Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Joyful Note About GMHC's Annual Holiday Dinner

On Friday, December 16, GMHC hosted the annual holiday dinner and gift give-a-way to about 500 clients.  It was a festive and beautiful evening.  Our Chef, Wilson Rodriguez, received the following e-mail from a client who attended the dinner:

"Dear Wilson,

"I left your dining room last Friday on cloud 9.  I have difficulty believing anybody cares for me but the amount of caring I received from all your wonderful regular crew and the volunteers for the evening was incredible.  Together, you all gave us another wonderful dinner, like the one for Thanksgiving. (I had planned on writing to you then to say THANKS, but I'm doing it now!)

"It's as if you thought of everything for our comfort.  I notice the little things in life,  like the decorative napkins already on the tables.To the egg nog, who would have thought that would be available to us. It's my favorite beverage! 

"Serving the hors d'oeuvres on the line makes good sense and gets the whole thing started.  I had the hen, perfectly glazed & so tasty. That evening I didn't even mind the carrots, among the vegetable medley.

"Your kitchen is as famous now as it was at 24th Street for the amazing soups you create each day.  Hiding the spinach in the pumpkin soup went down a treat, as I'm not really a fan of spinach either.

"With all those vegetables out of the way...dessert for me is always the best part of the meal.  And you did not disappoint! In fact I want to say that it is very noticeable that since the move to 33 Street, the desserts have become more experimental, elaborate, tasty and attractive to the eye.  Well done!

"The meals are very important to me and I do really appreciate them and all the effort you put into the different daily menu. I also though want to point out that an equally large part of the whole experience of eating at GMHC is the welcoming and friendly attitude of all the staff & volunteers.  They are not just "doing things" for me,  you can actually feel that they want to be there, doing for us all.

"The coat check also  adds comfort to the experience.  And I was impressed by the one way flow of the arriving and leaving system. I learned about it when I went to get the gift bag without my jacket.  I was told I could only get a bag when leaving...through the back stairs. All very orderly.

"It was all a jolly good show!

"Wishing you and yours a blessed holiday season and good health in the New Year.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The SOMWA Foundation Hosts Annual Holiday Party for Families Affected by HIV/AIDS

On Monday, December 19, Shacazia Brown, Founder of the SOMWA (Survivors of Mothers with AIDS) Foundation hosted GMHC's Women’s Care, Prevention and Support Services (WCPSS) family holiday party for a third year.  Shacazia founded SOMWA (pronounced "someway") a few years ago in honor of her mother who died of AIDS 15 years ago. She approached GMHC in 2009 about wanting to host the holiday party for families affected by HIV/AIDS.  Her arrival at GMHC came at miraculously pivotal time when funding for some of the women's programming had been cut.  At the first party, Shacazia was able secure a venue, food, thousands of dollars worth of toys and electronics, guest DJs and much more.  She even got a weekend trip sponsored for an HIV-positive mother and her daughter to Florida. The experience was truly mesmorizing.

Three years later, Shacazia's inspiring work remains consistent.  At this holiday party, there were over 110 children and 80 parents.   There were over 60-70 volunteers who helped during the party and distributed gifts. Below are some of the highlights:
  • A couple came to the agency a couple of weeks ago for the first time. One of their needs was a new wheel chair for their six-year-old son.  This was provided for the little boy along with a Wii game.
  • One young girl’s birthday was also on the same day as the party.  A new bike and other toys were provided for her.
  • Hundreds of toys and electronics, worth tens of thousands of dollars, were provided for the children of all ages.  Teenagers were given gift cards valued at $25 to 50 dollars and MP3 players.
  • Cash and toys were given out during the dance contests.
  • Project Sunshine donated an electronic keyboard with stand which was raffled off to teenagers.  Also raffled were DVD players, a CD / AM and FM music system,  IPod clock radios, and 3-in-1 headphones.
  • Delicious dinner, dessert and snacks were donated by “Taste of Seafood” restaurant.
  • Shereé Whitfield, of Bravo TV’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” visited with the families.
  • Yandy, cast member of VH1 “Love & Hip Hop” also visited.       SpongeBob SquarePants even stopped by. 
  • DJ Lady Wells and DJ Pauze provided great dance music.
  • A quilt was made by the mothers in WCPSS that was given to Shacazia along with a beautiful poem about her being an angel in our lives.
AND….On Mother’s Day in May 2012, 70-80 mothers will again be treated to a day cruise on the Circle Line.

Our collective thanks to Shacazia (NY1’s recent “New Yorker of the Week”), her volunteers, the donors of the toys, electronics and food, the celebrities and DJs, WCPSS staff, Senior Managers and Directors, our Facilities Department and the cleaning crew, and everyone who helped and was supportive.  This party was truly a miracle on West 33rd Street.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Transpeople: Don't Just Dance, Start a Movement!

By Jayne Henson

Why would anyone want to be transgender? As my granddad would say, "there's no future in it." This statement has been supported in the past by media portrayals of transgender people as sexual deviants, tragic jokes, or lives that ends in violence and definitely not success. With these kinds of images being all that one sees, it is easy to understand why many trans people seek to transition, pass, and "go stealth" as quickly as possible.

I myself remember tears in my mother's eyes as I told her that her son was really her daughter, after which she replied with a string of reasons why this "could not be," as well as her fears for my safety. The certainty in my mother's mind that my life as a trans woman was doomed to tragedy was asserted when I told her that I would be moving to New York City to pursue a career in HIV prevention, to which she replied, "I might as well be shipping you off to Afghanistan." Now, part of this statement could be the result of living in rural Kansas for all of her (and my) life, but what I heard echoed in that statement was the societal belief that trans people are not successful or respected.

But is that still true today? I reflected on this as we felt the digital fallout on blogs and message boards across the country, where people responded to ABC's announcement that Chaz Bono would be a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Here we had a very visibly out, transsexual man whose family ties to pop icon Cher caused his transition to be thrust into the spotlight. This media onslaught landed him an Oprah special and documentary (nominated for three Emmy Awards), numerous book deals, several speaking engagements, and a future reality TV show and painted him as the representative and poster boy for trans people everywhere -- not to mention also bringing him a host of horrible, hateful things said about him in such media outlets as Chelsea Lately and FOX News, as well as countless independent blogs and message boards. It seems that the Internet remains the last bastion of anonymous slander and defamation in our society, especially toward the disenfranchised.

I commend Chaz Bono for his courage to transition in the public eye, thus making society at large confront the issues of gender identity and transsexuality and letting the world know that trans people are part of the fabric of America. Though it came as no surprise to me, I was hurt by the lack of sensitivity and hate displayed so excessively by today's media in response to Chaz's coming out. But this is where my lavishing praise upon Chaz Bono ends, and where I ask, why him? Why is he the face that represents me and my kind to the world? What will Chaz Bono spinning and cha-cha-ing on Dancing with the Stars do for trans people in America, aside from providing more media fodder?

To be clear, Chaz Bono does not speak for me. To me he represents an ideology and rhetoric surrounding trans identities that only serves to further stereotypes that make it easier for conservative-minded cis-gendered people (i.e., people whose gender identity matches the gender they were assigned at birth) to grasp the concept of transsexuality. This ideology is the notion of becoming a man or woman through medical intervention (and a very stereotypical and misogynistic man, at that).

There are several reasons why I find this problematic. For one, it is not accurate. When I decided to transition from male to female, I never felt as though I became a different person. In reality, I felt that now everyone else around me could see and acknowledge the person I always had been. Furthermore, the thought that trans people must exist in two different lifecycles (pre- and post-transition), as opposed to having a linear existence that embraces both our past and our future, is what keeps us from feeling pride in our existence as trans women and men.

This notion of "becoming" through transition is prevalent throughout all of Chaz's endorsed media ("Becoming Chaz" and "Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man") and is an underlying theme that saturates its messages. I am tired of dialogue that insists that I must become a certain ideal of what a woman is, and that someone else gets to decide what that is and when my identity is valid. I'm tired of trying to make the world think trans people are "just like everyone else," because we're not; we're different, and that's awesome! What I want is an ideology that allows us to be proud of our trans identities and be excited about being trans, and value what that means in today's world, instead of viewing trans identities as diseases that need to be cured so that we can become valid.

Trans women have been shown in the media time and time again on Jerry Springer, Law and Order, 20/20, Dirty Sexy Money, 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live, and many other shows. However, almost none of these portrayals is a positive image of what it means to be a trans woman. In fact, 2010 marked a monumental year when trans woman Amanda Simpson was appointed to the presidential cabinet, making her the first out trans woman to serve in the White House. Yet there were no Oprah specials for Amanda, and about the only acknowledgement she got was jokes made about her on The Daily Show.

The fact remains that in our society, the voiceless rarely get to choose who represents them, and too often that responsibility is taken over by the media. Yet in a market that is dominated by ratings, poignant, smart, positive dialogue often takes a back seat to sensationalism and mass appeal. To those of you reading who view trans people as some kind of mystified species seen on National Geographic, I want you to know this: we are more than Jerry Springer specials, cheap jokes, mistakes of nature, sexual fetishes, and abominations. We are strong, powerful men and women. We are everywhere. We are in your office, on the subway, in your high school class, behind you in line at the bank. We are firefighters, pilots, computer programmers, musicians, actors, dancers, authors, reality TV stars, doctors, lawyers, farmers, and even HIV counselors. We face a host of dangers and challenges every day for existing in a world that treats us as less than human and would rather that we just fade away. Yet we do it all in pursuit of what many of you take for granted every day -- a sense of sovereignty over our body, gender, and identity -- and we aren't going to disappear anytime soon.

To my transgender brothers and sisters reading this, I want to say: we have to stop thinking that any representation of us in the media is better than none. We need more than a line in a Lady Gaga song and a jitterbugging child of a gay icon. We need to start making our own voices heard. Grab a mic, write a blog, write a poem or novel, make art, make a scene, hold a protest, fight back, take up space, start a movement! Our future depends on it.
Jayne Henson is HIV counselor and outreach worker in the GMHC Center for HIV Prevention.  Her article was originally published in The Huffington Post on December 5, 2011.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Thanksgiving Story

By Felix Lopez

On November 10, a homeless family was referred to GMHC. The family consisted of a mother and six children. Two of the children were pregnant. The family had lived in a one bedroom apartment until October, when the landlord, aware that the father had died of AIDS in September and fearful that the remaining family members couldn’t afford to pay rent, put the family on the street. The family eventually sought shelter in a church basement, which is where they were living when they were referred to us. Deborah Welch, Assistant Director, and her team immediately went to work to help the family enroll in our Sustainable Living Fund program which provides rental assistance to eligible New York City residents who have symptomatic HIV/AIDS. The Sustainable Living Fund works in partnership with community based organizations that provide services to individuals with HIV/AIDS and their families.

Within five days, Deborah and her team had processed the enrollments and secured the money to pay for a new apartment for the family. On November 15, the family left the church basement they had been occupying and moved into a four-bedroom apartment. The family’s ongoing rent will be paid by the Sustainable Living Fund.

There is a sad note to the story. Earlier today we learned that one of the pregnant daughters has lapsed into a coma and lost her baby.

As a member of the GMHC staff, I am very proud that we were able to help this family get into stable housing, especially with winter around the corner. I am also very proud of the work of the SLF team: Deborah, Theodura, Yesenia, and Elizabeth.


Felix Lopez is the Director of Legal Services at GMHC.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I Give to Fight HIV/AIDS

By Seth Rosen

As do so many people, I make the bulk of my charitable giving during November and December of each year. Like for so many, the holidays remind me about both what I have and the lack that so many endure all year round. But lack is a funny thing. Sometimes it is easy to see, but so often lack hides behind a neighbor's smile, or the closed eyes of the person next to you on the bus, or the wave from a colleague at work. Sometimes we even fool ourselves into thinking that lack doesn't exist if we can't see it. For example, there are people who mistakenly believe that the fight against HIV and AIDS in the United States is over, and that AIDS is a manageable disease where lack no longer exists.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are a few sobering statistics about HIV in the United States:
  • 1 in 5 people is infected with HIV and does not know his or her status.
  • Over 1.17 million people aged 13 and over are living with HIV/AIDS.
  • Approximately 50,000 people are infected with HIV each year.
  • By 2015 a full 50 percent of those living with HIV and AIDS will be over 50 years old.

I live on the bleeding edge of a generation that never knew a world without AIDS. Born in 1974, I never had a health education class that didn't talk about safer sex, HIV transmission, and the fact that sex could kill. Coming of age in the Reagan/Bush America, while living in New York City, I have no memory of life before HIV. I don't remember the first reported cases, or a creeping fear, or a growing outrage. I have only known AIDS as a global pandemic -- omnipresent, destroying lives, quite literally, with a silent touch.

But AIDS has also shown me strength beyond comprehension, determination for change that continues unmatched, and a ferocious empathy and love that leaves me in awe. As the new Managing Director of Development at Gay Men's Health Crisis, I am privileged to lead a team that raises funds to feed, educate, heal, protect, nurture, and counsel the over 11,000 people affected by HIV/AIDS who walk through our doors every year. GMHC is not only the world's first and leading provider of HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and advocacy, but it is a refuge for many with no other place to turn as the continuing stigma of HIV leaves them afraid to tell a single person that they are HIV-positive.

With the help of thousands of supporters, GMHC fills the lack caused by HIV. We are the hot meal to the hungry and the job training to the person ready to climb. We are the educator to the person committed to staying safe, and the kind word and helping hand to the newly diagnosed. We are where your neighbor, friend, son, daughter, mother, and father turn when they can't tell you about their lack.

My husband and I have been planning our end-of-year giving, and I will be writing a check to Gay Men's Health Crisis. Every day I am moved by what GMHC does for its clients, and the bravery and courage of these clients is a constant inspiration. I work here, and support GMHC, because the services we provide are transformative, and filling, in every sense of the word. I hope you will consider giving to a charity that addresses the lack that can be hard to see but, trust me, is there all the same.
Seth Rosen is the Managing Director of Development at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC).  His article was initially published on November 23 in The Huffington Post.

Who's Minding the Kids?!

By Janet Weinberg

Recently I mentioned to a few people that we no longer have babies being born with HIV in New York. Yes, this is true. Routine screening for newborns born with HIV began in New York in 1997, and in 2010 there were a total of three babies born with HIV. It is estimated that New York's great advances in this area have saved at least 749 infants from HIV, representing a savings of about $215 million dollars. This is a terrific advance in HIV prevention.

Parents work to protect their children. They hover over them as they take their first steps, provide safe and caring homes, and anxiously await their return home from that infamous first day of school. They then anxiously send their children off to their first dance and then again on their first dates.

There is a major incongruence though.

In 2009 there was an estimated 21-percent increase in HIV incidence for people aged 13 to 29 years. Young men who have sex with men were the only group to experience a significant increase in incidence in this age range. Most affected are young men of color. And yes, I know many jump to the conclusion that this increase is due to promiscuity, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly states, "The reasons for this increase among young, black MSM are not clear." They go onto say that there are several issues that seem to be driving this train, and they include:
  • Lack of awareness of their infection
  • Stigma of HIV and homosexuality, thus limiting access to services
  • Limited access to healthcare, HIV testing, and treatment
  • Increased likelihood of having older sexual partners (who are more likely to be HIV-infected), compared to MSM of other racial/ethnic groups
  • Higher rates of some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among young black men, which can facilitate HIV transmission
  • Underestimating personal risk for HIV

As we worry about how to protect our children, we seem to lose track of the fact that they grow up to be sexually engaged youth. For eight years, we did not offer any options except abstinence-only sex education in the public schools. When the Obama administration went into office, two federal funding streams for abstinence-only education programs were eliminated.

We are finally beginning to make some progress toward the prevention of STDs and HIV. In August, for the first time in nearly 20 years, New York City public middle and high schools will be mandated to incorporate sex education as part of the public school curriculum.

Just recently, the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Immunization Practices stated that boys should be routinely vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV) at age 11 or 12. This would reduce the risk of genital warts and certain cancers, including anal cancer. Gardasil had previously only been approved to help prevent genital warts and certain cancers for girls and women.
On Oct. 31, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that pediatricians offer routine HIV testing for all adolescents, beginning at ages 16 to 18.

As parents, teachers, medical and community service providers, the time is now to increase protection for our children and youth from all of life's trials and tribulations. We must "mind" our kids, teens and even young adults -- their lives and our future depend on it.
Janet Weinberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Gay Men's Health Crisis.  Her article was initially published on November 23 in The Huffington Post.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hugh & Crye's Ties to Fighting AIDS

by Kylie Springman

The members of GMHC’s community know what they’re talking about when it comes to fashion. When a few style-minded staff members suggested we partner with Hugh & Crye, an online men’s apparel company based in Washington, DC, we had a hunch that this collaboration was going to be a great fit.

Hugh & Crye specializes in men’s dress shirts. Their mission is to create readymade shirts that fit better than any others by introducing a new sizing system designed for specific body types. In short, Hugh & Crye makes shirts (and ties) that fit. But Hugh & Crye doesn’t just care about eradicating ill-fitting shirts. The company is committed to having a positive social impact, too. That’s where GMHC comes in.
We called up Pranav Vora, the company’s founder and CEO, and he was keen on working with GMHC. He hand-selected three fun, versatile ties that represent GMHC’s colors and aesthetic. From now until December 31st, when you use the coupon code GMHC10, you get 10% off your purchase of a Northwest, Moonshine, or Pull Up tie. Plus, 10% of the proceeds from your purchase will be donated to GMHC. This holiday season, you can give a gift that supports the fight against HIV/AIDS in style.
Just don’t forget your coupon code, GMHC10!  

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

GMHC Lauds CDC Recommendations for Routine HPV Vaccination for Boys

Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) strongly supports the Advisory Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Immunization Practices’ recommendation that boys should be routinely vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).  The recommendations state that boys should be routinely vaccinated at age 11 or 12 in order to reduce the risk of genital warts and certain cancers, including anal cancer. Gardasil had previously only been approved to help prevent genital warts and certain cancers for girls and women.

Compared to the general population, gay and bisexual men are nearly 20 times more likely to get anal cancer, and men who have sex with men (MSM) who are HIV-positive are up to 40 times more likely than the general population to develop anal cancer. In light of the disproportionate risk faced by MSM, and especially HIV-positive MSM, routine HPV vaccination is a tremendously important prevention initiative that will help protect men at high-risk of HPV infections and anal cancer. Routine HPV vaccination for boys will likely lead to a reduced incidence of anal cancer over time.

“The Advisory Committee’s recommendation for routine HPV vaccination for boys will go a long way toward protecting men from certain cancers, especially gay and bisexual men and HIV-positive men” said Nathan Schaefer, Director of Public Policy at GMHC. “In recent years, GMHC has strongly advocated for the approved-use of Gardasil for boys and men to prevent anal cancer, with particular attention to HIV-positive men who have sex with men who are disproportionately affected by anal cancer.”

In December 2010, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approved Gardasil for boys and men ages 9 to 26 to help prevent against genital warts and anal cancer. The CDC’s Advisory Committee new recommendation for routine vaccination is the next step in protecting men from HPV and its associated health risks.  GMHC provided written testimony in advance of the advisory committee’s meeting, urging them to approve the vaccine for boys and men.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Rape of Men

via The Guardian by Will Storr

Sexual violence is one of the most horrific weapons of war, an instrument of terror used against women. Yet huge numbers of men are also victims. In this harrowing report, Will Storr travels to Uganda to meet traumatised survivors, and reveals how male rape is endemic in many of the world's conflicts. 

Dying of shame: a Congolese rape victim, currently resident in Uganda. This man’s wife has left him, as she was unable to accept what happened. He attempted suicide at the end of last year. Photograph: Will Storr for the Observer

Of all the secrets of war, there is one that is so well kept that it exists mostly as a rumour. It is usually denied by the perpetrator and his victim. Governments, aid agencies and human rights defenders at the UN barely acknowledge its possibility. Yet every now and then someone gathers the courage to tell of it. This is just what happened on an ordinary afternoon in the office of a kind and careful counsellor in Kampala, Uganda. For four years Eunice Owiny had been employed by Makerere University's Refugee Law Project (RLP) to help displaced people from all over Africa work through their traumas. This particular case, though, was a puzzle. A female client was having marital difficulties. "My husband can't have sex," she complained. "He feels very bad about this. I'm sure there's something he's keeping from me."

Owiny invited the husband in. For a while they got nowhere. Then Owiny asked the wife to leave. The man then murmured cryptically: "It happened to me." Owiny frowned. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old sanitary pad. "Mama Eunice," he said. "I am in pain. I have to use this."

Laying the pus-covered pad on the desk in front of him, he gave up his secret. During his escape from the civil war in neighbouring Congo, he had been separated from his wife and taken by rebels. His captors raped him, three times a day, every day for three years. And he wasn't the only one. He watched as man after man was taken and raped. The wounds of one were so grievous that he died in the cell in front of him.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

South Africa: A Timeline of HIV/AIDS Activism

Zackie Achmat, Co-Founder of TAC (second from the right) and colleagues
The struggle continues
JOHANNESBURG, 4 October 2011 (PlusNews) - In a new book, Fighting for our Lives the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an HIV/AIDS lobby group, looks back on more than a decade of activism. IRIN/PlusNews presents a timeline of 12 years of highlights as the group translated action into wider access to HIV treatment:

1998 – The TAC is launched on the steps of Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral with its first campaign - calling for the provision of the antiretroviral (ARV) Zidovudine (AZT) for pregnant, HIV-positive mothers to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission (PMTCT). The organization's first statement also urges the government to develop a plan to provide affordable treatment for all HIV-positive South Africans;

March 1999 – After starting a petition for the introduction of PMTCT services, TAC members march on one of the country's largest hospitals, Chris Hani-Baragwaneth, in Johannesburg's largest township of Soweto. TAC protesters stage a lie-in at the hospital's gate;

June 1999 – Thabo Mbeki is elected president and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang is appointed health minister, ushering in an era of “government-endorsed AIDS denialism”, according to the book. Later, a Harvard University study will estimate that Mbeki's delay in rolling out ARVs caused the death of 300,000 South Africans in the next five years;

2000 – As the TAC imports the generic version of the antifungal medication, fluconazole, in defiance of pharmaceutical company Pfizer's patent, Médecins Sans Frontières establishes the country's first ARV treatment programme at a primary healthcare clinic in the Cape Town township of Khayelitsha. (Fluconazole is often used to treat opportunistic infections such as thrush and cryptococcal meningitis);

2002 – South Africa’s Constitutional Court rules in favour of the TAC, forcing the government to provide the ARV nevirapine to pregnant, HIV-positive mothers to prevent their unborn babies from contracting the virus. Later that year, Hazel Tau lodges a complaint regarding high ARV prices with the national regulatory body, the Competition Commission. She wins this complaint a year later;

2003 – The TAC launches its civil disobedience campaign. Later that year, 21-year-old TAC member Lorna Mlofana is murdered after revealing her HIV-positive status. The man convicted of her murder served a few years in prison before being released;

2004 – Government begins the slow roll-out of ARV treatment;

2006 – The TAC wins a court case that establishes the right of prisoners to treatment. As of July 2011, about 9 percent of the country's jails have ARV clinics on site;

2008 – Government releases new PMTCT guidelines for administering more effective dual therapy instead of single ARV treatment;

Mbeki is recalled from the presidency by the ruling African National Congress and Tshabalala-Msimang is replaced. Later that year, a moratorium on ARV treatment in South Africa’s Free State province commences due to financial mismanagement. The TAC launches protests at a local hospital in the province and parliament;

November 2008
- TAC reveals it is experiencing a financial crisis that would force it to retrench 20 percent of its staff and cut back its treatment literacy programme;

2009 – Jacob Zuma, the new President, signals an end to denialism and announces improved treatment guidelines, long lobbied for by the TAC and partners;

2010 – South Africa has the biggest treatment programme in the world targeting at least one million people.

Note:  The article was originally printed in PlusNews Global on October 4, 2011.  In 2003, GMHC had the extraordinary honor of hosting a speaking program with Zackie Achmat, Co-Founder of Treatment Action Campaign, and his colleague Nonkosi Khumalo.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Condom Use Can Come of Age: HIV Affects Us All

by Nathan Schaefer and Elizabeth Lovinger

Many people find it very difficult to imagine their parents having sex. As difficult as that may seem, it is probably even harder to imagine their grandparents being sexual. This is just one example of the complexities of sexuality. Most depictions of sex, especially those referencing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and the need for protection, are of young people. This topic, however, must quickly become part of our national discourse on aging in order to keep older adults healthy.

Many older adults, especially those who have experienced divorce or the death of a partner, don't perceive themselves to be at risk for infections like HIV. Women past child-bearing age often don't think they need to use protection during sex, since pregnancy is no longer a concern. Doctors rarely ask older adults about their sexual health or activity, and gay men are especially unlikely to discuss sexual activity with a doctor. In New York City, half of all men over 50 who were diagnosed with HIV in 2007 did not report how they became infected. Clearly, there is widespread and dangerous silence about sexual activity and HIV amongst older adults.

According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate, by 2015, more than half of all people living with HIV in the U.S. will be over 50 years of age. This projection is partly due to the scientific advances in treatment that allow those living with HIV to live longer, healthier lives. However, it is also due to the number of new HIV infections among people aged 50 or older. What is most troubling about this trend is that the likelihood that someone will be "dually diagnosed" with AIDS at the time of their HIV diagnosis rises dramatically with age. This means that people may be living longer and unknowingly HIV-positive. This is concerning from both an individual's treatment and a public health perspective.

Unfortunately, little medical expertise exists on HIV and aging. Physicians with an expertise in both geriatrics and HIV are extremely rare, and the geriatric infrastructure in the U.S. is wholly unprepared to face this epidemic. There is almost no federal research on how HIV treatment affects aging bodies, or the modes of HIV transmission amongst people over 50. No CDC-supported prevention model for older adults currently exists, nor does a federal testing campaign. The necessary HIV prevention conversations may be uncomfortable for some, and HIV stigma may deter older adults from testing. Nonetheless, these initiatives are desperately needed.

The lack of knowledge about HIV in geriatric care has led to extensive discrimination. In 2009, an assisted living facility in Little Rock, Ark. evicted a 70-year-old retired professor and minister, Dr. Robert Franke. Although this facility, Fox Ridge, advertised "round-the-clock care" for its residents, this promise rang hollow for Dr. Franke. After a lengthy paperwork process to describe his medical history, Dr. Franke moved into the facility from Michigan, hoping to finally live nearer to his daughter. The next day, when Fox Ridge staff noticed in his paperwork that he was HIV-positive, he was asked to leave. A lawsuit helped by Lambda Legal eventually settled out of court in September 2010, but the case raised awareness about the needs of older adults living with HIV. Dr. Franke and his daughter, Sara Bowling, were recognized for their fight against HIV discrimination and spoke about their experiences at an October 2010 White House meeting on HIV and aging. Slowly, thanks to advocates like the Frankes, this long-ignored public health issue is being addressed. But there is still much that needs to be done before HIV-positive elders receive the full care and attention they deserve.

The CDC can spearhead efforts for better care and prevention by collecting data on HIV amongst older adults, the effects of HIV treatment on aging, and the prevalence of HIV in gay and bisexual men and transgender women over 50. This research could inform a CDC prevention campaign, part of which should be a social marketing campaign to end HIV stigma and anti-gay stigma in nursing homes and senior centers. As part of this effort, staff at nursing homes and senior centers should be thoroughly educated in the unique needs of older adults living with HIV, particularly those who identify as LGBT. Doctors should also be encouraged to talk to their patients over 50 about sexual health and activity, making it clear that those conversations are confidential. As uncomfortable as it may be, medical providers have to embrace that their older patients are having sex.

Congress can play a crucial role in implementing these programs through the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA). This piece of legislation allocates funding "for community planning and social services, research and development projects, and personnel training in the field of aging." The OAA must be reauthorized in 2011 for implementation in 2012, and Congress could include funding to address HIV care and prevention services. The OAA could also include LGBT elders and those living with HIV as "populations of greatest social need" for more targeted programming. As the epidemic changes, our federal response must adapt.

Many things come with age, but HIV doesn't have to be one of them.

Learn more about HIV and aging at GMHC's website, and read our in-depth report, "Growing Older with the Epidemic." 

The article was originally published in the Huffington Post, as part of a new section, "Gay Voices," on September 28, 2011