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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

LEAKED: Five Point Internal Memo to Chase Brexton CEO!

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Richard Larison Amy Davis Baltimore Sun

Richard L. Larison, Chase Brexton CEO (photo: Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

TO:         Richard Larison, CEO, Chase Brexton

FROM:     Your Executive Assistant

RE:         Five points about the recent unpleasantness

Your Excellency,

I know you’ve asked me not to disturb you when you are sealed in your hyperbaric chamber. Regrettably, it has been days since you have emerged and there are developments. (Note to self: throw something over Mr. Larison’s glass tomb before leaving office; the housekeeping staff is complaining again; use some of those stored AIDS Quilt panels Mr. Larison found “needlessly depressing.”)

Your termination of the five managers here at Chase Brexton appears to have had an unintended effect. Rather than frighten the indentured ungrateful uppity low-level employees into rejecting their own unionizing effort, the firings appear to have emboldened them. It would appear they do, in fact, have minds of their own. And this, only days before their vote to unionize on August 25th.

At the risk of upsetting you again (I have replaced your shattered “World’s Greatest Boss” coffee mug and cleaned the stains; my injuries were minor), allow me to enumerate five key developments of the last week.

bal-bs-hs-chase-brexton-rally-bs0040918370-20160819

The Chase Brexton protest drew more than 100 protesters and speakers. (Photo: Baltimore Sun)

1. A protest was held Friday. They don’t like us.

Since I don’t believe you can hear from within your sealed chamber (and if so, I swear to you that the existential cries of “why me?” and “what cruel hell is this?” were not coming from my cubicle), allow me to share the unsettling news that the protest against our union-busting efforts was spirited and well attended. It also included many members of the gay, lesbian, and transgender community for whom this agency was founded, which explains why no one in the executive offices has any idea who they are.

The media has caught wind of all this, I regret to say. Lots of stories that present our actions accurately in unfavorable light, including an Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun by two of our own medical physicians (the doctors actually spill the beans on our efforts to limit doctor-patient time and cut salaries). A #SaveChaseBrexton web page with photo and videos exists, and the protestors and speakers look, well, empowered, although I know how you despise that word.

 

2. It appears we are screwing with the wrong people.

It was reasonable to expect that the recent terminations would be as uneventful as the past (two hundred? three?) firings during your four-year reign occupation tenure (I have prepared your weekly “Chopping Block” list; we can go alphabetically, pick someone at random, or I believe you enjoyed tossing darts at names). However, these recent firings appear to have galvanized employees, volunteers, and clinic patients alike.

The protest was attended by several elected officials, such as Maryland delegate Cheryl Glenn, who delivered a rousing indictment of our union-busting efforts. She also ended with a song that sounded communist to me; I can plant social media comments to that effect if you think it would be helpful.

Marty Jon

News stories associated with the union-busting consultants used by Chase Brexton.

3. Those union-busting advisors we hired might be actual criminals.

Yes, I know the three of you bonded over your shared love of hunting endangered species, but I have misgivings. It would appear that the two gentlemen who conducted our intimidation misinformation educational session about unions for employees, Martin Dreiss and Jon J. Burress, have faced charges between them ranging from fraud and conspiracy to embezzlement. I understand you find this endearing, sir, but we might consider avoiding these “union avoidance” fellows in the future. We have our own foggy legalities to negotiate, such as…

jill crank fake letter

Actual letter sent to patients of fired employee Jill Crank.

4. They found out we faked that letter to the patients of the nurse you fired.

You know that letter we sent to the patients of infidel sacrificial lamb nurse practitioner Jill Crank, making it look like she left all by herself and we totally, absolutely had nothing to do with it? Turns out people actually read the damn thing. They quickly deciphered the fact it wasn’t she who sent it, probably due to the multiple spelling and grammatical errors.

We’re not completely certain that faking a letter from Ms. Crank without her consent is precisely legal, but that ethical ship has sailed, I think you will agree.

Speaking of which, sir, may I add how delightful it is to conduct ourselves so freely, unmoored from complex concepts such as integrity or loyalty to Chase Brexton’s community legacy! This is all a direct result of your terrifying brave leadership, Mr. Larison.

email

Email to staff from Board President Carolyn Kennedy, announcing new committee and efforts to “rebuild trust,” none of which reinstates fired employees.

5. Our new committee to “rebuild trust” has people laughing. A great deal.

Regrettably, the new President of Operations position you announced carries the moniker of POO, which is a fair assessment of the resume of this new hire, if we’re being honest. As vexing as you find the need for relevant experience, it appears that Mr. Joseph Lavelle, hired to smooth over staff conflict, has no LGBT-focused background, has no experience in a community-based clinical setting, and worked for gargantuan medical conglomerates that got sued a lot. But that’s not the funny part.

If you venture beyond your nesting place office, you may hear giggling coming from “the minimals,” as you call them. It seems that the staff email from Board Chair Carolyn Kennedy announcing the formation of an ad-hoc committee has been met with derision, if not sustained guffaws. The phrase “rebuild your trust” appears to be the big punch line. One might even say we are closing the barn door after the unfair labor practices horses have left, but I know you find popular expressions that do not end with “therefore improving our bottom line” to be most disagreeable.

Lastly, much of the attention now appears to be focused on removing you as CEO. Should this abomination occur, rest assured I will follow you, hyperbaric chamber in tow. You frighten me, yes, and you have single-handedly crippled our reputation throughout Baltimore, but my personal value system is so damaged I am actually willing to trust your stewardship despite all evidence to the contrary.

Which, come to think of it, would make me an excellent member of the Board.

Fearfully, endlessly,

Your Executive Assistant

(In the latest non-satiric news, Chase Brexton has notified its employees that it has asked the National Labor Relations Board to postpone the union vote scheduled for August 25th, in a transparent effort to delay the inevitable. The struggle to join a union, when management is firmly opposed, can drag on for years. Meanwhile, the reputation and generations of work of this Baltimore institution is crumbling before our eyes. — Mark)

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | No Comments »

My Fabulous Disease Wins NLGJA ‘Best Blog’ Award

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

Mark End Note

Mark S. King on the blogging trail, here in Durban during AIDS2016.

There’s no way of saying this without it sounding like a humble brag, at best, so I’m just going to come right out with it.

My Fabulous Disease has won the prestigious “Excellence in Blogging” award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA). This is the second time my blog has been honored with this award, having won in 2014, the year the category was created. So if you’re keeping score, that’s two for three.

Evidently I’m too excited to do the humble part of the brag. My apologies!

The award is part of the annual Excellence in Journalism Awards, sponsored by NLGJA. They actually wield enormous influence, with members from outlets as varied as CNN to The New York Times to POZ Magazine and, well, little guys like myself. As stated in their press release this morning, “The NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Awards were established in 1993 to foster, recognize and reward excellence in journalism on issues related to the LGBTQ community.”

One of the judges had this to say in awarding My Fabulous Disease their honor:

Mark S. King is one of the few people still doing blogging in the traditional sense, and he does it quite well. There’s news, there’s context, there’s personal input and it’s compelling and accessible. For example, his coverage of the ways Charlie Sheen was discussing HIV were spot on and unrivaled and I was delighted to revisit it as part of his nominated material. King displays excellence in HIV coverage year after year. 

But ultimately, this is really about you, my readers and those involved in HIV advocacy, because you are usually the topic of my writing. Whereas my blog was almost strictly personality-driven in its early years, I have enjoyed, more and more, shining a spotlight on the work of other people. Yes, I am still capable of an opinionated rant (and how I so love writing those), but it is clear to me that my blog’s success it tied to the work of people just like you.

Just as exciting is the fact that HIV coverage was well represented this year, across the map of categories.

Placing second in the Excellence in Radio award was an important story from Jim Burress of WABE-FM, “Fulton County Doesn’t Spend, Loses HIV Prevention Money,” about the misuse (or non-use) of crucial HIV prevention dollars.

The amazingly prolific Ben Ryan (the “nearly naked AIDS advocate” I profiled a few months ago), was awarded second place for his POZ Magazine piece, “When Can We Expect PrEP 2.0?” It’s a topic that is still very much on his mind.

“PrEP is a fast-moving train in the United States, with use rising dramatically in major cities,” Ben told me about his win. “It’s been exciting to cover the science behind this new prevention tool, from a molecular to a public health and sociological level. The news will likely keep getting better as new forms of PrEP hit the market in the future, offering a long-term injectable form and less toxic oral drugs. A major concern I have, however, is that PrEP is largely being used by white gay men in a select handful of major cities, such as New York, San Francisco, LA and Seattle. I anticipate that PrEP will effectively widen racial disparities in HIV rates in the coming years. If people wind up proclaiming victory due to a collapsed HIV rate among white gay men, what will happen to minorities? Will people lose interest in the HIV fight?”

Bisexual writer Heather Boerner (her sexuality bears mentioning, considering how “invisible” the B in LGBT can be) took top honors in the HIV/AIDS Coverage category, for her “Ongoing HIV Prevention/Treatment Coverage” for The Daily Beast and TheBody.com.

“I started my career in the LGBT press, writing for the now-defunct New York Blade,” Heather told me, “so to win an award from NLGJA is especially meaningful to me. But it’s also meaningful to me because the stories I submitted were all about HIV/AIDS, yes, but they weren’t only about HIV/AIDS from an LGBT perspective. I will say that there’s still so much to say and do and write about HIV–even more so now that more and more research is proving what some couples have known for years, which is that treatment really can prevent transmission, and there’s no reason to be afraid of the virus.”

Following Heather is second place in that category is Daniel Villarreal and Topher Williams for “‘Trust Him?’: Why Are The Images Debating PrEP Use So Consistently Shitty?” for Daniel’s site, UnicornBooty.com.

surviving life artworkAnd in an embarrassment of hardware riches, I also won second place in the Feature/Editorial Writing category, for my POZ Magazine essay, “Surviving Life Itself,” chronicling my life as a long-time HIV survivor. That particular piece was a real high point for me as a writer, and I am grateful as always to editor Oriol Gutierrez for his shepherding of my work.

Let’s just consider this another opportunity for me to thank my literary colleagues, including many sites and editors who have supported the voices of people living with HIV.

Let’s keep speaking up, y’all.

Mark

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The Human Toll of Chase Brexton’s Union-Busting Efforts

Tuesday, August 16th, 2016

 

Jill Crank 1 CROP

“I’m afraid my patients might not know what to do.” Jill Crank, one of five employees terminated from Chase Brexton Health Care in a union-busting move by management.

Jill Crank misses her patients terribly. And she is worried about them.

“The last thing I want is for them to think I abandoned them,” Jill said. “I’m afraid they might not know what to do.”

During almost nine years as a nurse practitioner at Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore, and more recently as their Assistant Medical Director, Jill had a caseload of about 600 clients. It included patients, largely from the LGBT community, who were being helped with mental health issues, HIV treatment and prevention, transgender health, and addiction and recovery services.

They are the kind of patients who rely on the trust built between them and their healthcare provider. They are often awash in social stigma and barriers to quality care. They count on people like Jill Crank.

“They trusted me, yes,” Jill says. She is still finding it difficult to discuss them without getting emotional. “That trust translated into our making positive decisions about their health together. So many of them were in the middle of life-changing issues, like choosing to recover from addiction or deciding on new HIV treatment. These issues are not easily resolved by a quick fix-it visit with a new provider.”

Those crucial relationships were abruptly broken last week, when Jill and four other management-level employees at Chase Brexton, the largest provider of clinical services to Baltimore’s most vulnerable populations, were unceremoniously fired from their jobs.

All five employees had exemplary records of service, some dating back decades. They have been honored for their work, received glowing performance reviews, and had virtually no warning their careers at Chase Brexton were about to end.

That end came as the result of a chillingly vindictive move on the part of Chase Brexton senior management. With a union organizing effort underway by employees — who cite an unreasonable workload that is having an effect on the quality of patient care – senior management evidently tried one of the oldest, and most cruelly transparent, tricks in the playbook. They fired managers (who are not eligible to join the union themselves but might be seen as supportive of the change) in an apparent effort to intimidate those seeking to join the union.

To speak to those five employees, who were interviewed individually for this story, is to hear a litany of confusion and heartbreak. The word “devastated” is used by all of them. Without exception, they mention a deep concern for their patients, who were notified of the disappearance of their provider without explanation.

“I had dedicated my life to that agency,” said Warren Conner, a case management supervisor who began his career at Chase Brexton as an intern more than 21 years ago.

His statement is hardly an exaggeration for someone who considered his professional co-workers part of his family. “I met my husband there, years ago. He was working in the mental health department. We’ve been together ever since. I really thought I would retire from there,” he said.

Fired without severance pay despite stellar performance reviews, Warren fears for his future. The seniority he had achieved isn’t easily translatable to the current job market. “I’m working on my resume,” he said. “But I haven’t looked for a job in 21 years. I’m not sure how to do it, honestly.”

Ken Ruby, the fired Director of Psychosocial Services who devoted 22 years of his life to the agency, still has great pride in the agency and his work there, despite the circumstances. “Chase Brexton has been a huge player in HIV treatment and prevention,” he said, noting their recent efforts to educate the community about the prevention strategy PrEP, the pill proven to prevent HIV transmission.

“I saw Chase Brexton helping to achieve zero HIV transmissions. That was our goal. I just don’t see how that won’t be slowed down, since several of us who were fired were really involved in setting up PrEP services.”

“I had so many ideas, so many projects left to do,” Ken said, and then his emotions well up again and his voice breaks. “I feel like I’ve lost a piece of me, and it’s still there, in that agency,” he said.

Chase Brexton Building CROP

The Mt Vernon offices of Chase Brexton, where all five terminated employees worked.

Brian Owens is Lead Organizer for SEIU District 1199, the healthcare and social service union that Chase Brexton employees are trying to join. He believes the firings were an attempt to “coerce and intimidate employees eligible to join the union,” but that the move has backfired tremendously. “It has galvanized the employees to speak up for themselves and for their co-workers who were fired,” he said.

Brian points to the unionization of Whitman-Walker twenty years ago, the Capitol’s largest provider of HIV services. In that case, management allowed union organizing to take its course without their interference.

By contrast, Chase Brexton employees received an email earlier this month from Richard L. Larison, the now-embattled CEO, urging them not to join the union and promising educational sessions that would convince them not to. Instead, those meetings have become an outlet for employees to express their outrage over the dismissals.

Community backlash has been swift and unified. More than a dozen local LGBTQ organizations have signed an open letter posted by FreeState Justice denouncing the firings and urging Chase Brexton to support the rights of workers. A petition stating that CEO Larison is “failing the community” and calling to reinstate the fired employees has already gathered more than 1,000 signatures.

And coming on Friday, a community protest is scheduled on the steps of Chase Brexton’s Mt Vernon location. Even Maryland State Delegate Maggie McIntosh has posted her displeasure with the union-busting, asking Chase Brexton to “rehire the terminated employees and allow the union election process to proceed free of intimidation or interference.”

What makes the union pushback by Chase Brexton management so curious is the fact that unionizing is just the sort of progressive value that one would expect from an agency that was founded as a health clinic for gay men. “At this point,” said union organizer Brian Owens, “the folks who are running Chase Brexton do not share those progressive ideals.”

That shift is being laid firmly at the feet of CEO Larison, who is widely viewed as having abandoned the collaborative culture Chase Brexton once enjoyed, replacing it with a hard-hitting management style that has seen the departure or firing of dozens of employees at every level during his four-year tenure. His office did not respond to an interview request and there has been no formal response to recent events from senior management.

The silence has left the five terminated employees to sort out their emotions, and their lives, on their own. “Over the past week I have felt sad, angry, and extremely frustrated,” said Catherine Fowler, a nurse manager who was fired. “I’m very concerned for my patients, for my nursing team, and for the organization and its future.”

“I don’t want to go somewhere else,” said fired programs manager Bethany Henderson. “There’s nothing else like this. I want my job back. I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Others are not so sure. They are conflicted, caught between wanting to support the efforts to reinstate them while still feeling the bruises inflicted by an agency they no longer trust.

They are not paralyzed by their confusion, however. The five employees have retained an attorney who has filed action with the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to stall the terminations, citing unfair labor practices.

Meanwhile, at the main offices of Chase Brexton in Mt Vernon, where all five of the former employees worked, the main pavilion is undergoing repairs. The loud and messy activity is a fitting metaphor for the turmoil the agency is experiencing.

Enormous jackhammers are destroying the foundation. Bulldozers are collecting the concrete debris. The destruction is reverberating through the underground garage and thunderous shudders can be felt in the offices several floors above.

The sound is deafening.

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Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 5 Comments »

When AIDS Activists Hijacked the Olympic Rings

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Rings and Flame before the Games.jog

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a very touchy organization, most especially when it comes to the Olympic rings. They guard their trademark jealously and litigiously, commonly suing anyone who dares to approximate the iconic rings for their own purposes. Even local street vendors during the Games have been shut down for violating copyright.

Anthony Braswell wasn’t thinking about that when he and a co-worker came up with a dangerous idea. It was 1995, and Atlanta was in the height of Olympic fever as the city prepared to host the 1996 Summer Games.

Braswell served as Director of the Grady Health System Infectious Disease Program (IDP), Atlanta’s new HIV clinic. One day he and his medical director, Dr. Jeff Lennox, were chatting about the enormous HIV education opportunity the Games presented. If only they could garner the attention of the worldwide media that would soon be streaming into the city for a two-week stay.

“A basket of condoms was sitting on the conference table,” Braswell said in an interview with My Fabulous Disease. “Jeff took five condoms out and starting arranging them on the table, and joked that we should make the Olympic rings out of them. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘yeah. Play safe.’ And that is how it started.”

PlaySafe Olympics

At the time, they didn’t burden themselves with whether or not creating such a campaign was legal, or what the response of the mighty IOC might be. Or exactly how it might be done. They just started working.

“We didn’t think about next steps,” said Braswell. “We were just enjoying the simplicity of the message. There was no budget, no money at all for this idea.” That problem solved itself when people began offering free services to design, photograph, print, and distribute a full-color poster of the fledgling idea.

A marketing company in Los Angeles stepped in with a photographer and studio time. “They took great care in matching the color of the condoms to the Olympic ring colors,” said Braswell. “They also learned that the lubricated condoms caused damage to their camera lens, so they had to scrap those and find unlubricated ones.”

When the drafts of the poster arrived from a volunteer marketing company, Braswell couldn’t believe that “our crazy idea came to life. But it was missing something.”

Meeting with others on his clinic staff, the group realized the “Play Safe” message simply would not translate to scores of international Olympic visitors. “To be effective we needed to communicate with many different nationalities, many different cultures,” Braswell recalled, “so we contacted all sorts of international groups to determine how the ‘play safe’ message would translate.”

They added a border to the central image that spells out the “play safe” message in eighteen languages. “The hardest one was Chinese,” said Braswell. “There were no symbols that delivered the message of safe sex, and we wound up saying ‘have good sex.’ But they did not have a symbol for ‘sex,’ either, so in the text we actually had to spell out the word in English.”

A final graphic detail was adding the phone number for the Georgia AIDS Information Line, a number that still operates today. “We didn’t ask their permission,” Braswell said, because he wanted to protect them.

By then, a growing array of Atlanta HIV advocates, from gay men to the staff of AIDS service agencies to health department employees, had heard of the campaign plans and stood ready to accomplish the most daunting task of all: distributing the 750,000 copies of the poster, which a Los Angeles movie studio had paid to print and shipped directly to Braswell’s home.

“The weekend before the Olympics, several large trucks pulled up in front of my house,” Braswell said. “Over one thousand boxes were on them. I was horrified. We filled every inch of my house, floor to ceiling with boxes, and there were still more to go. We took one truck to the clinic and hid about 400 boxes in the storeroom. Even my neighbor put a hundred boxes in her living room.”

Braswell, and the army of volunteers ready to unleash the campaign, knew full well how much the poster would infuriate the IOC. Any potential fallout very likely emboldened them, as much for the publicity as for the fact there was no love lost between the citizens of Atlanta and the IOC. The aloof and arrogant president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, had actually asked locals to address him as “your excellency,” a request that went over like stale cornbread in a Southern city so unpretentious it featured a fleet of pickup trucks in its opening ceremonies.

On the opening weekend of the Atlanta Olympic Games, the plan was executed. “It was all very covert,” said Braswell. “Friends working in the Olympic Village helped us sneak the posters in.” Meanwhile, other volunteers had jobs at the hotels, including those where media was staying, so under every door they slipped press packets that included the poster and a statement about the need for AIDS awareness and safer sex materials. The poster was wall-papered on light posts, in store windows and in restaurants throughout the city.

Figures differ about the availability and number of condoms distributed in Olympic villages over the years. In a recent Slate article, Atlanta in 1996 shows a significant dip from the number of condoms distributed in previous Olympic villages – and even these figures are disputed.

160520_olympicCondomChart2

Braswell doesn’t believe many condoms were distributed in Atlanta’s Olympic village. “When we asked about making condoms available, the Atlanta Olympic Committee said no, telling us that there would be no sex in the village. Oh my God.” The attitude contrasts sharply with the 450,000 condoms that will be made available to athletes in Rio. “What a different world we live in now,” said Braswell.

The 1996 poster effort, once the Games began and the materials got out, yielded… not much. At first.

“For a couple of days we heard nothing,” said Braswell. “And then the press began. Officials from the IOC and the Atlanta committee were looking for the people ‘who had done this to the Olympic rings.’”

In a city containing more press than any place on earth during that time, the Olympic condom rings gained traction, leading to officials having to answer questions about whether or not there was an “official condom of the 1996 Olympic Games.” Reporters gleefully reported the answer that no, there was not.

The attention was glorious but short-lived. During the second weekend of the Games, a bomb was detonated in Centennial Olympic Park, an act of homegrown terrorism that stole the headlines and broke the hearts of the good people of Atlanta.

The tragedy took the heat off of the condom poster controversy and shifted attention to the very serious business of security and the bomb’s aftermath. The poster disappeared from media reports as quickly as it had appeared.

As with most acts of activism, whether a flash mob or a protest, the Olympic condom ring poster found an audience, made its point, and was gone.

“In the end, the campaign worked,” Braswell said. “I am so proud of the people who believed in this effort. And this was twenty years ago, before the power of social media!”

“No matter,” Braswell concludes. “It worked. And we pulled it off.”

Mark

(Condom distribution chart: Holly Allen, Slate.)

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Posted in My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 2 Comments »

AIDS2016: The Full Video Collection from My Fabulous Disease

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

Mark Theo AIDS2016

With my trusty videographer (right), Australian HIV advocate Theo Tsipiras.

The people, the parties, the protests! AIDS2016, the international AIDS conference held in Durban, South Africa from July 16-22, had it all. And it was my privilege to bring you the stunning sights and sounds of the gathering, sponsored by The Global Forum of MSM and HIV. My special thanks, too, to my amazing videographer, Australian HIV advocate Theo Tsipiras.

My coverage was featured on the most comprehensive HIV resource on the net, TheBody.com (you can also view my full set of videos there), as well as on MSMGF.org and even on Queerty.com, the world’s largest pop culture site for gay men.

So here they are, each of the five video blogs I produced at AIDS2016, below.

Allow me to let these videos, and the inspiring people from around the world who populate them, to speak for themselves. Enjoy!

 

The MSMGF Pre-Conference (Gay Day!)

Gay Day pic

Gay men from around the world gathered for sessions and selfies.

The MSMGF pre-conference is uniquely designed to address the issues and needs of men who have sex with men (MSM) around the world.

Included: openly gay International AIDS Society President Chris Beyrer; Truvada drug smuggling (sort of) with German advocate Nicholas Feustel; a chat about the prevalence of chem sex in London; and gay advocates from countries in which their sexuality – and even their services for gay men – are criminalized.

 

The Thrilling Treatment Access March on the Streets of Durban

Treatment March pic PHOTO BOB LEAHY

Interviewing activists during the #Treatment4All March. Photo by Bob Leahy, PositiveLite.com.

The may be no way to adequately describe the intensity of the #Treatment4All march that wound its way through the streets of Durban. Fortunately, my videographer Theo and I dropped ourselves into the middle of the action. The results are amazing.

Included: the thousands of advocates calling out the disparities in the world when it comes to HIV treatment access; the individual activists explaining why they are taking to the streets (including some of the women of the Positive Women’s Network).

BONUS Video: An Interview with PrEP Advocate Jim Pickett

Here is a man who does not mince words. Jim Pickett of AIDS Foundation Chicago explains why AIDS2016 should be known as “the PrEP conference,” and then has some very candid thoughts about the efforts of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) to block a California bill that would provide PrEP education to those at risk. Included: information on how you can support the bill.

 

An HIV+ Gay Man is Erased by the Military and a Plenary Protest

Anti-criminalization activists took the main stage at an AIDS2016 plenary.

Anti-criminalization activists took the main stage at an AIDS2016 plenary.

The advocacy around HIV criminalization has grown enormously is just the last two years. I take you to the Beyond Blame pre-conference, and then jump into a demonstration by criminalization activists at an AIDS2016 plenary – which included the newly minted activists and grandchildren of icon Elizabeth Taylor, working on behalf of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

Also: a very candid gay activist from New Zealand confides with me about just how cruisy the conference is for he and his fellow advocates. Hint: activists ready to hook up are less than 20 feet away.

Included: Interviews with LTC Ken Pinkela, who lost his appeals to the military over trumped-up non-disclosure charges; Edwin Bernard of the HIV Justice Network; Joel Goldman of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (and her HIV activist grandchildren), and our first visit to the amazing Global Village.

 

The Eye-Popping Global Village and a Party Without Pants

Tribal Crop MFD

There were glorious sights to behold in the Global Village, like this South African transgender activist. And then: the “No Pants, No Problem” dance party!

In my final report from AIDS2016, we immerse ourselves in the sights and awesome advocates of the Global Village – and then let off some steam at “No Pants, No Problem,” a dance party like nothing else on the planet.

Included: African grandmothers fighting for support, the “Disclosure Sofa,” interviews with international HIV advocates Gus Cairns and Julian Hows, gay teenage HIV advocates from South Africa, Jessica Whitbread, organizer of the pantless dance party, and my final thoughts about this wondrous experience.

 

Mark End Note

Thanks for watching, and for your lovely messages of support throughout this conference. It means the world to me. And now, let the anticipation begin for AIDS2018 in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, y’all. Can you imagine?

Mark

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Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | No Comments »

Follow My Blogs from AIDS2016 in Durban South Africa!

Monday, July 18th, 2016

Mark Theo AIDS2016 crop

Me and my camera man Theo Tsipiras, an HIV advocate living in Melbourne.

(UPDATE: See all of my video blogs from AIDS2016 right here.)

Conference coverage might just be the most enjoyable aspect of blogging for me. There’s nothing like capturing a protest breaking out, or the emotions of advocates from struggling countries, or a drag queen on stilts handing out condoms. I’ve never met an eye-boggling sight that I didn’t love – and put on camera.

My coverage of the international AIDS conference (AIDS2016) in Durban, South Africa is happening right now. I am in Durban, scurrying about the conference with other advocates from around the globe, and my primary purpose is to give you the feeling that you are right there at my side.

MSMGF logo

My AIDS2016 coverage is sponsored by MSMGF.org.

This year I am proud to be sponsored by The Global Forum of MSM and HIV (MSMGF). My coverage can be viewed on the site that birthed my own blog, TheBody.com, and at MSMGF.org. Queerty will step also step in and feature at least one of my video reports.

TBody_siteheader_300dpi

My coverage can also be viewed right here on TheBody.com.

My Australian camera man Theo Tsipiras and I will capture the human stories that make the conference so compelling. That isn’t to say we won’t include breaking stories about research. I have no problem rushing a scientist and getting him to explain the latest news to me. I just want to be sure he does it in a way that makes sense to everyone back home.

I will admit to it being exhausting. We’re filming morning to evening every day, and then I’m editing footage all night to produce the video for the day. It’s a diet of pure adrenaline. But how can I not do this? What a joy and a privilege it is for me to be active and engaged, after so many years, and bringing these people and their stories to life.

Thanks for checking out my video coverage at the links above, and please be well.

Mark

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Gay Collective: “The Virus Divides. It Doesn’t Have To.”

Thursday, July 7th, 2016

Gay Men Collective Group Photo crop

The Viral Divide Flash Collective: Mark S. King, Bryson Rose, Damon L. Jacobs, Charles Sanchez, Frederick Weston, Bruce Ward, James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Durell Knights, Jordan Eagles, Leo Herrera, Avram Finkelstein, and Jawanza James Williams.

In a cramped meeting room in New York City on May 27, 2016, a dozen gay men, HIV positive and negative alike, came together to answer a vexing question: How do gay men bridge a divide that has been forged through decades of HIV stigma, distrust, and mutual blame? Or, at the very least, what might be done to start a conversation about the divide and begin to heal the wounds?

Convened by Avram Finkelstein, the HIV-negative artist and HIV activist who was part of the collective that created the iconic SILENCE=DEATH artwork in the 1980s, and Mark S. King, the HIV-positive blogger and advocate, the Viral Divide Flash Collective sought to begin a difficult conversation and find a graphic way to present it. The collective was sponsored by Visual AIDS and made possible through funding from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and GMHC.

viral

A “flash collective” is an exercise in artistic advocacy involving group facilitation and the common pursuit of a graphic message to communicate a concept for the public sphere. In other words, the gathering of gay men had mere hours to discuss the HIV viral divide, vent their frustrations about their lives and each other, and then find common ground. It was, in a word, intense.

Before the group even finished consuming their breakfast bagels, the walls of the room were covered in reams of butcher paper scrawled with the frustrations and issues viewed as crucial to members of the collective.

Important topics were raised, such as race, privilege, and the science driving the new HIV landscape. Again and again, the group talked through these concerns and then returned to their primary purpose of crafting a message about the viral divide among gay men.

“This message is the first sentence in a conversation,” Avram Finkelstein reminded the collective throughout the day. “It does not have to tell the entire story. It is meant as the starting point for important conversations.”

The result, HIV ÷, features the tagline, “The virus divides. It doesn’t have to. No walls between gay men.” The graphic image includes an animation that outlines the various ways in which the divide affects gay men: age, joy, relationships, sex, race, and love.

Avram Finkelstein facilitates

Avram Finkelstein facilitated the collective with assistance from Mark S. King.

And the graphic image has an impressive coming out party on the way. It will be projected onto the façade of the Bronx Museum on July 13, 2016, as part of the opening of ART AIDS AMERICA, a retrospective of AIDS-related art through the years. The Illuminators, most widely known for their work projecting graphic messages on the New York City skyscape on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, will coordinate the projection. The work of the Viral Divide Flash Collective is viewed by the museum as the very latest in a history of AIDS artwork that dates back more than thirty years.

The Viral Divide Flash Collective has set up a Tumblr page featuring the final artwork and of the collective’s day together. Photos of the projection onto the Bronx Museum will be added after the event on July 13. Anyone is welcome to post their thoughts on the Tumblr page or to share the images on social media.

The HIV ÷ message comes just as gay men are grappling with a host of new scientific realities that are altering the social landscape.

The increased adoption of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has re-energized activists and provided a way for HIV negative gay men to participate fully in their own HIV prevention.

Meanwhile, research has definitively shown that people living with HIV who are on treatment and maintain an undetectable viral load are uninfectious. A new group, Prevention Access Campaign, is aggressively promoting the scientific evidence that undetectable people living with HIV cannot pass on the virus.

Online dating apps, where divisions between HIV positive and negative gay men have been most prominently on display, have now incorporated profile choices that include being on PrEP or being HIV positive and undetectable. So there is movement afoot, even as HIV stigma remains a stubborn roadblock to bridging the viral divide.

James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Bryson Rose and Charles Sanchez crop

Group members James Krellenstein, Alex Wilson, Bryson Rose and Charles Sanchez.

It would appear that now, more than ever, gay men can relieve themselves of the social walls that have divided them along the lines of their sero status. The HIV ÷ graphic message is only a small part of multiple efforts to repair relationships among two factions of gay men that have often been at odds with one another.

After so many years of mortal fear, irrational and otherwise, bridging the viral divide will surely be easier said than done. The members of the Viral Divide Flash Collective have started an important conversation. It will be up to countless others to continue it.

Mark

PLUS…

MarkTheoI could not be more excited about returning to the international AIDS conference next week. AIDS2016 in Durban, South Africa, is sure to offer exactly the kinds of sights, sounds, and people that I love capturing in my video blog coverage. I am proud to have the sponsorship of MSMGF, the global organization working for the health and rights of gay men (men who have sex with men) around the world. Beginning with pre-conferences that begin on July 16, you will be able to follow my coverage on the MSMGF site or by checking in with TheBody.com, the most comprehensive HIV site anywhere. As with my past conference coverage, I leave the research and panels to others, while my trusty camera man Theodore and I train our sights on the colorful people who make this conference like none other. See my teaser video here, and wish me luck!

 

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My Response to Orlando in One Sublime Performance

Monday, June 13th, 2016

pulse-orlando-shooting-lgbt-community-v3

I can’t watch the news anymore right now. I have it muted, but will admit to glancing in its direction every few minutes. On the screen there are police cars and flashing lights and footage of the injured and there is often someone in tears.

It makes me wince with emotion, and twice this morning I have blurted out a sob for a moment, which surprises me, frankly, because I don’t cry much anymore.

Tears are creeping up on us everywhere. My husband started crying yesterday while we were waiting for a table at a restaurant. He read on his phone about the long lines to donate blood, hundreds of people waiting for hours, and he lost it for a minute. I rubbed his back and said nothing.

No words, as they say.


 
But, being a theatrical queen that returns to performances for emotional touchstones, I want to share this transcendent performance by Fantasia from the 61st Annual Tony Awards. Every single word of this song, “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, speaks to me at this moment and to this tragedy.

We are resilient. We miss those close to us. We are beautiful. And we are here.

“I’m Here.”

I got my children.
I can’t hold them now,
They may not be here, but they still mine.
I hope they know I still love them.

Got my house.
It still keeps the cold out.
Got my chair
When my body can’t hold out.
Got my hands
Doin’ good like they s’pose to,
Showin’ my heart
To the folks that I’m close to.

Got my eyes.
Though they don’t see as far now,
They see more ’bout how things
Really are now . . .

I’m gonna take a deep breath.
Gonna hold my head up.
Gonna put my shoulders back,

And look you straight in the eye.
I’m gonna flirt with somebody
When they walk by.
I’m gonna sing out . . .
Sing out!

I believe I have inside of me
Everything that I need to live a bountiful life.
With all the love alive in me
I’ll stand as tall as the tallest tree.

And I’m
Thankful for each day that I’m given,
Both the easy and hard ones I’m livin’.

But most of all
I’m thankful for
Loving who I really am.

I’m beautiful.
Yes, I’m beautiful,
And I’m here.

 

And please, my dear friends, be well.

Mark

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Surviving Life Itself: Reflections of a Longtime Survivor

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

surviving life artwork

The young woman sitting across from me on the bus is in her mid-20s. She turns to her companion and her voice grows serious.

“I know someone who died,” she says in the hushed tone reserved for tales of mortality. Her friend looks up from his phone. “He was a good friend of my brother,” she goes on. “He was killed in a motorcycle accident a few months ago. It was just awful.” As her friend offers words of comfort, my own thoughts produce a rueful smile and a nagging question.

Just one? You know just one person who died?

By the time I was her age, death in my social circle was so commonplace the body count approached the toll of a commercial airline tragedy.

I listen as the woman reverently shares the details of the accident, of the shock waves that surged through the family, of what the dead friend was like and who freaked out at his funeral. And then a bittersweet realization strikes me.

The friend she lost has a story of his very own. It is the chronicle of one tragic death, with all of its intimate details and reverberations. His story will be repeated by the young woman for years, and by her brother and by the remaining loved ones of the absent friend. And they will grieve and remember this individual death and grant it the weight of a rare tragedy.

***
I didn’t get many chances to do that, living as a young gay man in Los Angeles in the 1980s. There were very few singular deaths. It seemed like everyone was doing it. And among them, a dozen friends close to me, struck down within months of one another, with whom I shared a history of youthful secrets, joys and indiscretions, never to be spoken between us again.

Already I have indulged in a regrettable pastime that aggravates me when others pander to it. I am counting my lost friends like selfishly guarded chips in a morbid poker game, claiming my grief as if the high tally amplifies the legitimacy of my loss. There is no hierarchy of misery. The death of one person close to you is quite enough.

And yet there are harrowing, undeniable moments from my past, drawn from 30 years living with HIV, that have shaped my attitudes and the senseless tragedies that befall us. I can conjure them but I must do it deliberately, for they are held captive in secluded corners of my mind and I release them with great caution. Perhaps now is the right time to unlock a few of those images.

The fluids in Lesley’s dying body percolating like a coffee maker as we stood at his bedside awaiting his last breath. The anguished admission by my brother, Richard, that he helped his critically ill lover swallow a deadly, Seconal-laced cocktail in order for him to die on his own terms and avoid the final indignities of AIDS. My visit to Pablo in intensive care during his pitiful throes of dementia, nodding my head reassuringly as I tried to decipher his final, incoherent pleas.

They are a litany of despair, these heartrending tales, but I feel compelled to reveal them as part of another common exercise: to authenticate my history as a “long-term survivor.” I have misgivings about that unsettling designation because it doesn’t speak to my other, parallel life experiences and it suggests a dismissal of my relevance in the here and now.

***
In the decades since those sorrowful days, I have faced a host of perilous circumstances apart from AIDS, including a car crash, drug addiction, serious medical procedures and weapons pointed in my direction. Like everyone else, positive and negative alike, I am a survivor of life itself.

That life has included falling in love, changing careers, teasing my friends, watching my cats wrestle one another, and looking forward to whatever lies ahead with a deep sense of gratitude and joyful anticipation.

And it is this prism—one that includes AIDS as only a segment of my life—through which I view the world today. My status as a long-term HIV survivor does not make me a champion or a museum piece to be examined and admired. I am a man in the prime of his life. My age and maturity guide me, not the virus that has failed miserably to kill me.

The grief-stricken young man I once was held no clue about the mystifying speed with which time passes. The swift interval between the early days of AIDS and merciful treatment breakthroughs confounds me even now. Suddenly I blinked, and when I opened my eyes I was 40 years old and the world was a far different place.

***
Many of us remember that new world, when people with AIDS were saved by a miraculous “cocktail” of new medications. Living with HIV before the mid-1990s, when these medications were introduced, has become the popular line of demarcation for entry into the fellowship of long-term survivors.

My work in HIV advocacy continued during this time while others retreated to lives away from daily reminders of the epidemic. I did not fault them for that, in fact I envied them, but the army of our earliest activists, forged in the first years of the plague, had diminished.

By then, women and people of color had gained more traction and acknowledgment in the HIV arena, though without the national fervor or the generous support enjoyed by the original, largely gay agencies.

It was a time of such hope and encouraging progress, but if you scratched the surface of these victories you found they were dependent on privilege, money and access. Deaths continued unabated behind a dark curtain of racism and poverty.

The gay community began to avert its eyes from the continued infections of people unlike ourselves, and I joined many other exhausted activists who abandoned town hall forums devoted to HIV for the celebratory relief of the dance floor. Massive circuit party events became a vibrant diversion, summoning revelers by promoting their dubious contributions to AIDS service organizations. After a generation of relentless mortality I felt entitled to the party, to the steroids and the gym membership and the body-thumping beats of house music.

That is, until the festivities morphed into drug-fueled bacchanalias that required ambulances with the same regularity that had once been needed at AIDS hospices. I fell victim to their excesses, and my drug addiction and recovery process removed me from HIV advocacy for the next several years.

***
I blinked again and now find myself here, sitting in my home office as a man in his 50s. My workspace is populated with relics of the epidemic, the walls filled with posters from AIDS Walks and photos of protests and triumphant arrests. A vast collection of name badges from AIDS conferences are strung from a single hook in an enormous, colorful bouquet. And everywhere around me are reminders of the missing. Pictures of friends whose faces will not age. Borrowed sweaters in the closet that need never be returned.

They comfort me, these tangible reminders of strife, victory, love and loss. They help me embrace and appreciate my life history. Perhaps I don’t find the title of “long-term survivor” so unsettling after all. There are worse things.

Most of all, the trauma that had once consumed me is now shrouded in the fog of a fading dream.

What remains are the wondrous developments of the present, like treatments that have also rendered people with HIV non-infectious and the amazing potential of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a pill to prevent someone from contracting the virus. The advent of PrEP is the most significant prevention advancement in a generation. It is just the kind of miracle we once prayed for as we sat silently in pews at memorial services.

But astoundingly, these developments have been nearly as controversial as they have been celebrated.

There are thoughtful conversations about the cultural and medical effects of PrEP. What a shame they are being drowned out by clanging arguments about who is using condoms and who is not. The ludicrous chatter about who is a whore, a role model or a rebel foolishly reduces human sexual behavior to a problem that must be solved. Much of it seeks to impose sexual sterility in the way homophobic conservatives once denounced all gay bedroom antics, whether they were risky or not.

I remember what sex was like before gay men started using condoms. It was glorious. It still is. I always thought that finding our way back to enjoying sex without a barrier was kind of the point. Even the popular slang for sex without condoms, “barebacking,” evokes some kind of deviant sexual pathology. The entire history of human sexuality would suggest otherwise.

I watch the absurd finger-pointing today, the naïve segregation of positive and negative, the lack of empathy granted to human failings, the tendency of the newly infected to call the police before they call a doctor, the fracturing of the advocacy efforts built over decades, and I weep for the community we once were.

***
Our hand-wringing over how to engage young people bemuses me, particularly our morbid fascination with aggressively foisting upon them the horrors we once endured, as if clubbing them with fear will somehow make them rethink their youthful transgressions. Our heartbreaking past is important history that should be preserved. It is not a prevention strategy.

Trying to imprint our life lessons on the young is a fool’s errand practiced without effect for millennia. I have never walked up to anyone who served in Vietnam and asked him to sit down and tell me all about it. I may respect the elderly soldiers in Veterans Day parades, but whatever post-traumatic disorders or multiple losses we may share fail to unite us. I watch them roll by in wheelchairs, festooned with medals and shriveled into nothingness, and then I have the audacity to wonder why younger gay men don’t consider my life experiences relevant.

Our influence as long-term survivors may be limited, but we can find meaning and engagement as cultural elders and mentors. To whatever degree younger people are receptive, we have so much to offer about the nuances of treatment, the various side effects and the failings of the pharmaceutical complex that we have rallied against so effectively through the years.

Regardless, nothing should deter us from being of service to one another. We must support the emerging networks of other survivors and work to find solace in our shared history. We are a displaced segment of a community that once ministered to us. Our bond is vital to finding solutions to the issues we face as an aging population.

As wearying as our battles have been, as unwelcome as we may sometimes feel in the modern advocacy movement, we have plenty to contribute. We had better do it while we still can.

I am sensitive to the passage of time because I have seen lives with great promise left unfulfilled. I may no longer fear dying, but I am sorely afraid of not taking full advantage of these precious additional years that were once unimaginable. Regrets, the things unsaid and undone, are what frighten me and urge me onward.

The mysteries of life and time will be revealed in due course: to the woman on the bus grieving her singular loss, to those who would howl at the moon over behaviors they do not understand, to survivors grappling with the meaning of tragedy, to young people negotiating the sexual terrain, to you and to me and to all the rest.

Enlightenment awaits. All we have to do is blink.

Mark

(This essay appeared in the June, 2015 issue of POZ Magazine and is shared with their permission. Today is HIV Long-Term Survivor Awareness Day.)

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Checking Privilege at ‘HIV Is Not A Crime’ 2016

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

Marco Castro-Bojorquez (Lambda Legal), Maxx Boykin (HIV Prevention Justice Alliance), and Naina Khanna (Positive Women's Network) at HIV Is Not A Crime (II) Training Academy held May 17-20 in Huntsville, AL.

Marco Castro-Bojorquez (Lambda Legal), Maxx Boykin (HIV Prevention Justice Alliance), and Naina Khanna (Positive Women’s Network) at HIV Is Not A Crime (II) Training Academy held May 17-20 in Huntsville, AL.

The issues of race, gender and privilege crackled through the recent HIV Is Not A Crime (II) conference like a live wire, throwing sparks at every turn. From the main stage to the hallways, attendees called out white classism, the utter failure of the criminal justice system (unless its purpose is solely to imprison black men), and what it truly means to be an ally of marginalized communities.

It was at turns exhilarating and a little unnerving. White male advocates like myself might have lost our bearings from time to time, wondering why we felt self-conscious at a conference devoted to an issue we care deeply about. No matter. The anti-criminalization movement is largely populated by women and people of color, and their job isn’t to make me comfortable (activism rarely is). Changing laws that imprison innocent people living with HIV is the goal, along with condemning the social and legal systems responsible.

HIV advocacy has always been driven by those with the most to lose. An argument could be made that gay white men, now decades after the plague years, have increasingly exited the activism scene and are off somewhere getting gay married and enjoying access to HIV treatment and PrEP. Left behind to do the heavy lifting are women and people of color. They have been core advocates in the fight all along, of course, but have had to watch as other populations got what they came for and then peeled away.

If you go with that thesis, then the prominence of women and people of color at HIV Is Not A Crime is as bittersweet as it is triumphant.

Produced by The Sero Project and the activism powerhouse Positive Women’s Network USA, the conference served as a “training academy” for advocates working to reform or repeal State-wide HIV criminalization statutes, and the work of organizers is a testament to our common bond: the empowerment of people living with HIV, speaking about ourselves, for ourselves.

The intersections of race, gender, and sexuality were given as much weight as strategy sessions on working with legislators and lawyers, and the program repeatedly drove home the fact that criminalizing behaviors related to specific groups of people is as American as apple pie. Plenary speakers included advocates for women (including transgender women), current and former sex workers, immigration reform and drug legalization advocates, and, most powerfully, people who have been prosecuted under HIV criminalization statutes.

My video coverage of the HIV Is Not A Crime (II) Training Academy provides a glimpse of demographic landscape the conference offered, even if I managed to chronicle remarks by elevated HIV advocate Mary Fisher while not capturing enough of the electrifying words of grassroots activists like Maxx BoykinAshton P. Woods, and Marco Castro-Bojorquez, or criminalization survivors like Ken Pinkela and Monique Moree (add them to your Twitter feed anyway). My special thanks to Nicholas Feustel, a Berlin filmmaker who is creating his own film about the conference, for allowing me to tag along during his interviews (and take advantage of his awesome lighting).

It is tough to describe the experience of being on the campus of University of Alabama in Huntsville with these fierce advocates for four days, living together in dorms and taking our meals in the cafeteria. HIV Is Not A Crime may be the most perk-free conference any of us have ever experienced, with no exhibit hall or pharmaceutical sponsors bearing swag bags, and I don’t believe we would have it any other way.

Group photo

For more information on HIV criminalization, and why this continues to be the defining moral HIV issue of our time, I urge you to visit The Sero Project for video interviews with those who have been prosecuted and a state-by-state map of HIV statutes.

Meanwhile, my friends, please be well.

Mark

AIDS2016_logo_website_white_bg_3p.s. Speaking of conference coverage, I’m thrilled to announce that I will return to the International AIDS Conference for AIDS2016 in Durban, South Africa in July. My video blog coverage is sponsored by MSMGF and will appear on their site as well as TheBody.com. I look forward to bringing you the sights, sounds, breaking news, and most especially the people that make the bi-annual conference so memorable. Look for more details very soon.

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