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March 2009 Archives

snow.jpgMichael died 15 years ago today. He's a man that I once loved. He's also how I became HIV positive (and please take note that I deliberately used "how" instead of "why").

In "Coming Out Again" from the October 2008 issue of POZ, I wrote the following about Michael:

I met Michael in 1990 after a summer away from home at a Marine Corps training school. I had gone through basic training the summer before. I was in the best shape of my life.

Michael was handsome, but what appealed to me was that he was an average guy. He adored me. He was a devout Roman Catholic and a successful businessman. I fell in love with him. He told me he was HIV negative, but he lied. He didn't admit to me that he was HIV positive until 1993.

When I tested negative in 1991, I believed that I'd been absolved for the risky behavior I'd had in the past. I had just returned from active military duty physically unharmed, but mentally wounded. Because I felt both invincible and vulnerable, I let down my guard with Michael.

When I tested positive in 1992, Michael and I were no longer together ... Michael died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications, adding profound grief to my list of woes. His death only increased my fear that I would soon get sick and die.

I think of Michael all the time. I forgave him long ago for lying to me about his HIV status. I was at least as responsible as he was for what happened. I now understand intimately his fear of rejection. It's happened to me too many times.

I'd like to share a few more memories of Michael that I didn't include in that article.

When the first bombs dropped in Kuwait in 1991, I was with Michael in his house in suburban New Jersey. We listened on the radio to what we knew would mean my being called to active duty and possibly death. Dutifully, he drove me home across two rivers to Queens. We didn't say much during the ride, but I felt comforted by his mere presence.

Michael wrote me constantly while I was in Southern California on active duty training for the Gulf War. He surprised me with a visit for a long weekend. We drove through the mountains and border towns of Baja California. It remains one of the most romantic trips I've ever had.

The last time I saw Michael was in a hospital cleanroom. He had an oxygen mask on and was surrounded by family members in gloves, robes and hairnets. Most of them I had never met. They were kind enough to leave us alone for a while. We didn't say much, but I knew that he felt as comforted as I had that night he drove me to Queens.

I was angry at Michael for a long time and I was sad for even longer, but not once did I ever allow hate into my heart. Forgiveness wasn't immediate, but it was inevitable. It was the only way that I could move on. We are all imperfect. Rest in peace, Michael.

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cuba_flag.jpgAs a first-generation Cuban-American openly gay and HIV-positive man, I can bear witness to both how pervasive and oppressive homophobia is in Cuban culture. Cuba is far from being alone in its homophobia, but Cuban culture is certainly well versed in it.

All that said, much has changed and is changing in Cuba. For example, racial issues have definitely improved. Now, it also seems that at least lip service is being paid to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Cuban Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) has launched an anti-homophobia campaign, primarily targeted at youth. CENESEX will be hosting a series of panel discussions and other events starting today through June at the University of Havana.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban president Raul Castro, is the director of CENESEX, but she may not be the only reason for this campaign. One of the events is a screening of Milk. Sean Penn won his second Oscar for best actor portraying the lead character, Harvey Milk, who was the first prominent openly gay elected official in the United States.

Penn has recently visited Cuba. Whatever you or I may think about his politics (and for my part, I'm not sure how I feel about Penn's politics in regards to Cuba), I wouldn't be surprised if Penn's influence played a part in launching the campaign.

As for my feelings about the campaign itself, I'm excited by the possibility that Cuba could one day be a beacon for LGBT diversity and inclusion. However, I'll be keeping a healthy dose of skepticism until that day arrives.

Hat tip to the LGBT blog Blabbeando for this story!

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RuPaul's Drag Race

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The finale of RuPaul's Drag Race was last night. My cynicism about reality shows in general and this one in particular aside, I'm glad that BeBe won.

He was the most deserving of the final three on his own merits, but BeBe sealed the deal as far as I was concerned after his conversation with RuPaul.

Here's a transcript, which I transcribed from the video below--FYI, BeBe is from Cameroon:

RuPaul: Have you thought about what you're going to do after the show?

BeBe: I believe so much in community outreach. Cameroon has its own problems, you know, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, when it comes to poverty, there are no, like, medications and stuff, people just die in front of you, you know, and you're kind of crying out for help, and it's hard, it's very hard.

RuPaul: I can only imagine how hard hit Cameroon and all the area has been.

BeBe: You just have to live every day and hope for the better that some day you can contribute in your own way to make things better for people.

RuPaul: And that's why you're so special because you get to pass this message on.

BeBe: That would be a beautiful day, wouldn't it?
Too bad Ongina wasn't in the finale, but congrats to Bebe!

Watch BeBe and RuPaul (their conversation starts at 1:24 in the video):
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In my body's fight against HIV, I believe that my genes more than anything have helped me withstand its never-ending onslaught. Unfortunately, my genes also contain predispositions to diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Diabetes is a major concern for me, but cancer is my bogeyman. With diabetes, I'll probably have advance warning. With cancer, it probably won't be so polite.

Numerous family members have died from cancer of various types. However, I'm mostly concerned about colorectal cancer. My dad had it. Thankfully, it was detected and removed very early with no recurrence. My mom has lifelong gastrointestinal issues, mostly related to acid reflux. I'm also a lifelong acid reflux guy, which has ruined my enjoyment of many a spicy yet otherwise delicious meal.

colonoscopy.jpg What heightens my concern the most about colorectal cancer is that I had a colonoscopy years ago and had several polyps removed. Polyps, wouldn't you know, run in the family. They were "abnormal" and large. The bad news about polyps is that although they are usually benign, it's believed that they have the potential to eventually become malignant. So, I don't believe that I'm being totally irrational in my concern.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases are in people age 50 and older. That's why they recommend regular testing for the 50 and over crowd. I'm not in that demographic yet, but my genes and my HIV combined have given my health care providers enough concern to be vigilant.

I'm scheduled to have a follow up colonoscopy next month and I'm not looking forward to it. Preparation for the procedure is infamously hideous, but that's not the worst of it for me. I've avoided this follow up for various reasons over the years, but I must admit my fear of the results has been the biggest obstacle.

At last, there's no place left for me to hide. Such are the blessings of long-term survival from HIV, which allow me to experience the uncertainties that we all confront as we age. Thank goodness for such a happy problem.

Visit the American Cancer Society for more information about colorectal cancer.

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In a post last month, I said that the wind is at our backs when it comes to LGBT civil rights. A new survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life further confirms my optimism.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was conducted by Pew in 2007. The survey "explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape" (hence the clever survey title). Key findings were released in 2008, such as how many Christians (78.4%) are in the U.S. population, etc.

Additional survey data are just seeing the light of day, including LGBT-related questions. The following quote is amazing to me:

"Among mainline Protestants overall, 56% say homosexuality should be accepted, compared with only about one-in-four evangelical Protestants and four-in-ten members of historically black Protestant churches."

Most mainline Protestants accept LGBT people. Let that marinate. And that was two years ago. Even the fact that about 25% of evangelical Protestants and about 40% of black church members accept LGBT people is remarkable.

There's no doubt that this is great news for the future of LGBT civil rights. What I also pray for from these shifting attitudes is that the diminishing homophobia results in fewer HIV infections. Hope just keeps on marching forward.

Here's a chart from Pew that breaks down the results:
pewstudychart.jpg
Tip of the hat to the LGBT blog Independent Gay Forum for this story!

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pope_benedict_xvi.jpg It's no secret that the Roman Catholic Church does not condone birth control, including condoms. It's also no secret that such beliefs have been an impediment to HIV prevention around the world.

So it should have been no surprise to me that Pope Benedict XVI is quoted in the Telegraph (U.K.) as saying the following before his first trip to Africa as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church:

"[HIV/AIDS is] a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."

Yet, I am surprised. Well, not so much surprised as stunned. The willful disregard of evidence-based science (i.e., condoms prevent HIV) is bad enough, but the pope's characterization of it as the problem saddened me deeply.

As someone born into the Roman Catholic Church, it is especially difficult for me to reconcile how a religion that claims to represent the best spiritual interests of more than a billion people can be so out of touch with the reality of the earthly needs of its members.

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Zen and the Virus

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POZ-152.jpgSelf-promotion Alert: I interviewed an amazing cover subject for the March 2009 issue of POZ. Robert Chodo Campbell is an HIV-positive, gay Buddhist monk with lots of no-nonsense things to say about wellness and living in the moment.

I also had the privilege of doing a video segment with Chodo on the basics of Zen meditation. There are no car chases or fancy 3-D graphics, but nonetheless I believe that the video gets you in the mood for mindfulness (if I do say so myself).

My favorite moment in the video is getting into half lotus position. I was trying for a full lotus position. Regardless, Chodo was impressed that I could even do a half lotus (not sure whether that was a compliment, come to think of it, but I'll keep it as such).

I've always been interested in helping my body help itself in my struggle to keep HIV in check. After this interview, I must admit that my interest in meditation has grown as a component of my overall health strategy.

Curious? To read the article and watch the video, click here.

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Project Rewind

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Project Rewind, a study by the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, is currently seeking volunteers to participate in an anonymous online survey to determine the connection between sex, drugs and pornography for men who have sex with men (MSM). Researchers will use the results to develop new HIV prevention strategies for MSM.

nyu_hivinfosource.jpgMichael Marmor, MD, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine, is the head researcher. He has a long history with HIV/AIDS research.

In 1981, he was part of a team of doctors who identified the high incidence of Karposi's sarcoma (KS) in young gay men. KS was one of the earliest diseases associated with the AIDS epidemic.

I took the survey. It was quick and relatively painless, despite the very personal questions (remember, it's anonymous!). I answered honestly, which is obviously what they need from everyone who participates.

(Full disclosure: I'm an NYU alumnus, so please help my alma mater help us all fight HIV/AIDS!)

Visit hivinfosource.org/projectrewind for more information and to participate.

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Alex Blaze, the managing editor of the LGBT blog The Bilerico Project, has written a series of posts debunking abstinence-only sex education. He does a great job at presenting all of the issues involved in an informative yet reader-friendly format.

bilericologo.jpg The series is based on a new report titled "Just Say Don't Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools" coauthored by David Wiley, PhD, and Kelly Wilson, PhD.

Wiley is professor of health education at Texas State University and president of the American School Health Assocation. Wilson is assistant professor of health education at Texas State University-San Marcos and national board member for the American School Health Association.

Here are the six key findings as written in the table of contents of the report:

1) Most Texas students receive no instruction about human sexuality apart from the promotion of sexual abstinence.

2) Most school districts do not receive consistent or meaningful local input from their School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs) regarding sexuality education.

3) Sexuality education materials used in Texas schools regularly contain factual errors and perpetuate lies and distortions about condoms and STDs.

4) Shaming and fear-based instruction are standard means of teaching students about sexuality.

5) Instruction on human sexuality in Texas often promotes stereotypes and biases based on gender and sexual orientation.

6) Some Texas classrooms mix religious instruction and Bible study into sexuality education programs.

Yikes! I won't attempt to add anything to what these findings suggest because the analysis has already been done so well at The Bilerico Project.

Read the series:

Homophobia: Part of the Real-life Abstinence-only Curriculum

Religion: Part of the Real-life Abstinence-only Curriculum

Sexism: Part of the Real-life Abstinence-only Curriculum

Unsafe Sex: Part of the Real-life Abstinence-only Curriculum

Right-wing Politics: Part of the Real-life Abstinence-only Curriculum

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colombia_flag.jpgÁlvaro Miguel Rivera, a prominent AIDS activist in Colombia, was found "brutally" murdered in Cali, El Espectador reports. The authorities have not revealed any suspects.

In 2001, the rebel group FARC ordered mandatory HIV testing of residents in an area they controlled. FARC also ordered that anyone testing HIV positive would have to leave the area. The FARC eventually rescinded the orders.

Death threats and other harassment in response to his involvement against the FARC on this issue eventually made Rivera flee the area to Cali. There, he became the director of a local LGBT civil rights group.

Colombia has made great strides in terms of LGBT issues. Unfortunately, it seems as if Rivera has paid the ultimate price for those advancements. A profound thank you to him and to all people around the world fighting for civil rights.

Hat tip for this story to the LGBT blog Blabbeando.

jamaica_flag.jpg

Bruce Golding, the Jamaican prime minister, told his parliament recently that the country will not decriminalize homosexual acts, Pink News reports. He said he has a duty to "protect" the country.

"We are not going to yield to the pressure, whether that pressure comes from individual organizations, individuals, whether that pressure comes from foreign governments or groups of countries, to liberalize the laws as it relates to buggery," Golding said.

Gareth Thomas, minister of state at the U.K. Department for International Development, told Pink News that confronting homophobia in the Caribbean is crucial in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the region. "Things are not getting better," he said.

It's sad that the country of peaceful reggae music is now known as the country of homophobic dance hall music. The homophobia is so rampant that LGBT activists are routinely harassed and even murdered.

Jamaica is certainly not alone in its homophobia. The Caribbean in general is not overly LGBT-friendly, but tolerance does exist here and there. If Cuba--infamous for its homophobia--can make significant strides toward LGBT tolerance, then Jamaica can, too.

There is no doubt that homophobia fuels the spread of HIV. Tackling homophobia is not only a civil rights issue, it's a health issue.

Tip of the hat for this story to the LGBT blog Pam's House Blend.

BAIlogo.jpgIt seemed to me that the appointment last week of Jeffrey Crowley as director of the Office of National AIDS Policy by the Obama administration was mostly welcome news to the HIV/AIDS community, which is why the following reaction from the Black AIDS Institute got my attention.

I don't know what experience Crowley has had with the African-American community, but clearly the Black AIDS Institute believes it's lacking. Even if Crowley does lack a personal understanding of how HIV/AIDS has impacted black America, I have no doubt that he will be encouraged to acquire it.

Here's the text from their statement, which I received by e-mail (I added the italics and bold for emphasis):

NEW NATIONAL AIDS DIRECTOR: PROMISING, BUT CHALLENGES REMAIN

Newly appointed director of the Office of National AIDS Policy is expert in health care reform, but has scant experience fighting AIDS where it's worst: Black America. Black AIDS Institute pledges assistance.

The Black AIDS Institute welcomes President Obama's selection of Jeffrey Crowley as the new head of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. The selection underscores the President's commitment to reinvigorate our national AIDS response, filling a critical post that had remained vacant for more than two years. By tapping someone with such a strong background in AIDS policy, the Administration indicates its seriousness in addressing one of the country's greatest health threats.

Crowley's experience in public health research and expertise in Medicaid policy, including Medicaid prescription drug policies; Medicare policy; and consumer education and training underscores the administration's commitment to make sure HIV/AIDS are included in the health care reform conversation facing our nation. A stronger public health response to AIDS goes hand in hand with our long-overdue effort to achieve universal health coverage.

But America simply cannot win the fight against AIDS unless it wins it in Black America. Renewing our fight against AIDS in the United States requires that our leaders recognize the complete nature of the foe we are facing. "AIDS in America today, is a Black disease," says Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute.

Regardless of the lens used to look at the domestic epidemic - gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic class, education level, or geographic region - Black people bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic in America. "We are less than 13% of the US population," says Wilson, "yet we are nearly 50% of the new cases, 50% of people living with HIV/AIDS, and roughly 50% of the annual HIV/AIDS deaths in the U.S."

Mr. Crowley's dearth of experience in Black communities is reason for pause. Although we would have preferred the President's appointment to this post be someone with stronger ties to Black communities, even with the most intelligent leadership, the federal government cannot conquer AIDS on its own.

The Black AIDS Institute urges Mr. Crowley and the administration to reach out to Black leaders and communities to join forces in a common effort to reduce new HIV infections and AIDS deaths. We also call on traditional Black leaders to initiate an HIV/AIDS dialogue with the administration. Finally, the Institute pledges to do all it can to assist Mr. Crowley and President Obama turn the tide against HIV in our community and our country.



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