ASHwell Gets a Sexual Health Home Base
Kink-positive org destigmatizes sexual health at new clinic
By James Scott,
9:00AM, Wed. Sep. 21, 2022
Austin Sexual Health and Wellness, aka ASHwell, began life in 1988 as the Wright House, which provided radical end-of-life care like massage therapy and support groups to gay men dying of AIDS/HIV.
As years passed, an HIV diagnosis no longer represented a death sentence, and the org needed a new approach. So in 2018, located in a tiny strip mall, the Wright House became ASHwell. Marketing and Media Manager Jeremy Stilb says the journey to finally crack the doors for guests started in March 2020, when only days after ASHwell signed the lease on the 3100 Red River space the entire city shut down due to COVID-19. And now, ASHwell takes another step forward: opening their first in-person clinic on Thursday, Sept. 22.
Despite the protracted experience of remodeling over the past two years, Stilb is excited to reveal the amount of work that’s gone into making ASHwell’s new clinic an inviting space. “It sometimes can still be stressful going into a sexual health clinic,” he explains, “so we wanted it to be welcoming and reflect our sort of unorthodox and out-of-the-box approach that we've taken to how we approach sexual health care.”
That unorthodox approach was the result of the 2018 revamp, when Stilb says many people from other local sexual health and queer organizations came to ASHwell ready to take on the creative challenge of talking plainly about their work in HIV treatment and with marginalized populations. Stilb’s own contribution has primarily involved queer Austin creators, such as electronica artist p1nkstar or local artist Faggoty Anne, and integrating them into ASHwell’s messaging. To him, hearing from well-known members of the community about going on PrEP works better than straight-forward marketing. “I'm just really proud that we've been able to involve the kind of queer, artistic and nightlife communities to help us extend our message,” he says, “and then we've been able to do it in a really raunchy, irreverent way.” Involvement from Austin’s queer community will also feature in Thursday’s grand opening, with local drag artists like Ruby Knight and Gothess Jasmine leading tours of the clinic’s many rooms and amenties.
Much of what will set ASHwell’s Red River clinic apart from any other medical space is the embrace of their specific clientele. As ASHwell’s Deputy Director of Strategic Partnerships Marcus Sanchez puts it, the organization works primarily with queer, Latinx, and BIPOC patients, many of whom currently or previously were in stigmatized situations such as sex work or drug usage. The clinic has been designed to promote acceptance as well as education, with a pharmacy on-site providing 30-day STI medication, in-clinic navigators from Foundation Communities to help uninsured patients get through the maze of health insurance, and sharps containers – for disposing of syringes and needles used in hormone treatments or drug use – available around the clinic for folks to take home. In Sanchez’s opinion, the reason ASHwell is able to successfully serve their specific patient base is because most of ASHwell’s staff come from the same communities as them. “Even our board and leadership are people of color, people in queer communities, people from kink communities that are on staff,” he says. “We just understand the population.”
Another stand-out element of the clinic is its artwork – done by local Austin artists David Tarafa and Brantley Robertson. Stilb says his main inspiration for having murals on the clinic walls was the art done by Keith Haring in the Chelsea neighborhood LGBT Center in New York City, but a source closer to home also struck him. “[During COVID] I was going on a lot of walks, and I remember I went in the neighborhood that's south of Cesar Chavez,” he recalls. “I saw a community garden and … I [was] touched about the idea of a community garden as a metaphor for the type of work ASHwell does. There's people that organize the plot of land, but then it thrives because so many people contribute to it.” Growing from the garden idea, all the murals in the waiting area display psychedelic flowers and blossoms done by Tarafa. Inside the actual medical space are more geometric designs done by Robertson, with one exception. One exam room is decorated in a mural made entirely with Stilb’s fingerprints, something he says represents his feelings in the post-COVID world. “I think everyone was just really hoping to be touched again, missing that physical interaction,” he says. “You know, being in a sexual health center, that's central to what we do … physical touch between people and really celebrating that and welcoming it when it was okay to do that again.”
When the shibari ropes are cut at Thursday’s grand opening, it will represent the result of much hard work on the part of ASHwell’s staff. As Stilb says, “It's good to finally have a home base.”
ASHwell’s clinic on 3100 Red River has its grand opening on Thu., Sept. 22, starting at 4:00pm with a proclamation reading from Celia Israel. A reception will be held at ASHwell’s admin space, 6pm, with cocktails, food, and a photo retrospective. Find out more about ASHwell at ashwellatx.org.