With AIDS outreach and education well into its second decade, how in the world has everyone not gotten the message?
AIDS center of Queens County Executive Director Philip Glotzer and a receptacle for used syringes. Glozter is a quick to remind the dangers of the disease threaten all sexual orientations.
By JOSH PARISH
A local Pakistani bodega owner slips up checking the IDs of his customers, and gets busted selling beer to minors. A small infraction, he gets sentenced to a couple of days of community service. This isn’t a criminal mastermind; he’s a well-respected member of his community, his neighborhood, and his mosque. His wife is a prominent physician. Because she is-and since it’s an issue that’s important to both of them-the bodega owner decides to pay his debt to society at the AIDS Center of Queens County, helping distribute information about HIV prevention and treatment. So inspired is he by helping out, he even writes a short article for a community newsletter about how important stopping the spread of HIV is to everyone, gay and straight.
After the article publishes, he walks into the office of Philip Glotzer, Executive Director of ACQC, and abruptly tells him he won’t be finishing his community service.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? Why?’” says Glotzer. “‘I have to tell the court you’re backing out, you’ll be in trouble. And I thought this was something personally important to you.’ And he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. My mosque is going to excommunicate me if I keep working here. I have to go.’ So, he went.”
And there’s, as Hamlet said of another life and death matter, the rub.
The bodega owner’s mosque obviously wasn’t concerned about the morality of him helping people avoid getting sick; most religions generally put such activities pretty high on their list of things that are morally just. They were concerned about him engaging in an activity they perceived as supporting homosexuality, an orientation most Muslims stand against morally. But the effect shows what a tug-of-war anti-gay voices and HIV prevention outlets like ACQC play: the bodega owner’s mosque forced him to not help the sick and those at risk of getting sick.
Seeking To Help “Our goal is harm reduction, plain and simple,” says Glotzer of ACQC’s aim. “We’re non-judgmental. We’re not a gay organization, and we’re not promoting or condemning homosexuality-we just want to reduce the amount of harm that you do to yourself or to others.”
It’s among the most complicated situations modern society faces: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender clients make up only about a quarter of the clients ACQC serves, but because HIV is so closely associated with LGBT culture in many people’s minds, health centers like ACQC that specialize in HIV prevention and education become targets in a morality siege.
Jennifer Medina, an ACQC screener, counsels a client after an oral HIV test, foreground. Tribune Photo by Josh Parish
The center opened eight years ago in a small office space in Rego Park, where it served about 700 clients. Now ACQC handles about 3,500 clients annually in its eight sites throughout the borough. Another 5,000 or so are served in its outreach programs, which use peer volunteers certified in community AIDS training to canvas the very hangouts other at-risk friends frequent. On site, ACQC provides services like clean needle exchanges for intravenous drug users, HIV testing, legal counseling, health referrals and housing assistance.
“AIDS is the No.2 problem we deal with; housing is number one,” Glotzer says. “People who are in positions where they have nowhere to sleep, where they’re being threatened with eviction and have to find other ways to make money, these people are much more likely to be engaging in activities that put them in a high-risk group for disease.”
The activities Glotzer mentions often have to do with substance abuse. Aside from IV drug users who contract HIV through shared needles, there are other ways it plays a role in the transmission of the disease. Just like alcohol or drugs impair your better judgment to step into a car and drive, they impair your better judgment to use a condom or to find out more about your partner’s history before bedding down with them.
A Sticky Subject The issue of the needle exchange program inspires a similar argument to the one concerning LGBTs dealing with HIV. The two camps are cut and dry: Opponents of such programs see providing people with clean needles, condoms, or instruction on safe homosexual sex condones and promotes their behavior-proponents of the program say the risk of harm already exists. Like walking on a broken ankle, ignoring the problem will only make it worse.
One place the camps agree (unlike the old argument over whether or not being gay is choice or biology) is that the risky behavior must somehow be reined in. You may not choose to want to have gay sex, but you better believe it, brother: You choose to have unsafe gay sex.
Even with more than 20 years in the public spotlight, AIDS is still on the rise globally, and heterosexuals far outnumber homosexuals in its number of victims. All the attention that’s been paid the disease has brought about some incredible progress fighting it with medication and education. It’s also taken away a great deal of the fear that surrounded it as a new, only barely understood epidemic in the 80s. Which is a good thing-in most ways.
Reaching Out “The youth who come in here can be way off base with respect to the risk they’re at,” says Nuris Rodriguez, Outreach Coordinator at ACQC. “Even the ones who are aware, they often still think they’re young and immortal. Worse, some of them think they can take medicine now and live a long, productive life even if they do get the disease. Which is true, to a degree-but it’s not at all a safe attitude to have toward HIV.”
A staff member at the Queens branch of the Hispanic AIDS Forum consults with a client before giving an HIV test. Tribune Photo by Miguel Bonilla
In a borough swarming with immigrants from countries lacking the education programs available in the States, misinformation is also major hurdle in curbing the disease’s progress.
“Services available to agencies in Queens simply don’t correspond appropriately to the multi-ethnic nature of the borough,” says Madelon Gauthier, Site Director of the Queens’ branch of the Hispanic AIDS Forum, an HIV education and prevention outpost that focuses on the Latino population. (Though no ethnicity is barred from its services.) “The epidemic is still growing, and it’s growing in greatest numbers within populations of color.”
The Queens branch of HAF, part of an international organization founded in 1985, serves about 200 Latino clients a year. They offer the same general services offered at ACQC-testing, community outreach, health referrals, and counseling. Gauthier says support groups are a high priority for the center because so many new immigrants just haven’t made that many friends or associates within the community yet.
“A large population of Latinos in Queens are recent immigrants, with a limited social, and even family, network,” she says. They’re also monolingual, which means even the most comprehensive preventative literature in English won’t carry an at-risk person into the safe zone.
Close attention to the individual needs of each client-like language, culture or gender issues-is the direction in which Glotzer, too, believes HIV programs must move.
“Yes, education and prevention have been part of our culture for years now, and some people get it completely, and some people still don’t get it at all. Why? Well, why did you understand algebra in high school but the person sitting next to you didn’t? The newest preventions we’re going into now are more individually geared, where you can sit down with someone and walk them through the process of understanding and eliminating risk. Getting someone to change their behavior, it’s a real challenge.”
Of course, all that individual attention takes a lot of manpower-the exact kind lost in cases like the bodega owner’s mosque choosing homophobia over healing.
“We’re just not quite ready as a society to look at it practically,” Glotzer says. “We want to say ‘just be abstinent, stop doing what you’re doing.’ And, yes, abstinence is the only sure way to stay safe. But we know just telling people ‘be abstinent’ doesn’t work, globally it hasn’t been effective. HIV isn’t down. Eight years ago we had 700 clients visiting the center annually-today we have 3,500.”