By Greg Hernandez
Without intervention, one in two black gay and bisexual men will acquire HIV in their lifetime, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kevin, a Los Angeles-based musician in his 50s, never thought he’d be one of them. Now, six years after finding out he is HIV-positive, he desperately wants others to avoid infection. That’s why he is spreading the word about National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
The February 7 awareness day was founded in 1999 as a national response to the growing HIV and AIDS epidemic in African American communities. This year’s theme is “Stay the Course, the Fight is Not Over!”
“Do all you can do to stay safe,” warns Kevin, who regularly attends meetings of the the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Positive Images support group. “Even though HIV is not necessarily a death sentence, it can be if not handled correctly. Stop putting your life at risk. Stay safe and stay strong.”
Positive Images is a free drop-in group is for HIV-positive gay and bisexual men ranging from the newly diagnosed to long-term survivors.
“It was an eye opener,” says Kevin who attended his first meeting three days after being diagnosed. “I was concerned my appearance would change, that I’d lose too much weight and look like I was dying. I had these pre-conceived notions. I was afraid of people with HIV, I didn’t want to be around them or touch them.”
Such pre-conceived notions and a lack of awareness about such HIV prevention medications as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prohylaxis) are among the reasons why the Center is focused on promoting healthcare engagement and reducing HIV and STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) risk among young gay and bi men of color.
Armed with a $750,000 annual grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, the Center has partnered with Bienstar, Children’s Hospital, and the Wall Las Memorias in its efforts.
“We want to make sure that people of color know that the Center is a place for them and this is a place where they can feel at home,” says Victoria Alexander, a Center health education specialist. “For someone who is HIV positive, the sooner they get their medication, the sooner they can become undetectable so they will not spread HIV.”
A New Frontier: Sex Party Promoters
Among the new initiatives is working with sex party promoters and the escorting community in Los Angeles to increase knowledge and conversations about preventing the spread of HIV.
“It’s important to look within the demographic and seek people out,” says Darnell Green, the Center’s manager of health education and prevention services. “We want to engage the promoters in harm reduction and health education – make sure they know about PEP and PrEP, addiction recovery, HIV testing. We want them to be able to educate other people in their environment and provide them with literature, cards, condoms.”
Green says there is a lot of stigma and taboos that might prevent the kinds of conversations about safe sex that might occur in West Hollywood from happening in, for example, Inglewood.
“It’s unfortunate many people are oblivious to options like PrEP and PEP and aren’t talking about them with friends,” he says. “We know unprotected sex is happening but no one wants to admit they are having it.”
Educating Youth About HIV
As part of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Center’s Community Health Program is focusing on awareness among the Center’s youth members. It will include information on the Center’s sexual health programs including Rapid Start PrEP, which allows HIV-negative individuals to walk-in and walk-out with same-day PrEP.
“It’s important to understand that for the homeless youth, HIV is not number one on their list. Shelter, food, and survival are the most important things for them,” says Brian Toynes, associate director of the Center’s Community Health Programs. “Bringing awareness of HIV is very important to keeping and maintaining their health and improving their health and health outcomes.”
The Center offers free, fast, and comprehensive testing for HIV and other STIs.
A rapid HIV test has results in less than a minute and there is a test available to detect HIV as early as seven days after exposure.
Should you test positive for HIV or any other STIs, immediate care and treatment is available at the Center, which encourages sexually active people to get tested every three months. Visit freetesting.org for more information about testing and PrEP services.