Long Island continues to be the suburban area with the greatest number of new cases of HIV in America each year – a fact that is not new. The facts also make it clear that there is a re-emergence of HIV among gay and bisexual men. Even though gay and bisexual men represent just 5% of the Long Island population, this small community comprises more than half (52%) of all new HIV infections on Long Island. The numbers signify a major health disparity that is being met with a firm response.
The Long Island GLBT Services Network (The Network) is a leader on Long Island working to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, particularly among gay and bisexual men who are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. With this re-emergence of the epidemic, The Network has ramped-up efforts to help the GLBT community.
The Network’s HIV/STI Outreach and Testing Program conducts community outreach and education services so that GLBT people know how to stop the spread of HIV. The Network’s HIV/STI Program also provides free and confidential rapid HIV testing helping people know their status and get connected to specialized HIV medical care. The Network continues to expand its outreach and testing staff with a profound community impact – over 400 HIV tests were conducted in 2013, which is a 25% increase from the number of tests The Network conducted during the previous year.
The Network has also taken on the responsibility and leadership to offer free STD screenings as well. The risk of contracting HIV increases two to 23 times when someone has an STD. Screenings for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are offered in conjunction with HIV tests at The Network’s community centers so that someone can access all services at once. In 2013, more than 600 STD tests were performed so that more gay and bisexual men are aware of their status.
Beyond its prevention efforts, The Network also provides support. “Living PositHIVly” is a group exclusively for GLBT people living with HIV/AIDS – the only group of its kind on Long Island. Aiming to provide peer support, this group is facilitated by a professional social worker and provides the unique opportunity for all GLBT people living with HIV/AIDS to gather, instead of just one segment of the community.
“Getting tested is no longer a scarlet letter,” says Lambert Liu – HIV/STD Outreach and Testing Manager with The Network. “Our youth openly announce to their friends they have recently been tested and are met with words of support and congratulations, rather than being labeled ‘promiscuous’.”
Sadly, young gay and bisexual men of color are at an even higher risk for contracting HIV. The Network has developed special outreach programs to engage this hard-to-reach group that has historically faced homophobia from family and faith communities in different ways then their peers. The efforts include special prevention programs borrowed from the CDC – “evidence based interventions” or EBIs that are proven to help participants decrease their risks. The Network coordinates these special programs for young gay and bisexual men of color to provide education while also building a sense of community to reduce the impact of homophobia.
“As educators of the community, it is important that we are comfortable talking about sex in a non-judgmental way,” says Liu. “In moving away from the notion that sex talk is taboo, we can effectively educate the community on safer sex practices and how to prevent HIV and STDs.”
Knowledge is power. GLBT youth can be directly involved in the important task of educating their peers through LIGALY’s SNAP, Sexual Negotiation and Prevention, program, a 4-week interactive, fun, educational, and team building program that teaches the tools needed to deliver HIV risk reduction messages.
Other Network HIV/AIDS Services:
Counseling – Because we all need to talk to someone sometimes. It is not finding a place that understands you, but The Network offers such a place!
Medicine – If you cannot afford it, ask The Network about their recycle system. And if you have extra, you can donate unused HIV/AIDS medications to help others.
Weekend Retreats – The Network offers regular weekend retreats for gay men of color exploring factors that may influence sexual behavior.
Free Condoms – The Network offers condoms, dental dams, and other forms of sexual protection as well as information on how to use them.
Workshops & Training – If you are involved at your school, church, or community center, you should ask about scheduling a workshop or training.
By Robert Vitelli