Even after being hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston has continued to thrive with a growing economy, plentiful business opportunities, and a vibrant cultural scene. If anything, the hurricane gave the city’s power players a chance to build an even better municipality through thoughtful planning and collaboration across demographics and cultures.
If elected this November, Ashton P. Woods hopes to bring issues of health care, public safety, and racial justice to the forefront of that planning process—and he’s using his own life as a springboard. His campaign is historic in itself.
Woods is the first out gay Black person to run for Houston City Council, and the first out HIV-positive person of color as well. While other LGBTQ folks of color have had stints as local legislators, they all came out after they were elected. If Woods wins, he will become the first out HIV-positive city council member and only the second poz elected official in the city (following Judge Beau Miller, who was elected last November).
The candidate is running for a Houston City Council At–Large seat that has been held by Jack Christie since 2011. A staunch HIV activist in his own right, Woods has been a fearless advocate for the local LGBTQ community, having been appointed to Houston’s first LGBTQ advisory board in 2016. He is also the cofounder and lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Houston and acts as cochair for the Black Humanist Alliance, a coalition of secular activists under the American Humanist Association.
Woods’s proposed policies are progressive in themselves. In February, he helped to block the city’s planned expansion of the district attorney’s office. Hiring a hundred new prosecutors, Woods argues, would have been counterproductive to bettering the livelihood of Houstonians.
“What if we took that money and partnered with other counties, other entities inside of the state to focus on public safety through infrastructure?” he suggests instead, pointing out that many areas in the city still don’t have sidewalks or well-lit streets. “If I win, I want to do everything I can to make people safer.” He believes that’s more achievable through infrastructure improvements than through criminal prosecutions.
Health care is another critical service Woods is pushing forward. “I’m exploring how to force the city of Houston into creating a health care network,” he explains. “There’s a point in time where we have to stop waiting on the federal government to provide Medicare for all or universal health care, or anything of the sort, when we have so many resources right here in Houston, right here in Texas.”
A New Orleans native, Woods first made the move to Houston in 2005 shortly before Hurricane Katrina. It didn’t take long for him to start working alongside local organizations, and eventually end up working on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s campaign. But lately, Woods is craving a shift in local politics and believes being part of the City Council himself is the answer, in that it will provide a necessary platform to speak on issues important to him.
“Houston is heavily impacted as a Black community,” he says. “The Black community as a whole needs to be addressed, [including] the HIV rate. It’s 2019, and there’s still an epidemic. We need to know why there’s still an epidemic,” he says, adding that HIV treatment and education should be top priorities.
As a candidate, he says, “what I will be talking about is de-stigmatizing HIV and teaching people [they] are affected by this, whether you know it or not. If you can respect me as an activist, then you respect the fact that I have HIV, regardless of how I contracted it. I am still a human being and I exist. And because of this existence you can see that I am surviving and thriving, and that I am not a threat to you, and you are not a threat to me.”
De-stigmatizing HIV, Woods adds, will lead to a greater conversation about health care in general. As he puts it: “Imagine if Ryan White [a federal HIV care program] was available to everybody.”
“I’m on Ryan White right now,” he shares, “because I can’t afford Medicare, or medical care, or insurance. So, if there was no legacy community help, or foundation, or the help of other organizations here in Houston that get funding from Ryan White, and even if somebody needed assistance—you know, these things translate into housing discrimination, these things translate into an issue that affects the larger Houston population.”
Woods’s passion is contagious, which may be why his family has been anticipating his jump into a life of politics.
“Everybody I told were like, ‘It’s about time.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, it’s about time?’” he says of his family. “My focus was more on community at that time, there was a lot of things that happened in Houston, and in this country, that required my attention as an activist that were more important. And now, I feel that I can do both.”