Queer leaders of color discuss shortfalls of HIV and COVID-19 response

Black and Latinx Community Control of Health, a local organization for LGBTQ+ people of color, held its second symposium on Feb. 6, National Black AIDS Awareness Day. ACT UP Philadelphia organizer José de Marco founded the organization, which advises health policies and practices that affect Black and Brown people. Michael Hinson, President and Chief Operating Officer of SELF, Inc., served as moderator. The event included several presentations about the impact of HIV and COVID-19 on Black and Latinx communities, transgender health and well-being amid the pandemic, policy issues for gay men of color, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment as related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the crystal meth crisis that disproportionately affects Black and Brown people.   

José Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point Philadelphia, spoke primarily about the social determinants of HIV care for Latinx communities, starting with the fact that one fifth of the people living with HIV in the U.S. are Latinx. A national study that Prevention Point conducted revealed that people who were seeking treatment were diagnosed in the AIDS stage of the disease.  

“Can’t talk about this without talking about stigma,” Benitez said at the symposium. “Machismo is something that is still very present culturally. It makes it difficult for us when we’re trying to negotiate with folks about how to get into care, how we even talk about different behaviors, specifically men who have sex with men, or substance use.”

Substance use and harm reduction are also issues that affect communities of color at higher rates than caucasion populations. Benitez said that through Prevention Point, he’s been seeing more and more people using fentanyl and heroin. 

“We’re seeing the likelihood that we’re going to be taking care of people with more wounds, who are probably engaging in riskier behavior because they don’t have enough equipment,” Benitez said. 

Benitez underscored the need to have conversations surrounding the varying ways that Latinx communities interpret the meaning of harm reduction. “People will see that there’s still this mixture of ‘you’re giving out a syringe, so you’re enabling people to use,’” he said. “There’s still that cultural piece. That’s one space that we can all be educating people on.”

He also addressed the urgent need to get COVID-19 vaccines to local Black and Brown communities more efficiently. 

“We’re going to have an enormous uphill battle given everything that has gone on with Philly Fighting COVID,” he said. “One of the ongoing challenges in Philadelphia, but all over the country, is to make sure that the vaccine gets rolled out in different ways so that we’re not only demanding people go to health centers to get them, but we have to figure out how to do it [in a mobile way].” 

Viviana Ortiz, who works in prevention management at Prevention Point Philadelphia, began her discussion with the lack of trans-competent healthcare services and how the pandemic has deepened existing barriers to proper care. For example, trans folks who rely on survival sex work are at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“I know a lot of people who continue to do sex work because they have to pay bills,” Ortiz said. “Sex work is not something that you can claim as unemployment… On top of that, there’s anxiety, depression, a lot of mental health conditions that have been exacerbated,” she added. “There’s been more drug use. Combining all of those things does damage to your immune system.”

She commented on the overarching issue at the core of these conversations — that there need to be more queer and trans people of color, including Spanish-speaking Latinx people who can communicate with Spanish-speaking Latinx clients, in healthcare provider roles. 

“I often see organizations that may have someone who speaks Spanish because they learned it in college, but they have no idea about understanding the culture that comes behind it,” Ortiz said. “They weren’t raised in the community. They don’t know how Latinos may communicate.”

When Hinson asked Ortiz what allies should do to ensure that trans people get the right kind of care, she said, “The first thing is listening. It’s going to be uncomfortable, there’s going to be things that you may not want to hear. [Allies] need to really listen to people from the community because they know their bodies, they know what they need, they know what they want, and they know what’s effective.”

Sachelle Pagán Nuñez, retention specialist for Translucent Clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico, joined via Zoom call and spoke about the adversity that trans Puerto Ricans face. 

“In Puerto Rico we have a lot of problems for the trans community,” she said. “The most important problems are the police treatment and public health. There’s not enough service for the community, and the police don’t have the training [to treat us with respect].”

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi recently declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico due to an uptick in murders of trans people. Pedro Julio Serrano, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Puerto Rico Para Todas, told NBC News that police have been lacking in efforts to alleviate “the wave of homophobic and transphobic violence” that has plagued Puerto Rico.  

Kevin Pleasant, associate director of the TransLife Care Program of the social service organization Chicago House, Jamaal Henderson, HIV testing and linkage specialist for Prevention Point Philadelphia and community activist, and Jorian Rivera-Veintidos, senior HIV tester for GALAEI discussed the need to have intergenerational conversations about HIV prevention and treatment, as well as to dissolve cultural differences that prevent people from seeking treatment or even talking about HIV and sex education.  

“We need to reframe the conversation that we are having,” Pleasant said. “We have to say to ourselves, how many teenagers really think about the decisions they make in regards to their health? [We need to go] back to those messages from a while ago, and integrate these with the newer messages and provide a space for everyone to talk about what’s going on with them.”

They also emphasized the need to educate Generation Z about HIV prevention and sexual health in general. 

“How do we get this new generation, my kids’ generation, thinking about the choices they make and how it’s going to affect their health later on,” Henderson rhetorically asked the group.  

Rivera-Veintidos expressed a similar sentiment. 

“I want to be able to have a conversation with my future kids about [what sex is],” he said. “We hav

e to sit down and listen to them and see where they’re coming from because they’re just kids, they’re trying to figure out life. I can’t sit there and say ‘you shouldn’t have sex.’ I’m going to say ‘here’s a condom… here’s a dental dam, we’re going to get you tested.’”

Other speakers at the symposium included Kenyon Farrow, co-executive director of Partners for Rights and Dignity in Cleveland; Jesse Milan, president and CEO of AIDS United in Washington D.C.; and Keith Green, assistant professor in the school of social work at Loyola University Chicago. Guy Weston of Community Control helped organize the symposium.