Running for Congress, advocate Jirair Ratevosian wants to take his fight to the Hill
photography by Sean Black

Jirair Ratevosian points out that every job he’s had has been related to HIV.

“Fighting HIV is more than just fighting the virus,” he says. “I was drawn to it because of stigma, discrimination, equity. I learned how people's lives depended on society’s acceptance of a person, of their dignity, in order to ensure that person’s access to healthcare. Ultimately, HIV is a human rights issue.”

It’s why Ratevosian, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, is running as a Democratic candidate for California’s 30th congressional district in the state’s March 5 primary election. 

His background combines HIV advocacy, policy and politics at national and global levels. It started with a 2004 trip to South Africa, where he saw firsthand the impact of HIV. 

“That was my first time out of the country,” he says. “I saw the social, political, religious dynamics of HIV, which immediately fascinated me.”

The experience influenced him to pursue a master’s in public health. In 2007, he completed his MPH at Boston University and soon after worked with the Boston Public Health Commission, focusing on HIV funding. Later, he became deputy director of public policy at amfAR, working on its syringe access programs. 

In 2011, he became a legislative director in the office of U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, of California. By 2013, he was working on federal budget appropriations and the re-authorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. He left the following year to become governmental affairs direct at Gilead Science, leading corporate social responsibility and partnership relations. 

Returning to public service, he served during Joe Biden’s presidential transition as a policy advisor on national security, COVID-19 and global health. In 2022, he became acting chief of staff to the Global AIDS Coordinator, which included working on PEPFAR. He left PEPFAR in March 2023 to run for Congress.

 “Through my work, I have been sensitized to the the issues around inclusivity and openness and equality and freedom and fairness and individuality and acceptance,” he says.

Jirair Ratevosian seated in folding chair, smiling

Acceptance has also included self-acceptance. “My HIV work strengthened me to to learn more about myself learn, to be more comfortable in my own skin, and ultimately have the courage to come out to myself and face what I knew would be dramatic news to my family.”

A turning point for Ratevosian was taking part in the AIDS Life Cycle, the annual 545-mile, seven-day cycling event from San Francisco to Los Angeles that raises money for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the LGBTQ Center of Los Angeles.

“You spend a week with some of the kindest people on the planet,” he says. “To be able to witness firsthand people's love and affection living as their full selves, I wanted that for myself.”

After participating in the Life Cycle a second time, he came out to his closest friends. It took a couple furtive attempts, but he eventually came out to his parents.

“I grew up in a very conservative culture, so I didn't have parents that I could talk to about how I was feeling or say what I was thinking. You end up suppressing a lot of things,” he says. “And now, these issues are very much front and center of why I'm running for Congress. Here in Glendale, at the Glendale Unified School District, and in school board meetings across the country, you have rising homophobia and right-wing extremist organizations that are fueling parents to act on their worst fears.” 

He continued. “I think HIV has fallen prey to a broken political system in Congress. AIDS was one of those issues that in the past would bring Republicans, Democrats and independents together. We’re at a point now where that is becoming no longer true. I think it’s also a make-or-break moment for HIV advocacy and the HIV movement.”

Ratevosian is concerned that HIV is no longer considered such an urgent issue. “Most people are not waking up worried about how people are going to get access to their HIV medication. The world is on fire. We have wars happening in Ukraine and in the Middle East. Our democracy is being attacked, our rights as as LGBTQ+ individuals are being threatened daily. Women's reproductive freedom is being attacked. So, HIV keeps getting pushed down that list of concerns. But HIV is far from over. The progress that we've made in this country has been tremendous, but it's nowhere near where it needs to be to finish the job.”

He points to his experience at PEPFAR. Started under president George W. Bush, PEPFAR is the largest source of funding in the international HIV effort.

“The last few years, I served as chief of staff to the PEPFAR program,” he says. “I had the responsibility of representing the United States government to many African countries on behalf of the PEPFAR program. I saw firsthand how PEPFAR makes a difference. I think there’s a lack of awareness by some members of Congress of PEPFAR’s impact. PEPFAR has put over 20 million people on treatment around the world. PEPFAR has saved 25 million lives.”

Ratevosian is concerned that Congress’ mixed signals will send the wrong message to other countries. “We don't have anything to put on the table in terms of a long-term commitment,” he says, “so how can we expect other countries to be able to take the need to fund PEPFAR seriously?”

Other federal HIV programs are also threatened. Republicans want to axe the $1 billion HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS) program. It is the only federal effort dedicated to people living with HIV who are experiencing or vulnerable to homelessness.

“HOPWA saved my husband’s life when he was an asylum seeker,” Ratevosian says. “He landed from Nigeria in the U.S. He acquired HIV as a result of living unhoused. When he escaped his family after coming out, he lived on the streets in New York. Some great HIV activists, Charles King and Eric Sawyer, helped connect him to housing programs, like HOPWA. It saved his life. He was able to come off the streets, got integrated into society and found a job. He ultimately came to work for AVAC [formerly AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, an international nonprofit that advocates for HIV prevention research], and he's so now giving back. When I see people playing politics with the kinds of programs that have been proven to be integral, it is really dangerous and it hurts close to home.”

People recognize the fundamental importance of housing, he says. “When I engage voters, that's the only thing they ask about is housing, housing, housing,” he says. “Making housing more affordable, and how do we help people get off the streets and put them into sustainable housing programs. HOPWA for people living with HIV is a proven effective pathway.”

He continued. “My lived experience as an out gay man, as a firstborn son of a large immigrant Armenian family, as someone who has fought his entire life for marginalized populations, fighting for equity—that is the kind of person I think we need in Congress to address the challenges we face in Los Angeles and more broadly as a nation.”

Just as there are opponents in Congress who fail to grasp the need for HIV funding, Ratevosian sees a changing of the guard among the iconic, but retiring congressional supporters.

“We've had members of Congress, starting with Nancy Pelosi who said she came to Congress to fight HIV/AIDS, to members of the Congressional Black Caucus such as Sheila Jackson, Lee Maxine Waters and my former boss, congresswoman Barbara Lee,” he says. “But Barbara Lee is currently running for Senate; that means she's not seeking re-election for her House seat. We won't have a Barbara Lee in the House of Representatives anymore.

“There is a need to to increase the level of consciousness of HIV in the Congress,” he adds. “Younger, future members of Congress are going to have to address a lot of other issues—climate change, foreign policy challenges—but who’s going to be our HIV champion? I’m fighting to be that person. The battles ahead are battles of equity. We need to ensure that more people have access to PrEP and more people have access to treatment. I helped start the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus when I was with Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I want to go and chair the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus and continue bipartisan leadership so that HIV doesn’t fade into the background, but remains top of mind.”