The New York Times last December came out with a front-page article on HIV/AIDS. Its opening words were both shocking and unsparing: "The AIDS epidemic in America is rapidly becoming concentrated among poor, young black and Hispanic men who have sex with men."
The news that is too often not reported or stays under the radar is the proactive steps this demographic group is taking to stem its spread -- not only among themselves, but the entire community, too. One of the reasons we don't know what these men are doing to stem the epidemic is because their ways of reaching out to their brothers and sisters are both culturally creative and unconventional.
For example, this week is Boston LGBTQ People of Color Pride. Flyers and pamphlets about HIV/AIDS prevention will be disseminated at the LGBTQ People of Color Pride Picnic, known to us Boston folks as BASK. In its second year, BASK draws LGBTQ people of color from all over New England.
As an all-day extravaganza showcasing musicians, poets, artists, poetry jams, dancers, and of course, our beautiful selves, you are advised to "bring a blanket, pop a squat, and stay awhile!"
"It's a way to celebrate our lived experiences and to take up space in our community, a space that feels like us and is for us," activist Nichole Herring stated.
BASK will showcase that same feeling -- of belonging and being in our own space -- by bringing in healthcare workers to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention and safe sex. These healthcare workers will look like the attendants.
But this isn't the first health-related pride event for Boston's LGBTQ people of color. The kick-off event, which happened weeks ago, was the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC) health expo "Our Health Matters, Too!"
Corey Yarbrough, executive director of HBGC, shared his reason for the expo:
"The health expo was organized to provide tangible and relevant knowledge for improving the mental, emotional, and physical health of Black and Latino LGBTQ people. The space was also designed to connect community members to local agencies who provide health and social support services that are LGBTQ welcoming and inclusive."
The gymnasium of the Epiphany School in Dorchester that Saturday was filled with health booths, workshops, exhibits, and screenings. There were workshops on sex positivity, anal and prostate health, trans health, domestic violence, and LGBTQ depression, to name just a few. There were also screenings for STDs, vision, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS. And needless to say, the community came out.
While it might seem odd that LGBTQ people of color would prefer going to a school gym or a pride picnic for health check-ups and information than to a hospital, the reasons are unfortunately rooted in systemic healthcare disparities due not only to race discrimination, but also to discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation as well.
Massachusetts is known as queer-friendly and for its outstanding hospitals across the country. People travel from other states and countries to be cared for. But adequate, culturally competent, and compassionate healthcare for its LGBTQ population is gravely lacking.
Dr. Thea L. James, the only African American lesbian ER physician at Boston Medical Center, attended the health expo; she expounded on some of the reasons for these disparities:
"Most physicians are unaware that LGBTQ people have higher rates of substance use, suicide, psychiatric disorders, youth homelessness, obesity, tobacco use, and disease. They are unaware that this is a result of perpetual discrimination and stress, stigma, lack of rights, victimization, and low rates of health insurance coverage.
"There is no standard LGBTQ curriculum in U.S. medical schools, and even less in residency training programs. There needs to be a greater focus on LGBTQ health in medical education so that we as providers can learn about, care for, and advocate for our LGBTQ patients, and create comfort zones that enable them to thrive physically and emotionally."
A study published in Academic Emergency Medicine last month titled "The Prevalence of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Education and Training in Emergency Medicine Residency Programs," discusses things even further.
The stigma and shame of HIV/AIDS still runs deep in our LGBTQ communities of color, and HIV/AIDS exacerbates all the aforementioned social and psychological ills that our brothers and sisters are at higher risk for.
"If a youth has nothing to live for, then why would they care about their medical care?", Lawrence Vinson III stated. Vinson knows this population well, providing an invaluable service to our community. As the Youth Program Coordinator of the SMILE Linkage to Care Program, Vinson provides connection to medical care and psychosocial support for Boston youth ages 12-24 who are newly diagnosed and are having difficulties staying actively engaged with their care.
While some of Vinson's youth will -- without prodding -- walk into the Sidney Borum Jr. Health Center, many more will get there because of HBGC Health Expo and the LGBTQ People of Color Pride Picnic.