From The Bottom Up
It's been more than three decades since HIV/AIDS first hit the scene, cutting short the lives of more than 25 million people globally. For many in the LGBT community, that seems like no time at all. They still cope daily with the psychological scars left from losing their friends and lovers. For others, particularly the 20-to-35-year-old set, three decades is a bit too long. They missed the lessons from the disease’s devastation and, thanks to medical advances, think of HIV as chronic but manageable rather than as a death sentence.
Despite some of our best efforts, we haven’t quite licked this formidable foe. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are 50,000 new infections in the United States annually, the majority of which are men who have sex with men. Most of us are familiar with the large AIDS service organizations, but in honor of World AIDS Day, we thought we’d spotlight the important work some of the little guys are doing out in the community.
LET’S KICK ASS, San Francisco
What it is—A social networking group for San Francisco’s long-term HIV/AIDS survivors (typically aged 50 and over).
Its beginnings—Let’s Kick ASS (AIDS survivor syndrome) started earlier this year as a blog written by Tez Anderson, who, despite having successfully fought HIV for 30 years, began feeling depressed, anxious and detached from life. “As an AIDS survivor, I had dealt with death and illness and had prepared to die, but I wasn’t prepared to live,” he says. Turns out he wasn’t alone.
Its mission—To build a community for long-term survivors. Anderson says that it’s healing for people to come together and share their stories. “We are living in a future we never could’ve imagined,” he says. “I’m trying to help people imagine it.”
Its success story—With the power of Facebook, Anderson rounded up nearly 200 long-term survivors in San Francisco for the group’s first town hall meeting. He’s now getting requests from cities across the globe.
Its rallying cry—“I think it besmirches the memory of those people who did not make it for us to give in to our depression, isolation or weakness instead of embracing our strength, resilience and heroism,” Anderson says.
Its long-term goals—It’s not only about harnessing the healing power of camaraderie—and just overall kicking ass. The group plans to psychologically profile long-term survivors. “We want to find out why some of them are more resilient and learn what it would take to make others more resilient,” Anderson adds—an important task given that many more could face AIDS survivor syndrome. The CDC estimates that by 2015, half of Americans living with HIV will be 50-plus.
Find out more—letskickass.org
IMPULSE GROUP, Los Angeles
Fort Lauderdale, Mexico City
What it is—With funding from HIV/AIDS behemoth AIDS Healthcare Foundation, it’s tough to call Impulse Group a grassroots organization, but it does function fairly autonomously, says founder and president Jose Ramos.
Its beginnings—Ramos saw the need for Impulse Group more than three years ago, when his best friend was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. “He was engaging in risky behavior, believing this would not happen to him,” Ramos says. “It was very eye-opening.”
Its mission—Impulse Group regularly hosts events, both educational and social. “We love to make our events a production where people will come because they want to go to the event,” says Ramos. “Our mission is that hopefully they will also gain something.” Impulse Group has also hosted discussions on pre-exposure prophylaxis as well as the dynamics of relationships between serodiscordant partners.
Its biggest obstacles—Despite regularly deploying 300 to 350 advocates into clubs and social settings to discuss prevention, Ramos says there is still stigma and ignorance in the community. “There’s a feeling that this will never happen to me,” he says of their target demographic—20- to 35-year-olds.
Facing the critics—Impulse has been criticized for its risqué ads and for partnering with Grindr. “Why not partner with Grindr or certain events and clubs to get to the core of where a lot of these decisions—or lack of decisions—are actually happening?” Ramos counters.
Its success story—“When I first started the whole thing, I thought, ‘Will people really care?’” Ramos says. His doubts were quashed after their first event had more than 400 people show up. Impulse is currently expanding its influence into Atlanta, Dallas and even India.
Find out more—impulsegrp.org
THE GAY AND LESBIAN COMMUNITY CENTER OF SOUTHERN NEVADA’S LGBTQ+ CAMPAIGN, Las Vegas
What it is—LGBTQ+ is an incentive program encouraging Las Vegas’ LGBT population to get tested.
Its beginnings—The program began this year at Las Vegas Pride. Since then, the Center has partnered with seven other organizations, each of which is blanketing Las Vegas LGBTQ hot spots with LGBTQ+ cards. The cardholder gets tested and then receives goodies—current rewards include movie tickets and free Jamba Juice smoothies. The Center plans to keep the incentives fresh as it reaches out to other businesses willing to donate products and services.
Its target group—18-to-40-year-olds. “Unfortunately, in that age range, they didn’t see the devastation of AIDS in the late ’80s and early ’90s, so their perception of the disease is a lot different than those who might have lived through that time,” says Candice Nichols, the Center’s co-director of programs and partnerships.
Its biggest obstacle—“I think stigma is the biggest barrier we have,” says Robert L. Elkins, the Center’s CEO. “People are ashamed or haven’t told their family and friends they’re gay, so just the act of getting tested carries with it a certain stigma. Trying to eradicate that stigma is probably the most important battle we have.”
Its success story—As of press time, nearly 280 cards had been redeemed. “It just goes to show that maybe a little incentive is the kick in the pants that people need to say, ‘Hey maybe I should go get that test,’” Nichols says.
What’s next—The Center is partnering with the Ultimate Fighting Championship to reach a demographic they had seen as largely out of reach. The campaign “Protect Yourself At All Times” gives the Center a chance to expand its incentive-card efforts at fight-hosting cities across North America.
Find out more—thecenterlv.org
SAGE, New York
What it is—A New York City-based center that provides services and programs to the city’s aging LGBT population. SAGE has a nationwide network, with affiliates in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
Its target group—LGBT elders (typically 60 and older, though you can be 50 and older for HIV support groups). Concerning HIV/AIDS, “Many of our population, believe it or not, are not as savvy as they should be,” says Bill Mendez, a social worker and case manager for SAGE.
Raw numbers—SAGE has 1,400 registered constituents, who have the opportunity to come for presentations and support groups or link up to other necessary services like medical care and housing.
Its biggest obstacle—People tend to think that those over 50 or 60—or 40, according to Miley Cyrus—don’t have sex or engage in risky behavior, so there aren’t as many resources available. But it’s not just sex these folks are after, Mendez says. Many have lost long-term partners and are just looking for companionship.
Long-term HIV/AIDS survival—Thanks to medical advances, HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it once was, but Mendez cautions the community against letting its guard down. “The survivors are still here,” he says, “but as they tell me in group, they have no quality of life. They say, ‘My quality of life is going to the doctor, keeping my medical appointments and taking my medications.’”
Biggest surprise in working with long-term HIV/AIDS survivors—“I admire them because of their resilience and courage and the fact that each day they get up and do their thing,” Mendez adds.
Find out more—sageusa.org
STREET WORKS, Nashville
What it is—A 24-person HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention program, open outside regular business hours when people typically engage in high-risk behavior. “We have a saying: We doze, but we never close,” says executive director Ron Crowder.
Its beginnings—The program started with Crowder—an HIV-positive former IV drug user—on Nashville’s streets, distributing condoms, educating prostitutes about the risks of unprotected sex and conducting needle-exchange programs for drug users.
Its mission—To deliver services to the folks Crowder calls “the invisible people”—drug addicts, sex workers and the homeless. “They are the population no one wants to work with,” Crowder explains. He also started a new program, Project UNO, to help young, gay black men with prevention.
Its success story—Crowder tells the story of a crack-addicted young woman. Her mother would call and tell him, “I haven’t heard from my baby in months. Go find her. Just tell me she’s living.” Crowder would venture into crack houses, find the daughter and call the mother. That young lady has now been sober for years. She’s got a job and owns her own home—all because Crowder never gave up on her. “When people think that somebody else cares about them, they start caring about themselves,” Crowder says. The ultimate goal is to get them into housing and drug treatment programs.
Its long-term goals—Crowder says he’d like to have one building for all 24 of his workers rather than have them spread out across four satellite sites. Other than that, he just wants to keep helping Nashville’s disenfranchised.
Find out more—street-works.org