When D.A.P. was funded by the Riverside University Health System to present Community Education events during the months of May and June, our internal teams knew they would be addressing four distinctly different audiences: gay men of color, women living with HIV, the transgender community, and families living in eastern Coachella Valley.
These groups often feel excluded from the conversation about HIV and the latest news about its prevention, treatment, and access-to-care. Yet, they are impacted by HIV at rates that are disproportionate to their share of the overall population. Because of that, they’re highlighted in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States: Updated to 2020 as needing special efforts to bring down new infections rates and get those with HIV into immediate, continuous care.
Here’s how Desert AIDS Project is reaching out to …
Gay men of color
On May 8, D.A.P. helped Blatino Oasis – a retreat for Black and Latino gay men – cap their weekend activities with the “Kings Supporting Kings” 10th Anniversary Awards Brunch. About 200 guests heard keynote speaker Anthony “Antoine” McWilliams, of Emory University, rap about fighting stigma around HIV and sexual orientation. Following this audience-engaging start, Williams also spoke about PrEP, the common name for pre-exposure prophylaxis, using Truvada.
Since PrEP has proven nearly 100% effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, The DOCK at D.A.P. provides counseling and treatment for PrEP, as well as for PEP – post-exposure prophylaxis – for those with concerns about remaining HIV-negative. While PrEP provides protection against infection through a daily pill containing two antiretroviral medicines, PEP is a treatment that can help prevent HIV if antiretroviral medication is begun within 72 hours of exposure and taken for 28 days. As a part of our participation with Blatino Oasis, we provided HIV testing throughout the weekend retreat, including special hours from noon – 6:00 PM at The DOCK at D.A.P. on Sunday May 8, where we test for and treat a variety of sexually transmitted infections.
“Whenever we find ‘positive’ individuals who were previously unaware of their HIV status, it means they can now access proper care and medication, possibly preventing HIV from advancing to AIDS at some future point. Because, of course, if you’re unaware of your HIV status, you could be spreading the virus to someone else without knowing it,” said Bruce Weiss, Director of Community Health for D.A.P. “For any of us, knowledge of our current health status is the key to future good health.”
Similarly, D.A.P. made HIV testing available at the White Party in April, including opening The DOCK for its first Sunday testing hours on April 10. Later that same month, transgender advocates were invited to a meet-and-greet with staff and to tour The DOCK on National Transgender HIV Testing Day on April 18.
Women with HIV
Following up on its success from 2015, D.A.P. and members of its 100 Women annual giving program staged the 2nd annual Women’s Empowerment Day on May 21, to offer female clients the information they need to stay healthy and happy. Eighteen women attended this year, a 20% increase from last year, and were treated to food, treats, and valuable prizes.
But they seemed most thrilled when Jill Gover, Ph.D., discussed the Five Elements of Self-Esteem. “When faced with this chronic illness, it definitely – especially for women – affects your self-esteem,” the clinical psychologist and Mental Health Services Director at the LGBT Center in Palm Springs, told the women. “But rather than talk about self-esteem, we’re going to do exercises that build self-esteem. It’s like exercising a muscle. You have to get out there and do it.” The women applauded and jumped right into it.
They were similarly enthused with Dr. Laveeza Bhatti, infectious disease expert who specializes in caring for women and got high marks from last year’s attendees. She discussed many topics, including HIV drugs that are best suited to women. “You have to look at lighter medications… I like integrase inhibitors, rather than protease,” Dr. Bhatti said. “They are the best tolerated by the women I see.”
Other communities to be targeted
On June 30, D.A.P. will be at the Riverside County Department of Education in Indio for an all-day health education fair for families living in the eastern Coachella Valley. With the understanding that many of these residents may be underserved for health care needs, D.A.P. will be helping to provide prevention and treatment education around concerns like HIV, Hepatitis C, mental health, and much more.
Just two days earlier, on June 28, we’ll be partnering with the Transgender Community Coalition for their Transgender Pride event at the Tolerance Center in Rancho Mirage. Aydian Dowling, a trans activist and fitness enthusiast will be the keynote speaker and there will be other speakers on subjects including transgender health, mental health, and returning to work, in addition to food and door prizes.
Among the findings of the first-ever Riverside County LGBT Health and Wellness Profile, published in 2014, it remarked that “… where our LGBT community in the eastern county is the third largest by size in the United States, a full and objective assessment of the community’s health concerns and disparities is desperately needed.” Two years later, many of those disparities and health concerns still need to be addressed.
Straight or LGBT … man or woman … rich or poor … regardless of sexuality, gender, socio-economic status, race, HIV status, or any other criteria which sometimes seek to divide us, the commonality among diverse communities is that we all need and deserve quality health care. Desert AIDS Project – and by extension, Get Tested Coachella Valley and The DOCK – will continue to reach out to all communities to help that happen.