ColumnsHealth & Wellness

AIDS Watch: Testing Is Power

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When it comes to your HIV status, knowledge is power.

By Kelly McCann

KellyMcCann_WPTN
Kelly McCann

As a lifelong lesbian, I have no first- hand experience with male sexuality, or penises, for that matter. Though I have many gay male friends, I don’t pretend to be an expert in the area of hot, man-on-man action, either. What I do know about is HIV.

Like many of you, I was around at the beginning of the epidemic. In the ’80s and early ’90s, I saw the horrible toll HIV exerted upon my friends and upon the gay community at large. I experienced the fear, the grief, the anger, and, finally, the determination to do something about it, to help in any way I could. I began working in HIV prevention because I wanted to save my gay brothers the pain of this terrible disease. I also wanted to ensure that future generations of gay men and lesbians would never have to see what we saw, feel what we felt, or lose what we lost.

Despite advances in treatment and the resulting greater life expectancies and improved quality of life for persons living with HIV/AIDS, I must admit I am again feeling fearful. I am afraid of the indifference about risk for HIV infection that is becoming increasingly more common among gay men, especially young gay men.

Over the last few years, such apathy and complacency have led more and more gay men to engage in unprotected anal sex. Knowing how risky such behavior is, why are we seeing increasing rates of bare-backing? The reasons are as varied as flavors of lube.

Some gay men no longer fear HIV. They believe AIDS is under control and no longer a real concern in our community. Wrong! HIV is still a major health problem among gay men. Through its National HIV Behavioral Surveillance system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 25 percent of the men who have sex with men (for our purposes, let’s call them gay men–it is Gay Pride Month, after all) surveyed were infected with HIV! The local statistics are also disturbing. Since 1999, gay men have accounted for 53 percent of the HIV infections among men in Houston!

Other gay men believe HIV infection is unavoidable or at least a likely by-product of being gay. Still others use alcohol and/or drugs (especially party drugs like Ecstasy and methamphetamine) which increase the likelihood one will engage in risky sexual activities. Then, of course, you have your free spirits who simply live for the moment and follow their impulses wherever they may lead, including barebacking and potential HIV infection.

Another contributing factor to increasing rates of risky behavior among gay men is that many of them are unaware of their HIV sero-status. They simply do not know they are infected with HIV. According to the CDC, a recent study of young gay men showed 77 percent of those who tested positive for HIV mistakenly believed they were not infected!

Research has indicated that when people are aware of their HIV infection, they tend to change their sexual behaviors in order to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to their partners. Therefore, increasing the numbers of gay men who know their HIV status could help decrease the numbers of new infections occurring within the gay community.

Of course, you can always get tested at your doctor’s office. However, many people prefer an alternative. There are many non-profit organizations around town that offer HIV testing, sometimes free of charge. For gay men in Houston, one of the best places to go is Legacy Community Health Services, formerly Montrose Clinic. Legacy is Houston’s leading non-governmental site for HIV testing. The clinic is located in the Montrose at 215 Westheimer, and they are definitely gay-friendly.

What if you do not want to go to the clinic for testing? You are in luck. Legacy’s outreach staff members conduct HIV testing at a variety of community venues, as well.   So, while you sip a cocktail at a local gay bar, peruse a magazine at the bookstore, or “relax” at the bathhouse, you will likely be presented with opportunities to test for HIV.   For a listing of Legacy’s community-based testing sites, call 713/830-3070 or log on to www.legacycommunityhealth.org. A complete listing can also be found in the Calendar section of the magazine you are holding.

Can’t make it to one of Legacy’s outreach sites? No problem. June 27 is National HIV Testing Day, and there will be many special testing events around town. So you can see, there is really no excuse for being unaware of your HIV status this month.

Given the impact of HIV and AIDS upon the gay community, it is fitting that National HIV Testing Day falls during Gay Pride Month. Please show your pride by getting tested. Know your HIV status so you can protect yourself, your partners, and the gay community.

Kelly McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked its 25th year of service. Details: www.aidshelp.org.

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