HIV/AIDS Organization Spotlight: Hispanic AIDS Forum
June 9, 2012
What has the community response been like?
I think the more challenging work has been to get buy-in from some of the funding sources, especially government funding sources. Because our tendency is to deal with much of this work in a very compartmentalized way; and so when you say to them, "We're going to take this HIV money and do X, Y, Z with it," and it doesn't look like it's 90 percent HIV to them, then there's a great deal of resistance.
One big issue for me -- and I know this to be the case for a lot of other organizations -- is that when you're dealing with HIV and gay men, this is synonymous with dealing with HIV and sex. Or if you're dealing with HIV and drug users, it's synonymous with dealing with HIV and drug use. And there is still resistance to allowing us to deal with these issues in a very open and realistic way.
For example, censorship, if you will. You try to do creative work with government money, and somebody's just waiting on the sidelines, waiting for you to use the wrong word, the wrong expression, so that they can come after you to defund you.
Sometimes, a lot of the policies, the positions, the attitudes that well-meaning funding sources have are often homophobic. And the work is always driven with a tinge of homophobia. I'll give you an example.
We started to do a series of workshops on sexual health, and really focusing and trying to be very sex-positive about the work that we were doing. One of the workshops was named "Forget About Your G-Spot, Find Your P-Spot." This workshop was really about men learning to have anal sex so that they could then protect themselves and reduce the risks of HIV infection and other STDs, and also reduce damage to their bodies.
And we did a workshop on "Size Does Matter." You would think that the workshop is about the size of the penis. The workshop is not about the size of the penis. The workshop is about the size and fit of the condom.
And so a couple of funding sources called me and said, "We have heard about these workshops that you're doing. They seem to be a little racy. What's going on?" So I explained what the workshops were.
They told me, "Well, those are not appropriate workshops." And I said, "Appropriate to whom, or for whom? These are not workshops that we go deliver to little church ladies, heterosexual church ladies, on Sundays. These are workshops that we deliver to sexually active gay man. And guess what? Sexually active gay men have anal sex, because they don't have a vagina. OK? And this is what we need to do if we are going to make a serious dent on this epidemic."
To me, what they were saying was hugely homophobic, because they're trying to tell us that we should do a workshop for gay men that should be appropriate to the larger community. Well, the larger community may or may not have anal sex. And if they did, they're not going to talk about it this way.
So the funding may have been there, but I think a lot of the organizations, especially those that serve communities of color, have not until recently been able to do some serious education in a manner that makes sense for the communities. But now everybody's talking about how we need to be realistic, how we need to integrate HIV prevention into holistic health. Now we're talking about how focusing on only HIV stigmatizes people. There is stigma that is internalized, and then people don't want to receive the service and whatnot.
And so, there's got to be a revolution in the way we do HIV and AIDS work today. Things have changed so dramatically in the last five, 10 years, and the manner in which we have done it has not necessarily adapted to those realities.
Right. And to expand on the stigma you mentioned, I think it's even worse for the transgender community. So it's great to see that you offer services for transgender women. What do you say to the transgender women out there who may be lost and need help?
I need to be careful how I say this. Let me put it this way: I think that there are too many small pieces of services that are all over the place. The pieces are so small that they cannot have any impact on the lives of transgender women. And I think that part of what needs to happen is that the delivery of services to transgender women needs to come together in a cohesive program in a single place, or two or three places.
We try to do that. We have very little funding to do services for transgender women. We were providing services to them in the context of programming for gay men. It created a problem for us. And it created a problem for them. And it created a problem for gay men. Because the issues and their needs were so different. Although, seemingly, it was about sex, and anal sex, though not necessarily, the issues were far more complex for transgender women than they were for gay men.
In the end, we decided to create a collaborative in Queens with Callen-Lorde providing medical services, Bright House providing life skills workshops, the Gay and Lesbian Center providing either mental health or substance abuse counseling services, and the Hispanic AIDS Forum doing a lot of the prevention work.
That model of trying to put all these small pieces together in one place. The services were housed at Queens Bright House. So there was one location where the providers would go to and provide services for transgender women. And while each of these organizations had a small piece, we were able to do the work. But then each of the organizations was defunded. And now we can no longer provide those services to transgender women; now they're scattered all over the place again -- at least for the Latina transgender women.
There's a small organization here with $25,000; there's another organization here with $50,000; and then there's a small organization there with another little portion of money and whatnot. I think the need has come either for one single organization or for all of these organizations to coalesce and try to pull together all of these resources so that we can create a meaningful program for transgender women, and then hope that these transgender women will come and drive the process.
That's a great point. So you want to centralize it all?
Yeah, the resources are too small to be scattered all over the place. It's too fragmented. I think it needs to come together in one place, under one umbrella, either through some consortium, or maybe one organization to coordinate service delivery for them so that we're not duplicating or stepping on each other's toes and wasting the limited resources that we have.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of working at Hispanic AIDS Forum?
I have to tell you that I love my work. I wouldn't be able to do this work if I didn't like it, and if I didn't think it was so relevant. As the executive director, I spend a lot of time behind closed doors processing paper and at meetings and trying to make sense of things. But I always make time to see clients. And what makes it valuable to me to do this work is, for example, when a single parent, a father, who might be in my age bracket and has a teenage son who is gay, comes to our office and says, "I've heard about your program for Latino gay youth. My son is gay, and I love him. It doesn't matter to me that he's gay, although he thinks that it does matter. But it doesn't matter to me that he's gay. I don't want him on the streets, being taken advantage of by all these older men. How can I enroll him in the program?"
Wow. That's really great to hear.
It makes a difference to me when an older person who may have AIDS, and is not making ends meet, finally learns of the organization and tells us that his apartment does not have any windows and is on a third or a fourth floor and he says, "There are weeks when I cannot leave here, because I cannot make it up and down the stairs." We're able to intervene and relocate him to an apartment where he has windows, he has fresh air, and it's clean. Now he has an elevator, and now he can move about and go about his life, without as much toil.
We see this all of the time. We see it day in and day out. A lot of New York lives are so disconnected from the reality of so many people in need of the program in New York City. I am personally honored and feel privileged to be here, doing this kind of thing. And when you see a young person share his lunch with a homeless person, it warms your heart and it reminds you why you're doing this work.
Absolutely. That's so great to hear. What advice, then, would you give to somebody who's just been diagnosed and doesn't know where to go?
We would invite them here, regardless of where they are from. Don't wait a minute longer; start the process to get connected. If we are not able to provide the service, we will certainly work really hard to get them connected to someone who can provide the service, regardless of their ethnicity, the language they speak, their sexual orientation, their gender, their national origin. That's what we're here for.
And what direction is the organization moving toward?
We know that things soon will change significantly in the way supportive services for people with HIV are funded and what their availability will be. So we are looking at the manner in which we do our work very critically, and trying to make improvements every day so that we can have the greatest impact with less money.
And with respect to HIV, we are going in a very holistic way. We are going to be very sex-positive in our work. We are not going to allow anyone to force us into a closet. Our work is going to be open and empowering. We hope, in doing that kind of work, that transmission rates will drop severely in the next five or six years. I'm hoping that the work we're doing with young people will have that effect.
How can people help, or get involved?
There are many ways. People could make donations. People could do the AIDS Walk. People could convince their friends to test for HIV and other STDs. Volunteer work is always available. People don't need to make commitments of a year, nine months, six months or three months. Sometimes they could just do a one-day thing for organizations like ours, and the many others that exist out there.
More important, I think that if each and every one of us challenged the next person who speaks with bias and hatred and discrimination, speaks with the language of oppression, whether they are our parents, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands or wives, our boyfriends or girlfriends, or our employers, I think that alone will make a huge impact on the lives of people with HIV, but also in those who might otherwise get infected. Make this place a better place for everyone. That's what this is about.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Warren Tong is the research editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @WarrenAtTheBody.
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