By Elizabeth Thompson

It was only about a decade ago when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first medication that provided pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to lower people’s risk of catching HIV, Truvada

Scotty Elliot still remembers the stigma that followed people who chose to get on the medication.

“Guys who took it were called ‘Truvada whores,’” said Elliot, an infectious disease social worker at Duke Academy for Health Professions Education and Academic Development. He said the disparagement was “just a horrible way to start a movement of getting care with people, so they are protected from HIV.” 

That stigma against people with HIV and members of the LGBTQ community, which was disproportionately impacted by HIV, still exists, Elliot said. 

However, as he stood holding a sign of two men kissing with big bold letters saying “DON’T WAIT, GET PrEP TODAY” in the heart of downtown Durham, Elliot marveled at the progress.

Scotty Elliott poses with a sign promoting PrEP to prevent HIV. Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson

“The last five people that have come up, I said, ‘Do you know about PrEP?’” Elliot said, “and they said, ‘Yeah.’”

Elliot was out and about downtown as the LGBTQ Center of Durham held a Queer Health Fair on Sunday in an effort to bridge gaps in health care across the community. Advocates ranging from community workers in HIV and AIDs prevention, to yoga teachers, to culture-specific LGBTQ organizations came to represent how the LGBTQ community can access all aspects of health.

Reducing the stigma around STIs

From information on PrEP and a rapid sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing booth, the fair was full of resources to reduce stigma around STIs.

Also available at the Queer Health Fair was free rapid HIV/STI testing. Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson

Having information out in the open is key to reducing stigma, said Matt Martin, grassroots advocacy manager at the NC AIDS Action Network.

“I think events like this are a huge way [to reduce stigma] by just normalizing it, talking about it openly,” Martin said. “I think that we’re taught, especially here in the South, to not talk about these things and they become taboo.”

One common misconception about HIV is that it only affects gay men. A 2018 CDC study found that 24 percent of new HIV diagnoses were among heterosexual people and 7 percent were among people who inject drugs. The rest, 69 percent, were among gay and bisexual men. 

The NC AIDS Action Network is trying to raise awareness that women are also greatly impacted by HIV, and they can also access PrEP. Black women, in particular, are disproportionately impacted by HIV and make up nearly 60 percent of new HIV infections in U.S. women. 

Conversations about health equity for people with HIV are about more than just their treatment, said Janeen Gingrich, interim executive director at NC AIDS Action Network.

“Folks are so much more than just one singular diagnosis,” Martin said. “We have to take care of the person and their full health, mental health, physical health, not just their HIV.”

Expanding health conversations

Education about STIs is just one part of the health conversation for the LGBTQ community, Martin said, and the fair was a great way to see the full spectrum of health needs.

LGBTQ people have been historically marginalized in medicine, and to this day, health isn’t as accessible to the LGBTQ community compared to other groups. Within the LGBTQ community, some people have easier access to the care they need than others.

Organizations such as El Centro Hispano have programs to give support to LGBTQ people in the Latin community. Their programs include Mujeres en Accion, a program for lesbian and bisexual Latina women, Entre Nosotr@s, a social group for transgender Latina women in North Carolina and HOLA Latino, a program for gay and bisexual Latino men, said Oscar Pineda, El Centro Hispano’s community director.

El Centro Hispano has programs for LGBTQ North Carolinians in the Latinx community. Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson

Transgender people can also be left out of healthcare when they have to fear being misgendered at the doctor’s office.

Something as simple as providers asking people their pronouns makes health just a little bit safer and more accessible for the LGBTQ community, said Tatiana Cambio, a UNC Chapel Hill dentistry student at the fair’s UNC LGBTQIA+ Oral Health Booth.

UNC Dentistry students help make oral health more accessible at the school’s Pride Clinic, Cambio said.

“We really work with our volunteers to make sure that they’re using current pronouns,” Cambio said, “and that’s something that people who are not super well connected with the queer community need to use a lot more practice on or be more aware of.”

Health is about more than physical health, which is why mental and spiritual health advocates were also present at the fair.

Durham-based Global Breath, a yoga studio, offers free drop-in classes to Black, Indigenous and people of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming people in order give promote more accessible self-care and healing, said yoga teacher Devon Pelto, who is also part of the studio’s leadership team.

Devon Pelto, yoga teacher and member of Global Breath’s leadership team. Photo credit: Elizabeth Thompson

“Any opportunity we have to practice slowing down is really helpful,” Pelto said. “I teach trauma-informed yoga, so it’s just to help people be back in their bodies and feel their bodies and create that safe place feeling again, because a lot of us, that has been taken away.”

Having a health fair devoted to LGBTQ people gives them a seat at the table, Martin said.

“Queer folks are often left out of health conversations,” Martin said. “So I think it’s really important for the community to take control of their own personal health.”

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Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth Thompson is our Report for America corps member who covers gender health and prison health topics. Thompson is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate...