This story was originally published online at North Carolina Health News.
Only a decade ago, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug providing pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of contracting HIV, Truvada.
Scotty Elliot still remembers the stigma that followed people who chose to take drugs.
“The guys who took it were called ‘Trivada whores,'” said Elliot, an infectious disease social worker at the Duke Academy for Health Professions Education and Academic Development. He said the smear was “just a horrible way to start a movement to get care with people, so that they are protected from HIV”.
This stigma against people living with HIV and members of the LGBTQ community, which has been disproportionately affected by HIV, still exists, Elliot said.
However, as he held up a sign of two men kissing with big bold letters saying ‘DON’T WAIT, GET PrEP TODAY’ in the heart of Durham city centre, Elliot marveled at the progress.
“The last five people that came in, I said, ‘Are you familiar with PrEP? “” Elliot said, “and they said, ‘Yeah’.”
Elliot was out and about downtown as the Durham LGBTQ Center held a queer health fair on Sunday in a bid to address health care gaps in the community. Advocates ranging from community HIV and AIDS prevention workers to yoga teachers to culture-specific LGBTQ organizations came to represent how the LGBTQ community can access all aspects of health.
Reduce stigma around STIs
Information about PrEP and a stand for rapid testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), the show was packed with resources to reduce the stigma around STIs.
Having information out in the open is key to reducing stigma, said Matt Martin, local advocacy manager at the NC AIDS Action Network.
“I think events like this are a huge way [to reduce stigma] just normalizing it, talking about it openly,” Martin said. “I think we’re taught, especially here in the South, not to talk about these things and they become taboo.”
A common misconception about HIV is that it only affects gay men. A 2018 CDC study found that 24% of new HIV diagnoses were among heterosexual people and 7% among people who inject drugs. The rest, 69%, were gay and bisexual men.
The NC AIDS Action Network tries to raise awareness that women are also greatly affected by HIV and can also access PrEP. Black women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by HIV and account for nearly 60% of new HIV infections among American women.
Conversations about health equity for people living with HIV don’t end with their treatment, said Janeen Gingrich, acting executive director of the NC AIDS Action Network.
“People are more than just a singular diagnosis,” Martin said. “We have to take care of the person and their full health, their mental health, their physical health, not just their HIV.”
Expanding Health Conversations
STI education is only part of the health conversation for the LGBTQ community, Martin said, and the fair was a great way to see the full spectrum of health needs.
LGBTQ people have historically been marginalized in medicine, and to date, healthcare is not as accessible to the LGBTQ community compared to other groups. Within the LGBTQ community, some people have easier access to the care they need than others.
Organizations such as El Centro Hispano have programs to provide support for LGBTQ people in the Latin community. Their programs include Mujeres en Accion, a program for Latino lesbian and bisexual women, Entre [email protected], a social group for Latino transgender women in North Carolina, and HOLA Latino, a program for Latino gay and bisexual men, said Oscar Pineda, El Centro Hispano Community Director.
El Centro Hispano offers programs for North Carolina’s LGBTQ people in the Latinx community. Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson
Transgender people may also be excluded from health care when they have to fear abuse in the doctor’s office.
Something as simple as asking people their pronouns makes health a little safer and more accessible for the LGBTQ community, said UNC Chapel Hill dental student Tatiana Cambio at the oral health booth. UNC LGBTQIA+ fair.
UNC dentistry students help make oral health more accessible at the school’s Pride Clinic, Cambio said.
“We really work with our volunteers to make sure they’re using current pronouns,” Cambio said, “and that’s something that people who aren’t very well connected with the queer community need to use a lot more practice. or be more aware of.”
Health goes beyond physical health, so mental and spiritual health advocates were also present at the fair.
Global Breath, a Durham-based yoga studio, is offering free classes to black, indigenous and people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming people to promote more accessible self-care and healing, says yoga teacher Devon Pelto , who is also part of the studio’s management team.
“Any chance we get to practice slowing down is really helpful,” Pelto said. “I teach trauma-informed yoga, so it’s just to help people find their bodies and feel their bodies and create that sense of a safe place again, because a lot of us have been carried away.”
Having a health fair dedicated to LGBTQ people gives them a place at the table, Martin said.
“Gay people are often left out of health conversations,” Martin said. “So I think it’s really important for the community to take control of their own health.”
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