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Men with HIV get support and more at Poz Houston.

By Brian Greul

handsIt’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday night in March, and eight gay men are standing around a couple of tables at In & Out on North Shepherd in the Heights. The cozy bar has dance music blaring and is unusually busy for a weekday night. The men are half-heartedly playing WII Bowling with the bar’s Nintendo WII system.

They are also talking about life with HIV in 2009. Doctors, treatments, side effects, and stigma are all part of the conversation like actors in a bad play.

There are about 35 guys in the bar tonight for a social group that meets once a month. The social is for HIV-positive gay men in Houston. Unlike most programs in Houston, a major nonprofit is not involved.  This is a self-organized activity that receives no funding and has an all-volunteer organization. It’s been quietly going on for about two years, taking place at various Houston bars like In & Out and EJ’s, who welcome the men with few questions asked.

Most of the organizing has been done by a handful of volunteers via craigslist and Yahoo! groups. Up until Christmas of 2008 the group had been managed via an informal e-mail list. There had been discussions about doing things beyond the bar, but they never materialized due to only meeting once a month.

Living with HIV is still not the picnic that drug ads make it out to be. Sure, it’s not a death sentence . . . if you take your meds, follow the doctor’s instructions, and get off drugs and alcohol.  A tall order for many guys in the gay community. Living with HIV is more like a sick game of “tag, you’re it.”

When you become positive, you have to come to terms with having a life-threatening disease that will result in death if it’s not treated. You also get to find out who your true friends are. Some guys find out that their family is ignorant and cuts them off because they are afraid of the disease. More than one guy has been fired, not for having HIV, but for some other mostly minor reason. Sure, it’s illegal, but who has time to fight over that when there is rent to pay, meds to take, and life to live? Many guys find out that they are positive only to have their boyfriend ditch them.  True, dating someone who is the opposite HIV status as you is a challenge, and many guys simply can’t handle it. All of this adds up to make life with HIV lonely, depressing, and isolating for a lot of guys.  That’s where Poz Houston has come into the scene.

In late 2008 the guys who were gathering for the monthly Poz Social decided it was time to move on and do more. A Yahoo! group was formed to help the group communicate beyond the bar-based social.  The idea was to do things like camping, museum trips, movie nights, and getting out there and living life. At the same time, the group’s name changed to Poz Houston, and it adopted a purpose and mission.

Poz Houston is a social support network for HIV-positive gay men in Houston and the surrounding area. Its purpose is to help gay, HIV-positive men to develop friends, get involved, and get back to living life. The Yahoo! group quickly grew to 150 men within 90 days. The group also regularly hosts a monthly social at In & Out and does the types of things envisioned. The group has also had a positive impact by helping guys find other guys who share HIV in common, among other things. Friendships have formed, and men are spending time going to see movies, dining out, and taking in exhibits at museums.

The group reached the point where it needed to migrate to a discussion forum hosted on a website. One of the things they found was that different men have different communication needs. Someone who is younger and newly diagnosed may want to participate a lot more than someone who has been living with HIV for 10 years. The group helps bring these two different guys together and, in doing so, helps each one.

In early May the group launched an online discussion forum and had over 110 members signed up soon after. The new discussion forums provide areas
to plan events, chit chat, and discuss life with HIV. The website is located at http://www.pozhouston.org/.

Brian Greul is a local HIV and AIDS activist.

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