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Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Transgender artist advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness through art

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) alum Mars Tran uses the power of his artwork to promote sexual health awareness and social justice for the LGBTQ community.
Collage Courtesy of Mars Tran
FAU alum Mars Tran and some of his art pieces.

Editor’s Note: The updated this story on Nov. 10, Nov. 13, Nov. 15 and Nov. 17 to clarify what PrEP is, to be more precise in explaining how people transmit HIV and who can transmit the virus. Staff have also better contextualized a study detailing the stigma of HIV and its stigma where LGBTQ people are concerned in particular.

Mars Tran, a male transgender artist who graduated from FAU with a Studio Arts degree in 2021, creates art centered around uplifting the LGBTQ community to show love and the beauty of trans people. Since testing positive for HIV in 2022, Tran has also been advocating for others struggling with the disease through his art. 

His mission is to educate the public about the misconception of HIV/AIDS. HIV transmits through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood and semen from a person with a detectable viral load. Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding can also spread HIV, the World Health Organization reported.

This virus damages the body’s ability to fight infection that can cause AIDS, a chronic immunodeficiency disease, if left untreated. There’s no cure for HIV, but medications can treat the condition and slow disease progression, according to ​​the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the 1980s AIDS epidemic, the public health crisis has affected individuals from all walks of life. The potential consequences of bias and discrimination lead to job loss, homelessness and lack of healthcare, says an HIV study by the Human Rights Campaign. Tran drives conversations to decrease the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS that society is reluctant to address.

“T4T” acrylic canvas painting.
(Courtesy of Mars Tran)

“Love and protect trans people, respect other people and do research to understand that it is more complex than what society beats us to believe,” said Tran. “People who are living with HIV are not dangerous and this disease disproportionately affects marginalized communities, especially trans people.”

Tran crafts artwork that cannot be categorized into a single style or genre, as Tran incorporates a variety of media, including drawings/paintings, digital art and photography. His work includes animated and graffiti elements that feature skeletons, dogs, self-portraits, collages and abstract prints.

Art was a central part of Tran’s life growing up, influenced by his father, a middle school art teacher and practicing artist. At nine years old, Tran’s family moved from South Florida to San Francisco during the Great Recession, tainted by financial hardship. Tran, surrounded by art, taught himself art techniques using cheap everyday items to create string crochet and duct tape origami. Tran discovered his artistic talent and love for the arts in high school, after learning to draw realistically. 

Tran tags his artwork in public areas with chalk with the captivating statement “God gave me HIV,” which portrays the juxtaposition of his Heavenly Hound character and God, to testify against the historical HIV/AIDS-related stereotypes that “God uses HIV as a curse for gay people” and enlighten the statement that “God gave him the strength to endure HIV and have a voice to speak about health issues.”

“HIV-positive Heavenly Hound” spray-painted art on reflective glass. (Courtesy of Mars Tran)

The movement of artists like Keith Haring and Freddie Mercury, whose deaths were related to AIDS, inspired Tran. Tran’s art performance of HIV/AIDS awareness is in tribute to the people who suffered and died and those silenced by the fear of judgment about their status.

Art can be a therapeutic tool to help people cope with their emotions and express themselves. Tran uses realism art to transform his pain into beauty and intends to engage people to have a positive outlook on struggles. His radical art challenges viewers to question assumptions and think in new ways, leaving the art open for interpretation.

“I never saw myself as a career artist; the basis of my art-making is to be able to cope with my struggles that have to do with existing as a trans and HIV-positive person,” said Tran. 

Nova Pagan, Tran’s partner and a drag performer, is galvanized by his artwork showing trans people that they are worthy of genuine love and empowerment. With motivation from Tran, Pagan’s drag has become more aligned with their identity, rather than a persona that only appears on stage and changing the narrative around drag.

“Mars’ openness about his status has shown people living with HIV are just as capable of falling in love and living a fulfilling life,” said Pagan. “He has given me the space to explore my transness, and that has changed my perspective on my identity and drag.”

“An open love letter to art, transness and the universe.”
(Courtesy of Mars Tran)

Maturing from a child to an adult, Tran felt disconnected from his body/gender and, at the age of sixteen, affirmed his life as a male. Tran recognized Compass Community Center for providing a safe environment for his sexuality acceptance. 

Compass has offered services and resources to LGBTQ  people impacted by HIV/AIDS in South Florida for 35 years, such as free testing, condoms, referrals for PrEP, a medication used to prevent HIV, and Youth/Adult Groups.

The Compass Director of HIV Prevention and Education Dylan Brooks and Tran’s mentor figure connected him to a clinic to start medication following his HIV diagnosis. Brooks is honored to be a part of his journey and praises his art’s transformation over the years.

“Mars’ art inspires conversation while reminding us that the HIV epidemic is not over,” said Brooks. “Their unapologetic authenticity about themselves shines in their art.”

With a job at Compass’ Health Services Department, Tran has the opportunity to reform and share his testimony with others living with HIV. His legacy will continue to positively showcase gay love, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and creating a beautiful life beyond his diagnosis.

Michael Cook is a Staff Writer for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected].


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About the Contributor
Michael Cook
Michael Cook, News Editor
Michael is a junior multimedia journalism major with a minor in public relations. His journalism journey began in 2021 when he served as a writer and won "Journalist of the Year" for his high school yearbook. He currently aspires to become a television news producer.

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