Thursday, September 27 is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Through Project Safety Net, LIAAC does HIV/AIDS education outreach and testing at local Long Island gay bars and venues. To give us an idea of what this is all about, Anthony, a Prevention Specialist, describes a typical evening of outreach and testing:
Starting a conversation is not always the easiest thing to do. It tends to be even harder when you have to approach people you’ve never met. The first group of guys I see look thoroughly confused as to why this random stranger is approaching them. “Hey guys! My name is Anthony. I’m with Project Safety Net and I just wanted to let you know that we are offering free confidential HIV testing tonight and giving away free condoms, want any?” Tonight, they all say “Sure!” and I give them each a condom packet. They ask me how the testing works and I tell them about our mobile vans and how we test people anywhere, anytime on Long Island. They tell me they think it’s great that we do this sort of thing and that they’ll definitely keep me in mind next time they are looking to get tested. I thank them for their time and rejoin the rest of the bar, floating around in the noise and the darkness, looking for someone else to talk to. A pleasant interaction is always a nice start to the night and I don’t get discouraged if people don’t want to test right away. Sometimes guys will feel self-conscious in a group or need time to process and end up calling me later to schedule an appointment.
My coworker grabs me by the arm to talk to these two guys across the room. He wants me to help him answer some of their questions so we approach them. I ask them if they would like any condoms. The younger of the two says he’ll take some but the other refuses. “It’s a little weird that you come to bars to do this,” he says, “Pretty much a downer.” I’ve heard this before, “Well what better place to talk about safer sex than at a bar? Even if you’re not here to go home with someone, there’s somebody else here with that intention. We’re here to remind people to be smart and protect themselves.” He takes another drag on his cigarette and smiles “I guess you’re right, it just seems like no one would want to find out they’re positive at a bar.” His friend looks over now, Something we’ve said has caught his interest. I try to explain things in a different way, “A lot of people who are positive don’t know it because they don’t get tested. That can be for a lot of different reasons but we’re here to make sure access to testing isn’t one of them.” His face changes, and I sense a little less apprehension, “Even if someone does test positive, today there are so many resources available, we can make sure that person lives a long healthy life. The most important part is that people get tested and know their status.” He finishes his cigarette and puts it out. “That actually makes a lot of sense,” he says. His friend asks me if he can have some condoms. I thank them for their time and tell them my number is in the packets I gave them if they ever need me. They both smile as they walk away and tell me they’ll think about it.
I’m outside, alone again, looking for conversation. I do another scope of the room and I realize one of the friends I’ve made here before is back with a bunch of guys. I approach them and realize my friend has already explained to them why I am here. “He’s here doing HIV testing. You guys should know your status! Let him test you!” I laugh because this isn’t the sort of outreach I’m used to, but I appreciate the marketing. I thank my friend for the introduction and try to focus the group on my message. I offer them condom packets and one of them asks me, “Can I really get tested right now? Where do we do it?” “Of course! My van outside is set up so we have somewhere private to sit and preform the test.” He seems a little surprised when I bring up the van but he’s still interested “Alright, I’ll do it.”
As we sit down in the van I ask him why he wants to get tested. “I had sex with someone and found out they were positive afterwards.” I ask him how long ago this was and if he used a condom. “It was 4 months ago and I haven’t slept since because we didn’t use a condom.”
He seems worried; he’s nervously shaking his leg and is very talkative. I tell him: “These tests have a 3 month window period, which means that it will not be able to account for anything within the last 3 months. Since you’re at 4 months this test will be a very good indication of whether or not you contracted the virus from that encounter. If this test did come back positive that would be a preliminarily positive result and we would have to do a finger prick and preform a blood spot test to confirm the result.”
I always turn the test around because it stops the person I’m testing from trying to read the results while the test is running. He’s at high risk and there’s a good possibility that this test will come back positive. I explain to him that treatment and life with HIV has come a long way and that even in the event this test came back positive there would be many options for him and I would be there to help. He seems a little bit calmer now and I talk about the possibility of a negative result. “Do you usually wear condoms when you have sex?” He’s quick to respond, “I do, I always do. It was just, we didn’t have any…and he was really hot… I was really stupid I know!” Because I want him to value his health more than a good time, I say, “It’s not that you’re stupid, because you’re not, it does happen. But it’s important to try to make sure that it doesn’t happen again so you can avoid this anxiety and eliminate this worry in the future.” “I know, I will, I don’t know why I let this happen!”
It takes 20 minutes for the test to complete. At this point the person I’m testing usually asks me “how much longer?” two or three times. At 20 minutes I turn the test around and without hesitation I say, “You’re negative.” He starts crying and thanks me a number of times. I tell him that he needs to make sure he protects himself every time he has sex so that he never has to deal with this sort of stress again. “Next time you test, let’s know you’re going to be negative before I turn the test around, okay?” I give him some condoms and since he says he’s sexually active with multiple partners, we set up a time for him to test again in 3 months.
Some nights don’t end with an appointment to retest in 3 months; some require an appointment to follow up because the result came back positive. When someone tests negative I try to make sure the next time I see that person they’ve reduced their risk of contracting HIV. When someone tests positive I try to understand every need they have and how I can help them deal with this new diagnosis. HIV is no longer a death sentence; it’s a chronic illness that, if diagnosed early enough, can become very manageable with today’s medicine. But to get treatment you have to know your status.
For more information about HIV/AIDS, or to schedule a test, call the LIAAC hotline at 1-877-865-4222.