Posts Tagged ‘politics’
Monday, November 28th, 2016
In the towering new novel Christodora, author Tim Murphy harnesses decades of personal and professional experience as an HIV journalist into a story that sweeps back and forth between the last several decades and beyond. It has the scope of great literature, but Christodora is also a deeply personal chronicle from a man who knows his terrain.
The book’s namesake is a century-old apartment building in New York City’s East Village, silently weathering the indignities of time, economics, and social change that is mirrored in a host of characters connected to the building through the years. They include a privileged young couple, both of them artists, their adopted child, revelers of the gay dance clubs in the village, social activists and fledgling health department professionals. Since the story takes root in the 1980s, we know our characters are poised to confront something they can never imagine.
Yes, there are AIDS horrors here, of the multitudes who die around the edges of the book’s pages. But Murphy’s lens is more interested in close-ups, in the intimate impact of calamity, in various forms, on the lives of his characters. He also writes with the distance and maturity to know that AIDS wasn’t the only crisis in town for New Yorkers during this period, and even within it, AIDS greedily intersected with numerous other social ills and personal struggles.
With hardly a false move, Murphy glides effortlessly among the worlds of addiction and recovery, the academic art scene, AIDS activism, and the darkened corners of mental illness.
It is a gift for any writer to find the interior voice of a character – the cyclical doubts and fears, the ongoing internal debates in which we all engage that propel our lives and choices – and so it is with Murphy, who has multiplied the feat by populating the novel with an astounding number of flesh-and-blood people who behave with all the faults and courageousness that humanity allows.
Murphy is coy about providing too many historical names and places. The inner workings of ACT UP and its more establishment-friendly offspring, Treatment Action Group, are dramatized at great length but the groups are never mentioned by name. It releases Murphy from the job of shackling his story to actual people and organizations; this is not historical autobiography in the vein of Sean Strub’s Body Counts or Cleve Jones’ upcoming When We Rise. The emerging AIDS activism scene is portrayed, Murphy has us feel, because some of his characters happen to be there. They come first.
That said, anyone familiar with the gay New York City scene from this era will enjoy the parlor game of spotting the real people who inspired several major characters. Some are transparent, others not. Christodora had me Googling the names and affiliations of my guesses more than once.
The most searing passages in Christodora deal with the wreckage of drugs and those engulfed by them, calibrated for maximum heartbreak. For any of us who turned to substance abuse during or after the plague years, who live with the confusion and guilt of having survived a public health emergency only to surrender ourselves to small baggies of crystalized catastrophe, Murphy knows us, and he intimately (and sometimes explicitly) offers us front row seats to the destruction of major characters. The brutality of addiction cannot be divorced from the story of AIDS.
Christodora even has the audacity to look beyond the present, providing glimpses into years we have not yet seen. Audacious, because Murphy knows there is no AIDS survivor among us who hasn’t considered what lies ahead, as the crisis years continue to fade from view, and he delicately provides an answer that is rooted in the personal destinies of his characters.
Ultimately, Murphy glides the reader to a gentle landing spot. After all the fury of AIDS activism, broken families and lifelong resentments, the flawed and sometimes flailing characters of Christodora are provided with a lovely parting gift. To all of this rancor, Murphy calls a kind of merciful truce.
The final notes of charity in Christodora are all the more bittersweet given they were written by an HIV journalist who, one suspects, longs for moments of healing grace every bit as wistfully as we do.
(Christodora would make an ideal gift to yourself for this World AIDS Day, or a great Kindle stuffer for someone you love – or for someone who could use a better understanding of the impact of these last thirty years. Check it out on Amazon here.)
Tags: A Place Like This, advocacy, Aging, aids, culture, gay, hiv, meth, physician, politics, recovery, Recreation, research, Sexuality
Posted in Book Review, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News | No Comments »
Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
I am on my feet at the Thanksgiving table, and my fists are slamming into the linen napkins. Silverware is quaking, pottery is rattling. The force of a particularly hard blow to the tabletop sends a dinner roll catapulting from the bread basket.
My screams are borrowed from post-election protest marches. They are deafening and unending. Fight him. Reject hate. Protect ourselves.
Surrounding the table are members of my family, some red and some blue. They pay me no attention. They are chatting among themselves, unaware of my thunderous cries. Forks and spoons and now falling to the floor and cartwheeling away. A bowl of green bean casserole has rumbled to the edge of the table and any second now it will
I wake up. It is morning in America.
While eating my breakfast cereal I luxuriate in thoughts of assassination. Oh my God that’s awful, my husband tells me, don’t even think such a thing. So I search for it online. I enter the letters “T-r-u-m-p A-s-s” and my browser helpfully fills in the rest. Nobody told my laptop it can’t think that way. My dreadful topic is the first suggestion Google offers.
Hello, NSA. You must be very busy. I’m just a depressed liberal. Move along, nothing to see here.
HIV activists have fought presidents before. We protested while carrying urns filled with ashes. We had motivation and grief and outrage. We believed we could change the world and we did. We actually did.
I was a young man then. I have been glancing at those years in the rearview mirror ever since. I write about them often. It hadn’t occurred to me that we could face that level of ignorance and danger again in my lifetime. And trust me on this, the policies and positions of our new administration, on everything from LGBT rights to HIV education, will have a direct impact on the number of urns to be filled in years to come.
The past may be prologue, but that analogy doesn’t satisfy me. Our past is a monster we had beaten down. But then it faded behind us, beyond reach, and somewhere back there it grew strong and fearsome and has now leapt over us to become our immediate future.
My horror imagery comes from my dreams. I work hard not to think of these things, at least during my waking hours. I’ve turned away from television news, angrily, like a lover who bitterly betrayed me. But at night it can’t be helped.
Our new president is smirking at his inauguration. He is waving to all of those he has so cynically duped, and surrounding him are white men sneering so broadly they look reptilian. Our outgoing president and his wife are enduring the event bravely, but their very presence among this grotesquerie is so out of time their image might as well be a weathered tintype.
I wake up. It is another morning in America, and I struggle to decide whether or not to surrender myself to sleep again. I honestly cannot decipher the better of the two.
Tags: A Place Like This, advocacy, Aging, aids, culture, family, gay, hiv, politics, Recreation, Sexuality, stigma
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy, Trump | 5 Comments »
Thursday, September 22nd, 2016
Amidst the happy haze of good news about the efficacy of PrEP in preventing new HIV infections and the growing consensus that people living with HIV who are undetectable are not infectious, there is troubling news from the CDC in two new reports about the golden oldies of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s): rates of syphilis are on the rise and antibiotics to treat gonorrhea may be nearing the end of their usefulness.
The news underscores a simmering tension between those of us who celebrate the lowered risk of HIV infection – and the diminishing role condoms might play in HIV prevention during this new era of PrEP and being undetectable – and the rise in reported cases of syphilis and gonorrhea. And I don’t mind being the first to call myself out.
RETHINKING MY GONORRHEA NOSTALGIA
In my cheeky post from last year, “My Gonorrhea Nostalgia,” I argued that what was once a simple rite of passage for many gay men – finding yourself at a clinic with the clap – has been judged and scorned so harshly these days that it has “raised the bar” on what we consider to be acceptable gay sexual behavior. From that piece:
When did avoiding every possible STI become the new goal for gay sexual behavior? Syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are all easily treated and cured. Scary campfire tales of a spreading superbug impervious to all treatment have failed to materialize. The very idea of getting The Clap again just makes me feel nostalgic.
No longer is avoiding HIV the prime objective; we must also now use a condom every time so that we are never exposed to, well, whatever. How many hoops must we jump through in order to fuck in a pleasurable way? We can’t win for losing.
While I stand by the basic tenants of my rant – gay men are held to a higher standard because we are viewed as sexual outlaws – new data runs counter to my assertion that STI’s are “easily treated and cured.”
“If current trends continue, strains of gonorrhea could become resistant to all available antibiotics, putting the 800,000 Americans who contract the sexually transmitted infection (STI) annually at risk of an untreatable case,” writes Ben Ryan for POZ, citing a new CDC report. He goes on to explain that at least one cluster of gonorrhea cases has begun to evade our current treatment arsenal and that’s why the CDC is sounding the alarm about it.
While gonorrhea remains universally treatable, there is evidence of a weakening of current treatments, and there are no other approved medications in the wings. Should untreatable strains begin to circulate, we may soon find ourselves without an effective solution, although a new drug in clinical trials is showing some promise.
Meanwhile, yet another new CDC report, this one charting syphilis cases by State, reinforces data that syphilis cases have spiked 15%. In the State-by-State comparison, a CDC graph shows the largest increases are mostly located – you guessed it – in the South (congrats on your win, North Carolina, although your victory is a hollow one since Georgia, the perennial favorite State for syphilis, is not included for lack of reporting data). The data also indicates an increase in syphilis diagnosis among gay men that has persisted since the year 2000.
It isn’t clear from the CDC report whether an increase in syphilis screening might account for the increase in reported syphilis cases. But still. “Although we have been treating syphilis effectively with penicillin for decades,” said CDC epidemiologist Cyprian Wejnert, the presenter of the screening data, “the risks of not being treated include visual impairment, damage to the nervous system, and stroke.”
TWO HIV ADVOCACY CAMPS OFTEN AT ODDS
And herein lies the tension. There are two distinct schools of thought on modern gay sexual politics and HIV, and too often they are loathe to overlap.
First, there are those, like me, who are thrilled that after a generation of mortal fear there are now ways for us to have pleasurable sex without condoms that does not pose a risk of HIV infection. It is just that sense of liberation that has propelled much of my writing, such as “Your Mother Liked It Bareback,” and it has led to a welcome increase in conversations about the value of sexual pleasure.
And then, there are those who have been more cautious, pointing out the risk of STI’s in general and among those using PrEP in particular. This has led to some acrimony. POZ science writer Ben Ryan, who has written quite a lot about PrEP, was blocked from the highly influential “PrEP Facts” Facebook page earlier this year for not adhering to group guidelines. Ryan had previously posted numerous articles that have taken a more circumspect view of PrEP or have reported on the prevalence of STI’s, and his work continues to be posted and discussed in the group.
The new CDC articles on gonorrhea and syphilis do not correlate the increase in STI’s to those using PrEP or to those who may have eschewed condoms because they are HIV undetectable. But that doesn’t mean that people on both sides of a widening chasm between the cautious and the sex-positive won’t try to score points from the CDC report or attempt to dissect its accuracy. Advocates trying to adhere to a singular message can be touchy. Been there, wrote that.
As for me, I’ll switch to the combination platter, thanks. While I will continue to celebrate the breakthroughs that have given us more options to “fuck without fear,” as the notable and quotable PrEP advocate Damon Jacobs likes to say, I’m going to dial back my cavalier posture about the risk of being infected with an STI. In light of mounting data on STI’s, some of my own past writing makes me cringe.
The only constant in the world of HIV is change. I remember when taking an HIV test was politically incorrect, when I took AZT every four hours and, more recently, when I believed a simple case of gonorrhea was worthy of clever mirth. I’ve had an attitude adjustment.
While catching the clap might have once been an amusing rite of passage to me, it can have real and very serious consequences for someone else.
Tags: advocacy, aids, barebacking, gay, hiv, physician, politics, PrEP, research, serosorting, Sexuality, stigma, testing
Posted in Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »
Monday, September 19th, 2016
When this blogger chose to join protesters at Chase Brexton’s annual “Charm Ball” to voice concern over the direction of Baltimore’s largest healthcare provider to the LGBT community, there was little doubt there would be some tension at the elegant affair.
Sure enough, urgent concerns were ignored and belongings were policed. There were stern warnings from security and more than one intimidating confrontation.
And that’s only what happened between Chase Brexton and their own guests. Really. The organization can’t seem to make a gracious move these days, even on their most elegant night of the year.
About thirty protesters, most of them patients of Chase Brexton, gathered outside Baltimore’s Railroad Museum on Saturday night, waving signs to cars as they entered a private parking area. As guests made their way toward the entrance, protesters called out “Rehire! Reform! Replace!” in reference to rehiring the five managers who were fired in an effort to intimidate remaining staff out of joining a union, and to replace CEO Richard Larison for creating an atmosphere of embarrassment and distrust at the health center.
Soon, event organizers installed a black paneled curtain to partially block the guests’ view of protesters. It was a terribly ironic sight, watching Chase Brexton’s attempt to literally blot out their own patients from view, but we’re dealing with an agency that has been tone deaf to community concerns for many months now.
Itta Englander, a Baltimore City resident who attended the event with her wife, had donned a lovely black gown for the Charm Ball, and even indulged in high heels, despite her pregnancy. She wanted to look great for her wife and for others at their table, all of whom were associated with a company that donates to Chase Brexton.
“I’ve been reading about what has been going on with the firings of managers there,” Englander said in an exclusive interview. “We saw the protesters when we were driving in, and I wanted to talk to them. I know the situation has been really, really tough.”
So, after being seated at her table and enjoying some of the program, Englander strolled out of the venue to have a chat with protesters. She listened to the concerns of several patients and met the wife of fired nurse practitioner Jill Crank, who spoke emotionally about the personal toll of the firings. Englander accepted a few printed flyers about the controversy and took some baked cookies to share with her table.
Those few minutes, and her sympathetic chat, would have harsh consequences.
When she attempted to re-enter the Charm Ball, Englander was stopped by organizers. “They wanted to know my name and my table number and see my ticket, all of which I produced. Then they said I was a ‘disruptive influence’ and they would not let me back in.”
Itta Englander was treated as if her time with protesters had exposed her to something terrible, a fast-spreading stomach virus perhaps, and nothing short of immediate quarantine would protect the other guests from heaving their soup course onto reams of black taffeta.
Without her phone or car keys, Englander asked that word be sent to her wife that she had been barred from coming back inside. That’s when event security decided to intimidate a second Charm Ball guest.
According to Englander’s wife, who asked not to be identified, security came to her table and removed her from her seat for a tense chat. She was told that Englander had attempted to re-enter the Charm Ball “with contraband,” and that she had “gone with the protesters.”
Englander’s wife could not have been more flabbergasted if she had been told that her partner had left the Charm Ball to join the traveling circus. But security wasn’t done with her. “They wanted to know if I was going to cause a scene,” Englander’s wife said, “and they wanted assurance I would not be disruptive before they would allow me to return to my seat. They never told me Itta was waiting for me outside.”
And yet she was. For more than thirty minutes, Englander uncomfortably stood in her heels on the sidewalk outside, waiting anxiously for her wife and finding nowhere to sit in her gown and rest. When she attempted to speak to Charm Ball organizers about her plight, they found her presence so noxious they literally turned their backs and walked away.
She eventually received help from the protesters, one of whom lent Englander a cell phone to contact her wife, who promptly came outside. The two of them left immediately.
“I know there are always two sides to an issue,” Englander said about her charmless evening, “but when one side is so guarded and paranoid, they just come off as unwilling to listen, and even uncivil — even to their own donors or people who are part of your core group. There were a number of ways the whole situation could have been handled better.”
There are few sights this blogger has witnessed in 30 years of HIV activism as outrageous as an organization literally constructing a curtain to hide their own, already marginalized patients from the view of donors. Or the smug smiles on their faces as they did it. I will not soon forget it, and neither should you.
It brings back memories of a generation ago, when HIV was new and ignorance was king, when fear and self-protection prevented the self-serving from hearing the facts of the matter, when the diseased unfortunates were hidden and ignored, when small-minded people simply turned their backs on needful voices.
But as has been clearly established, that kind of irony is lost on the leadership of Chase Brexton Health Services.
Monday, August 22nd, 2016
TO: Richard Larison, CEO, Chase Brexton
FROM: Your Executive Assistant
RE: Five points about the recent unpleasantness
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Your Executive Assistant
(In the latest non-satiric news: Victory (for now)! The first group of Chase Brexton employees eligible to join the union voted on August 25 IN FAVOR of joining SEIU1199. And get this: the margin was 87 to 9. Moire than ever, it appears the tactics of management have backfired. Management will almost certainly attempt to contest the results, and this struggle may drag on, continuing to destroy the reputation of Chase Brexton. For the moment, employees have real reason to celebrate. They are unified. — Mark)
Wednesday, August 17th, 2016
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.
And 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.
Tuesday, August 16th, 2016
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.
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.
Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016
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.”
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.
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.”
(Condom distribution chart: Holly Allen, Slate.)
Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
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!)
The MSMGF pre-conference is uniquely designed to address the issues and needs of men who have sex with men (MSM) around the world.
The Thrilling Treatment Access March on the Streets of Durban
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.
BONUS Video: An Interview with PrEP Advocate Jim Pickett
An HIV+ Gay Man is Erased by the Military and a Plenary Protest
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.
The Eye-Popping Global Village and a Party Without Pants
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.
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?
Tags: advocacy, Aging, aids, barebacking, conferences, criminalization, culture, gay, gratitude, help others, hiv, meth, physical, physician, politics, PrEP, recovery, Recreation, research, serosorting, Sexuality, stigma, testing
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, Meth and Recovery, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | No Comments »
Monday, July 18th, 2016
(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.
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.
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.
Tags: advocacy, aids, conferences, criminalization, culture, gay, help others, hiv, physical, physician, politics, PrEP, research, serosorting, Sexuality, stigma, testing
Posted in Family and Friends, Gay Life, Living with HIV/AIDS, My Fabulous Disease, News, Prevention and Policy | 1 Comment »