National Gay Men’s HIV Testing Day Events in Tallahassee

I made some new friends for a cause I’ve long supported when I went to Neighborhood Medical Center’s STD Prevention 101 Healthy Happy Hour last week. I was there partially because I wanted to get a picture I could share on the Sept. 21 #ADayWithHIV. I got my picture:

 

And I got so much more…

I got a reminder that there are people in our community of all ages, races, genders and walks of life who face decisions every day about their sexual partners and practices. Especially among young people, some of these decisions are poorly informed (or downright misinformed). It takes candid talk, acceptance and easy access to testing and treatment options to help them make the best decisions for their health.

As I alluded to in this post, helping people be aware of the risks they face, the options from which to choose and the resources available to them takes explicit discussions (i.e., naming body parts correctly, not being shocked by the array of ways people interact with each other sexually and throwing away assumptions). It also, however, requires the intuition and empathy to understand how self-esteem plays in. A 15-year-old young woman, for example, said “I’m not going to get tested; I know my [18-year-old] partner is positive, so I’ll just get reinfected.”

It has been a long time since I was on the front lines of this particular kind of work (and even when I was, it was on the phone as a counselor/supervisor for the Florida AIDS Hotline, so my “front line” was a telephone receiver). I have so much appreciation and respect for what these people do. Additionally, I am grateful for the federal, state and local funding (Leon County Board of Commissioners, United Way of the Big Bend)  that makes it possible. The links I have shared aren’t comprehensive: my point is that it takes funding from a variety of sources and those are, in my opinion, jeopardized by our current political environment. We should advocate for them to be continued.)

National Gay Men’s HIV Testing Day

National Gay Men’s HIV Testing Day is coming up on September 27, and my new friends asked me to share information about the events that will be held throughout the week to observe it. I am happy to do so; here’s what they said:

Our community knows how important it is to maintain an active role in our own health. Starting Friday, September 28, 2018 through Sunday, September 30, 2018 Neighborhood Medical Center will be hosting our 4th Annual Health Extravaganza for National Gay Men’s HIV Testing Day. All events will take place at Hotel Duval (415 N. Monroe St. Tallahassee, FL. 32301) and will be free of charge to the general public. Below is a detailed list of the events that will take place during the 4th Annual Health Extravaganza:

Friday, September 28, 2018 Live Couch Talk
An interactive conversation with a health care team about HIV prevention and treatment options for people living with HIV/AIDS. Come hear the personal life story of one person’s HIV diagnosis and their journey to living a healthy lifestyle.

Gay Men HIV Testing

Saturday, September 29, 2018 PrEP First Drag Show
An informational health event about PrEP {Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis} with a Drag Exposé. This FREE event will provide educational components, speakers, drag shows and lots of fun with a twist.

Gay Men HIV Testing

Sunday, September 30, 2018 Gospel Drag Brunch
An event to close out the Health Extravaganza weekend. We will fellowship through food and song as we commemorate the precious lives lost in the LGBTQ community and individuals affected by HIV/AIDS.Gay Men HIV Testing

No one will leave this event empty handed or uninformed as we will have booths presented by our partner agencies: Big Bend Cares, FAMU Health, FSU CHAW, and Florida Health, amongst others. Please come out to help Neighborhood Medical Center and our partners spread the word to patients, family, friends, and community members about PrEP and HIV/AIDS.

Each of these three events is free. However, the organizers ask that you register through this link, which has a separate registration for each event.

For additional information, feel free to contact:
Mathias Sweet at (850) 688-0914 or msweet@neighborhoodmedicalcenter.org
Joseph Ward (850) 577-1562 or Jward@neighborhoodmedicalcenter.org

Gay Men HIV Testing

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.

One Simple Conversation at a Time: #StopHIVTogether

This post is made possible by support from the Let’s Stop HIV Together campaign. All opinions are my own.

In the late 1980s, I explained how to use a condom to hundreds of men I didn’t know who had called the Florida AIDS Hotline as they tried to figure out what to do about the new challenge threatening their health. I had been volunteering and acting as an on-call supervisor at a local crisis hotline, and it was awarded the contract for the AIDS Hotline. I was not an ally yet; I was just doing a job.

Over on the west coast, Mark S. King was also volunteering for an AIDS-related project. When he chose to volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) in 1986, he was doing more than “just a job.” Having been diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, he needed to do something, and coordinating the APLA speaker’s bureau was his outlet. He thought he would be dead soon and craved immediate gratification.

As it turns out, Mark did not die in 1986 (thankfully). Although he lived in “three year increments” for quite some time after his initial diagnosis (hear more about that in this video with his friend, Lynne), he has now been living with HIV for 31 years and the virus is undetectable in his blood stream due to treatment (although the antibodies which result in an HIV+ test result will always be there).

HIV Prevention

Lynne and Mark

When I had an opportunity to interview Mark recently, I learned that many facts about living with HIV have changed. Specifically, the definition of “prevention” is much broader than it was back in the late 80s. For me in 1988, it meant telling strangers “don’t have sex” or “use a condom.” Mark says the most powerful preventative among his community at the time was: funerals.

In 2016, Prevention and Living with HIV Are Different

In addition to condoms, there are now more options for prevention:

  • PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) – people at high risk for HIV can now take a medication that lowers their chances of getting infected. Learn more here.
  • PEP (Post-exposure Prophylaxis) – People who have been potentially exposed to HIV can take antiretroviral medicines (ART) after being potentially exposed to prevent becoming infected. Learn more here.

For people who have tested HIV+ but are on treatment, remaining on treatment in order to keep the virus undetectable is an option. Partners who go this route should know that:

  • · Everyone’s “undetectable” status is only as good as their most recent test.
  • · This choice clearly requires a level of trust between partners.

HIV Prevention

Simple Conversations Can Dispel Misinformation

Ironically, having not batted an eyelash throughout Mark’s book, which chronicles his experiences owning a phone sex hotline and frequent cocaine consumption in the 80s, I found myself hesitating to ask what he meant when he said several times, “I am able to have sex safely with my husband because I am on treatment.” Finally, I just admitted I needed to know more about what exactly he meant.

That’s when he clarified that an HIV+ person on successful treatment can’t transmit HIV. This has been the case for five years.

If I hadn’t asked or he hadn’t been willing to share, I would not have known. The solution to clearing up my confusion was a simple conversation.

“At Risk” Can Mean Anyone

To be perfectly honest, I am not sure if a single person I know and interact with here in Tallahassee is HIV positive.

Even though I don’t currently have someone in my circle who is HIV+, my circle has gotten a heck of a lot bigger since I have gotten involved in (some say addicted to!) social media.

Is there someone among my 2500 Facebook Friends, 9500 Twitter Followers, 3000 Instagram Followers, or 225 Snapchat Friends for whom I can make a difference?
I can’t be sure, but I know that doing nothing is not an option when:

  • Youth aged 13 to 24 accounted for more than 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses in 2014.
  • Young gay and bisexual males accounted for 8 in 10 HIV diagnoses among youth in 2014.
  • At the end of 2012, 44% of youth ages 18 to 24 years living with HIV did not know they had HIV.
  • My peers are re-entering the dating world as decades-old marriages end and/or discovering that their partners were not monogamous and may have put them at risk.

Will someone identified in one of the above bullet points see something I post and feel less alone, more fortified to proceed with testing, more confident in engaging in a simple conversation?

Even if the people in the populations mentioned above don’t see one of my posts, maybe you will (and I know you’ve read this far, so you are equipped to help!). Stigma is eliminated one chat at a time, and I am asking you to help make a difference.

HIV Prevention

A Year Can Change Everything

I love the fact that this post is going live on June 26. Last year at this time, rainbows proliferated as same sex marriage was legitimized. However, the year has brought with it the flip side of the coin: those who spread hate.

I was so very excited to speak to Mark. We both sort of threw out the pre-written interview questions and just …. talked. The only moment of silence was when our conversation wandered to the tragedy that occurred at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Mark told me how he, at 55, an award-winning activist in a happy marriage having overcome so many hurdles, was shaken to the core, immediately transported back to feeling like an unsafe sissy at risk of daily beatings. I stumbled for words, failing to respond adequately but empathizing at the same time.

What does that have to do with HIV?

It has to do with HIV because it’s hard enough for some people to come to terms with their own sexuality, much less the strategies they have to employ in order to protect themselves and others from HIV infection. Feelings of being unworthy can be the most difficult barriers to self care. As Mark says, the enemy is a virus, not our humanity.

What Can One Person Do?

If you still don’t understand HIV, ask.

You can get the facts.

If you are ready to help, click here for tons of resources.

You can get tested or help someone who needs to get tested figure out how.

You can get involved and share a story.

You can get materials to share.

And to learn more about Mark, visit his site, follow him on Twitter at @myfabdisease, like his Facebook page by clicking here, or buy his book here.

Lastly

My journey to being an ally was, in retrospect, pre-ordained. I am grateful every single day that I was put in that little room talking to all those strangers about condom usage. I heard their fears. I went myself for an HIV test (never mind the fact that the behaviors I thought put me at risk were, um, hardly risky). For the long version of my ally story, Not About Me, click here.

Yes, Mark is HIV+ but the part that came through to me was our commonalities. We laughed about the fact that we both have “old fashioned” AOL accounts. We shared some fun word play as we exchanged messages. We talked about how each of us goes about life trying to live with joy and humor.

I don’t know about you, but I’m all for more joy and humor, and a lot less stigma.

HIV Prevention

Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many.