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Promiscuous Gay Nerd: A Competent, Inclusive Health Department Is a Right, Not a Privilege

March 27, 2014

Promiscuous Gay Nerd: A Competent, Inclusive Health Department is Right, Not a Privilege
"Can I talk to you for a second?" Even over the phone, I could tell something was up. My normally chipper and unfazed friend's voice was trembling. His doctor had called to tell him that he had tested positive for syphilis, but that wasn't the problem. He was leaving town the next evening and needed to get treated quickly, but finding a competent provider in his small town is basically impossible. So he called the local health department, thinking they could help. And that's where it all went downhill.

He eventually spoke with a nurse at the county health department, who asked for his name and date of birth. When he told her his information, she abruptly put him on hold. When she came back, her tone had changed. She was suddenly severe and accusatory. "Oh, we got you. We know you've been running around sleeping with people and not telling them your status." She went on a tirade, accusing him of being "recalcitrant" and warning him that he could be imprisoned under the state's outdated, felony HIV disclosure law.

While gay men who live in large urban centers such as San Francisco may find their local health department staffed by gay men and allies who are compassionate and understanding of their sexuality, those of us who live elsewhere are often faced with homophobic and sex-shaming staff. We don't have an LGBT health center tailored to our needs, like San Francisco's Magnet, Seattle's Gay City, or Boston's Fenway Health. That means we're often stuck with out-of-touch public health departments as de facto "health centers," where employees sometimes seem more interested in blaming, shaming, and policing us than actually providing us with the care we deserve.

Like many gay men, my friend -- we'll call him Sam -- is HIV positive. And like everyone in the United States who has been diagnosed as HIV positive through a confidential test, the health department keeps Sam's name and information on file. Names-based HIV surveillance systems were controversial in the 1980s and early 1990s, because many privacy activists were concerned they were vulnerable to misuse and abuse. By the mid-2000s, those debates had fizzled and the CDC had convinced all 50 states to adopt the practice.

This excerpt was cross-posted with the permission of Read the full article.

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This article was provided by BETA. Visit their website at
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