' said Aleksa.
'With my nursing background, it didn't take long for me to also start working as a disease intervention specialist with PHSKC,' she continued. 'It was a way for me to keep abreast with testing information. I tested and counseled at the three bathhouses on the weekends and sometimes weeknights for seven years.'
'Looking back, I don't know how I managed that while still keeping my job at YAMS and eventually at SCS, but I did enjoy learning and educating others about HIV/AIDS and other STDs,' she said. 'Although it was very sad when I had to tell clients they were HIV-positive. There are just no words to express the extreme shock one goes through in that moment.'
Aleksa Manila says she was 'very lucky to work in the Rapid HIV Test Pilot.'
'Seattle is often at the forefront of innovative breakthroughs,' she said. 'It was great to be able to teach future HIV Rapid Testers/Counselors at the various area agencies, primarily Gay City, POCAAN, and others. Many of these then-trainees are still in the field, have furthered their careers, and are respected colleagues.'
Now, as the Program Coordinator at Project NEON, a program of SCS, proudly serving the LGBTQ communities since 1969, she is content. 'I started as database manager of the Addiction Services program at SCS, then becoming health educator, [and then] program supervisor,' said Aleksa. 'Being at SCS for 10 years has prepared me to be a compassionate provider especially recognizing the unique issues the LGBTQ communities are faced with. I'm truly humbled by the stories my clients share with me as their addiction counselor. Sadly, addiction intersects often with other unhealthy choices and circumstances like HIV infection. I find this type of social service work as essential and inspirational.'
'TELLING HIV TO LEAVE'
Aleksa tells SGN that she is hopeful HIV/AIDS will leave us in this lifetime. 'There is so much progress we have been witnessing, like marriage equality, and although those two are distinct, I am optimistic,' she said. 'Recently, I met Timothy Brown, the Berlin Patient. Although there are still so many questions left unanswered, seeing him in person and shaking his hand gives me hope.'
Seattle is a hotbed of HIV vaccine research, being home to the internationally recognized HIV Vaccine Trials Unit through the UW's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. 'Knowing that exists in our backyard gives me hope,' she said, adding, 'We have some of the nicest medical providers, like Drs. Shalit and Smith, and so on. Knowing they walk around our neighborhoods gives me hope.'
'But hope does take action,' said Aleksa. 'And we are on it! Between front-line and executive positions, we are aggressively telling HIV to leave.'
As it stands though, simply, there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS. 'We are now into a generation when '90s music is considered classic and people don't know who Keith Haring is, let alone George Hamilton. We need to review, remind, and revitalize ourselves and our families and our communities that although there are advances in HIV care, we are still going to hospitals and funerals to say goodbye to loved ones dying,' she said. 'We must recognize that with the stigma of HIV comes homophobia, transphobia, hate crimes, and bullying. We must educate one another. Every day is a new day for learning and thriving. As they say, 'until there's a cure.'
'The [Queer] youth of today are the products of LGBTQ activism of the past and present,' Aleksa reminds us. 'The youth of today are the new champions who will continue to carry the torch of equality and acceptance. The youth of today may have redefined HIV but please do not forget its original definition, its history. Continue to make healthier and safer life choices that enhance quality of life beyond sexuality and intimacy.'
ABOUT THE AWARD
The Excellence in HIV Prevention Award was established in 2011 to honor Dr. Wood's 24 years of distinguished service as the founding director of the HIV/AIDS Program at Public Health-Seattle & King County. In addition to his work at Public Health, Dr. Wood demonstrated an early and sustained commitment to HIV prevention and the communities that are most affected by HIV infection. In 1982 he was among the first physicians in the Northwest to care for patients with AIDS, and in 1983 he was among the founding board members of the Northwest AIDS Foundation, which later merged into today's Lifelong AIDS Alliance. Dr. Wood was also one of the founders of the Madison Clinic, now the largest clinic for people with HIV in the Northwest.
During his career Dr. Wood directed federally funded HIV prevention research projects, authored dozens of scholarly articles related to HIV and prevention, and contributed to numerous policy and advisory bodies at the local, state, national, and international levels. From assessment to planning to service delivery, Dr. Wood has been and remains a vigorous advocate for community involvement. He had, and continues to have, a passion for his work, including serving sexual minorities and other disenfranchised populations.
In 2011 the first annual Dr. Robert Wood Award was presented to Tony Radovich, a long-time community activist. The 2012 Award was presented to Dr. Connie Celum, for her many contributions to HIV prevention research. Aleksa Manila is the third annual recipient.
JOIN THE CELEBRATION
Here is the official announcement:
'For many years, Aleks (Martin) has been a highly visible leader of HIV prevention efforts in our community. In his work with Project NEON, Aleks has been an ally to people who are facing difficult challenges. In his work life, he is widely known for his kindness, support, and professionalism. Aleks has been a caring mentor to many students who are working toward chemical dependency counseling certification. His professional example teaches students not only about addiction treatment but, just as importantly, about cultural competency and kindness. Many of his community contributions are accomplished via the highly visible drag queen, Aleksa Manila, who continues the drag traditions of political activism, civil rights advocacy, and HIV/AIDS service.
For these reasons, and many more, please join us for a special reception in Aleks' honor: Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 3 to 4:30 p.m., HIV/STD Resource Room, 11th Floor, Chinook Building, 401 Fifth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104.
Please contact Diane Ferrero at email@example.com or (206) 263-2000, if you have questions about the reception. Some free parking is available on Yesler Way between 8th and 6th; the U-Park Lot on 6th and Yesler is $5 for two hours.
Aleks Martin, BAS CDP Program Coordinator, Project NEON Addiction Services Program Supervisor, Seattle Counseling Service, is drag icon Aleksa Manila, Founder, Casa de Manila; Founder/Director, Pride ASIA; Miss Gay Filipino 2001; Miss Gay Seattle 2004; Olympia XXXV, Empress of Seattle. For more information visit www.seattlecounseling.org and www.aleksamanila.com.
HELP FOR THE PHILIPPINES
On Saturday, November 30, Aleksa Manila will host 'COAST 2 COAST,' a variety fundraiser show benefitting typhoon and earthquake relief efforts in the Philippines. Proceeds go directly to the Red Cross. Miss U.T.O.P.I.A. 2013 Atasha Manila will co-host the event with Aleksa. $10-$20 suggested donation at the door, 6 p.m. door, 7 p.m. show, at Neighbours Seattle (1509 Broadway). The show will feature La Saveona Hunt, Versatina Vogue, Tanya Rachinee, Kalika Manila, Miss Eve, Jessica Paradisco, Celys St. James Black, Amora Dior Black, James Majesty St. James, Angel Snow Bunny, Chase Silva, Kitty Kitty Bang Bang, Diamond St. James, Anastasia Beaverhausen, Vivienne Lecher, Shanghai Pearl, Nickolai Pirak, Kitty Baby Burlesque, Lady Sahara, Ladie Chablis, and more. COAST2COAST is sponsored by Atasha Manila, www.aleksamanila.com; United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance, www.prideasia.org; Social Outreach Seattle, www.socialoutreachseattle.com; Leo Foundation, www.neighboursnightclub.com; and Seattle Gay News. The Facebook event page is https://www.facebook.com/events/607755235950912/.
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