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Let’s #BeTheGeneration

By Ian Morton | Profiles in Advocacy

To end both HIV stigma and infection

Since its discovery in the 1980s, HIV/AIDS has both disproportionately impacted and been the “burden” of the LGBTQ community.

When the infection seemed to spread like wildfire through the gay community, our lesbian siblings were our allies — even when shown that HIV had no boundaries — much of the heterosexual population actively avoided engaging in a dialogue around the disease.

To this end, LGBT centers throughout the nation have historically served as the nexus of conversations and strategies around how to fight the spread of HIV.

The San Diego LGBT Community Center (The Center) is no different, for years serving as a central host to HIV testing services, education classes and town hall meetings. As prevention strategies — both through safer-sex options and bio-medical interventions — have evolved, so has The Center’s role as a provider of services; they now also serve as a launching point for discussions and dialogue regarding a reduction in both the stigma surrounding HIV and new infections.

These expanding services support the popular #BeTheGeneration campaign, a successful marketing and engagement initiative that challenges San Diego County to work toward the end of new HIV infections by the year 2024.

To discuss the implementation of this programming, I caught up with Aaron Heier, long known for his role as The Center’s front desk coordinator and one of the first faces that has traditionally greeted folks as they enter its doors.

Heier’s current title is “Director of HIV Services and Front Desk Operations,” a role that allows him to also employ his certifications as HIV test counselor and Certified Phlebotomy Technician (CPT).

Aaron Heier, The Center’s director of HIV services and front desk operations (Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

Recognizing that the first step in preventing HIV transmission is to know one’s status, The Center invested in getting many of their staff members certified as testing counselors, facilitating an integrative and intersectional approach to combatting the disease.

“At The Center, our programs do not work in silos — we are client-centered, using an integrated approach to service delivery,” Heier explained. “From senior and youth services, to Latin@, trans and behavioral health services, the intersectionality of communities, cultures and peoples we assist, regardless of what they come to us for, allows us the ability to discuss and destigmatize HIV, what it is and what it means to be fully aware of our sexual health.”

Also joining the team is HIV test counselor/case manager and certified phlebotomist (and avid cyclist), Denice Williams.

I had the opportunity to work with Williams this year on the 2017 Recovery Ride committee and was thrilled to learn of her work at The Center. Her experience working as both a case manager for the Hillcrest Youth Center and an HIV benefits counselor gives her insights into the shortfalls in education for our young people and how to best formulate “circles of care” for those who become infected.

As we see attacks on comprehensive sexual health education and an upswing in new infections among women of color, it becomes increasingly important to have a diverse team of counselors in The Center’s HIV/HCV test services.

Denise Williams, an HIV test counselor and case manager at The Center (Photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography)

Williams told me that she is often reminded why she does the work she does, and she shared one instance in particular; it involved an African-American (AA) woman who had found The Center listed as an HIV testing resource on the internet.

“She came in for testing because she believed her partner was having sex outside of their relationship,” Williams said. “It was the first time she’d taken an HIV test. Her results were negative, which was great, but it also opened up a door for me to educate her on HIV and transmission, as well as the preventative medication, PrEP.”

The woman was “woefully uneducated about HIV as well as other STDs,” Williams explained, but was open to learning.

“She thanked me for educating her on HIV and the AA community, the need for more testing and the need for more familiar looking faces,” Williams said. “She said she was going to share all that we’d discussed with her girlfriends and let them know that they could come to The Center for testing and to ask for me.”

Once the #BeTheGeneration campaign engages folks, through a diverse and intersectional social media and marketing awareness campaign, folks like Heier and Williams make sure that the next concrete steps toward better health outcomes are available.

We are fortunate to live in a time when HIV can be treated and effectively prevented, and does not need to be a barrier to any of us. The resources are right through the door, and we all can indeed “Be The Generation” to end HIV.

“Come in, get involved and give back,” Heier said. “The easiest way to do that is to volunteer, in any capacity. Aside from that, don’t be afraid to have conversations about HIV — and sexual health in general — with friends, family, acquaintances, whomever. HIV is a virus. Stigma isn’t … and stigma already has a cure.”

For more information on HIV services at The Center, visit bit.ly/2sxQyaW. To learn more about #BeTheGeneration or get involved, follow them on Facebook (bethegeneration) or visit bit.ly/1Bgp6Qx.

—Ian D. Morton is the director of operations at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to ian@sdhdf.org.

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