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Where Has All the HIV Funding Gone?

Janet WeinbergI am outraged. We all knew sequestration was coming, but most people really did not know what those words meant. For GMHC's clients it means cuts to the food that they need in order to take their medicine. It means less support for mental health and substance abuse to deal with the very issues that were part of the reason that they are living with HIV and AIDS. It means cuts to the staff who are here to assist clients to secure benefits so that they can take their medicine, go to doctors and potentially not infect others because their medicine is working so well.

These cuts were already severe enough during recent years as HIV funding has dwindled. Many do not understand why we actually need more funding to accomplish the president's goal of an AIDS-free next generation. But alas, just when we thought we'd seen the last of this year's cuts, we got hit even harder. 

In early August, every organization in New York that has Ryan White funding (which was specifically set up to take care of people with HIV) was hit with a cut of about 15 percent. Why it was cut is the most unbelievable part of this story. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is the primary federal agency for improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable, made a formulaic error in New York's funding during 2010, 2011 and 2012. In dealing with their own error, HRSA decided to take back $18 million in funding to AIDS service organizations in New York. All I know is that when I make a math error, I usually am stuck dealing with the consequences.
 
Who is paying for the consequences here? That would be our clients. Ironically, Ryan White funding is the funder of last resort. This means that the person who is eligible to receive services provided by Ryan White funding are not eligible for public or private insurance. To quote Felix Lopez, GMHC's Legal Services Director, "If Ryan White were alive today, he would not be entitled to services under Ryan White funding." The clients we see under Ryan White are often living on $12 per day after rent and utilities are paid for. It is these very clients who are hurt the most by this terrible decision. What does 15 percent in cuts mean to GMHC, and of course our clients, you might ask? Well, it means a lot. Here is what this latest onslaught has done:

 

    -We had to lay off three very valuable staff members.
    -Nutrition: We have a reduction in the amount of food per grocery bag in our food pantry program. We have made the difficult decision to close the wait-list for the long-term pantry starting in September, 2013. We already have over 100 clients on the waiting list and the wait is expected to increase from 3-4 months to as long as one year. There is also now a decrease in nutrition counseling.
    -Meals: We have to limit clients to one serving of the meals we serve Monday through Friday. For some of our clients, this is their only hot meal each day.
    -Legal: There will be a decrease in help with evictions, immigration and more.
    -Women's services: There will be a decrease in intake and a decrease in HIV testing.
    -Mental health services: All our services to individuals and groups will decrease.
These cuts are profound. Did our legislators fall asleep at the wheel? How could they allow HRSA to collect on their math error during a year of already deep cuts? I am baffled.
 
Where were HRSA, our senators and Congress people when I had to stand before some of the most amazing and resilient people to tell them about why we had to cut their services, how services were cut, and what they could no longer count on? I also had to explain that every AIDS service organization is suffering with these cuts. Our clients wanted to know what they should do about this. How can they help GMHC stop the cuts? These very same clients saw that I was close to tears when I had to tell them that we had less food to offer.
 
When I walked out of the room, several clients followed me. They stopped me to ask, "How can we support you?" The fullness of generosity, kindness and love from our clients never fails to amaze me. How lucky I am to work with GMHC's clients who are worried about me when each one of them just received another undeserved harsh blow!
 
So I ask our elected officials, "When will you ever learn?"
 

 

 
Stephanie Valerie's Courageous Testimony at the Opening Ceremony of the 28th Annual AIDS Walk New York

Stephanie

Good morning.  My name is Stephanie Valerie and I am honored to be here.  May tends to be a difficult month for me.  Mother’s Day reminds me of my mother and my daughter, both of whom I’ve lost. And on May 1, 1997, I found out I was HIV-positive.  
 
When I heard the news about my HIV status, I was devastated.  I wanted to die.  Thankfully, I called a friend and she told me about GMHC.   The staff gave me some wonderful information.
 
At that point, I knew I needed to tell my mother and my son about being HIV positive.  And my mother said to my son, “Listen to me from now on. You don’t have to listen to your mother anymore because she will be dead soon.”  
 
My self-esteem plummeted. I was so desperate to be loved, I made some unfortunate and unhealthy decisions. In 2011, I returned to GMHC and became a client.  GMHC became my home.  I started going to the support groups. 
 
I joined the Action Center where I have learned about the public policy issues affecting people living with HIV and AIDS. Now I go to meetings and share my story with elected officials and their staff.  And with the support of GMHC and a twelve-step program, I have been clean for 14 years.  
 
Last year, I became homeless.  GMHC helped me find supportive group housing.  Now, I am in my own apartment and it is a wonderful feeling to put the key in my own door. My life has changed dramatically.  Today is not a sad day for me.  It is a coming out day for me.  By speaking to you, I am doing something that I thought would never be possible: I am walking with my head up, held high.
 
And I want you to know my son, Shad, is here.  He flew here from Chicago to be with me on this incredible day.   I have gone through a lot with my son about my HIV status.  But now, he is my biggest supporter.  We will be walking together.  As you walk today, please know that I am so grateful for your help. I love GMHC.  Thank you very much.

 

 
 
 
 
Looking Ahead to the 23rd Latex Ball and Remembering My First House Mother, Avis Pendavis
LunaBY LUNA ORTIZ
As we approach the date for the 23rd Latex Ball, I remember how I got started in the House and Ballroom community. I remember and cherish the legacy of my first house mother, Avis Pendavis.  Back around Thanksgiving, 1988, I was hanging out with youth from the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (now known as the Hetrick-Martin Institute).  We were eating, talking and getting to know each other, and I saw some of the youth vogueing.  I became really excited and wanted to try it myself.  I met Avis that night, and she changed my life.  She invited me over to her house a week later, and brought me into the House and Ballroom community, making me a member of the House of Pendavis--one of the most distinguished and legendary houses around.  Avis was just an incredible person.  She was determined that her kids would succeed.  She wanted her house children to finish school and get jobs, to protect themselves and be as healthy as possible; rather than focusing solely on winning prizes at the balls.  I am so lucky to have had her as my house mother. She made me into the person I am today and was the architect of my approach to empowering my house children.
 
One of the programs that Avis was most passionate about was the Latex Project.  She talked about going to meetings downtown.  Only later did I learn these were the initial planning meetings with GMHC to create the Latex Project, which spawned both the House of Latex and the Latex Ball.  In those days, GMHC was the only agency working on HIV and AIDS in the House and Ballroom scene – though there was always controversy.  Some people in the community saw GMHC as an agency that catered to gay white men, and not to youth of color.  The project helped change the perception of who GMHC served – the Latex Ball assured people that “we matter” and that GMHC cares. 
 
As a youth, the Latex Project gave me a sense that I could do something for my community.  Volunteering with GMHC gave me the opportunity to be more outspoken.  I started as a peer educator, helping with the Latex Ball, and eventually became a member of staff at the agency.  GMHC empowered me and let me become someone that people, from all over the country, could come to when they learn their HIV.  My story is out there and Latex made me a beacon. Together we work to make the community healthier.  As a result of the Latex Project and the Latex Ball, more people in the House and Ballroom community know about HIV and AIDS – what is safe and what is not.  We do not preach at people, we share with them how to be safer and take better care of themselves.  People listen to us more when we use this approach.
 
As I became more active in the community, and more active in the Latex Project, I competed in categories and became “Legendary.”  I walked in the schoolboy category in my first ball in 1990, then moved on to Drag, Face and Drag, Runway, finally finding myself in Butch Queen Face.  When my beloved mother Avis died in 1995, I formally joined the House of Latex, where Arbert, my new House mother, and Torrence, my new House father, helped me grow.  My mentor and gay father, Hector Xtravaganza recruited me over to his House in 1997, and I continued to compete.  I moved from Xtravaganza to the House of Blahnik for 4 years, and then was approached by Trevon Khan about opening a NYC Chapter of the House of Khan.  I finally became a house mother myself, and am still active, having served as the Overall Father of the House of Khan, and now as the Grandfather of the House of Khan.  I’ve also been inducted in the Ballroom Hall of Fame; both my gay parents Avis and Hector are Hall of Famers. The ballroom scene is about traditions, family and love.
 
What makes the Latex Ball special?   First and foremost it is inclusion of health education and HIV testing, which remains free (to people attending the ball, or by coming by GMHC during our normal business hours).  When the Latex Project was created, it started out as distributing information at different balls, which was important as the scene lacked information on HIV. We wanted to change that.  When we formed the House of Latex, the members of the house were no longer just peer educators attending a ball, where people did not always know them, and they had little role.  As members of the Ballroom community, they were now active participants in the balls. The Latex members walked categories, normalizing the fact that they were there, and made them more approachable.
 
The health fair at our Latex Ball is one of the most important parts – connecting members of the House and Ballroom community to services at GMHC or one of the other community-based organizations tabling at the fair.  
This year is going to be a big one for the Latex Ball.  With our new venue, and new organizers serving on the planning committee, I predict a big success.  Together, we will walk and judge the categories, and make sure that everyone knows that they matter.   Now that the House of Latex is inactive, other Houses such as Ebony, Balenciaga, Mizrahi, Khan, Prodigy and Garcon, among others, have picked up the banner of Latex and are educating their members.  They come together through the Latex Project and compete at the Latex Ball – raising the visibility of the House and Ballroom community, while helping us save lives.  The Latex Ball is successful and the largest ball in the world because we came together, collaborated and continue to embody the spirit of Avis Pendavis, and the late Arbert Santana Evisu.  GMHC made the commitment to the House and Ballroom community 23 years ago, and we keep that promise every year, despite the funding for the ball being cut. Now we have to raise funds by sponsors and ticket prices.
 
I continue to honor the memory of Avis by working at GMHC, and keeping the Latex Project alive.  Her memory burns bright as we continue to make the community stronger.  I am so grateful for all of the Houses who participate and remain committed to help us in the fight against AIDS.
 
I hope to see you pumping the runway this weekend!
 
See more Luna at the Luna Show on Youtube, learn more about the Latex Ball at MyBallroomLife.com and on their Facebook page, and buy tickets to this year's Latex Ball here.
 
 
Larry Kramer, Hannah Arendt, and the Life-and-Death Importance of Speaking Out

by Larry D. Mass

When you watch Gay Cable News Network, cohosted by Andy Humm and Ann Northrop, there is an introductory montage of LGBT figures, demonstrations, events. The soundtrack is likewise a montage in which little is distinguishable, save for one clear voice that says, “We're raising our voices in protest because that's the only way we're going to be heard!” Yes, that's the voice of Larry Kramer from an ACT UP demonstration. That Larry's was the earliest, loudest, strongest and most effective of voices to be heard in the course of what became the global pandemic of AIDS is hardly news and not in dispute. But it's worth taking a moment to look back at this voice that has cut such a huge swath across populations, communities, continents, time spans, literature, theater, medicine and science.

I am among many who sometimes questioned the pitch of that voice, especially in the early years of AIDS. I was among those who argued for greater moderation on various fronts, to the extent that I supported the reconfiguration in the leadership of GMHC that resulted in Larry's departure from the GMHC Board. After leaving GMHC, Larry then went on to found another leading AIDS organization, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), which brandished a principal logo, "We Are Fighting For Our Lives," and the symbol, SILENCE = DEATH, with a pink triangle. As Larry split from GMHC and ACT UP quickly exploded into a grass roots movement for health care access and accommodation that remains--in ambition, breadth and Nobel Prize level of achievement--without historical precedent, there was growing discussion about the rationale for this organization. Why were such outspokenness and confrontational tactics necessary? 

Obviously, because we were "fighting for our lives!" Straightforward, clear and persuasive, yes, but where were the political and historical context and philosophical framework of how to proceed? Beyond specific concerns of health research and services, were we just wildly flailing about in anger and rage? Was that enough? Or was there more to this? There was, of course, the civil rights movement with its proud and vivid history of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest that resulted in social change. Clearly, that was a role model. But while allusions and analogies to that movement were commonplace among gay and AIDS activists, there was another chapter of history that was embraced primarily by Larry Kramer, and with him ACT UP, as more immediately pertinent to our experience--that of the Holocaust of World War II.

I've known Larry Kramer for 45 years and knew something of his influences, mentors, heroes, one of whom was Hannah Arendt, the influential German-Jewish philosopher, intellectual and political theorist. As is reprised in a recent film dramatization, Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta, Arendt was, not so unlike Larry, a remarkable but very controversial figure. The controversy that erupted around her stemmed from two key assertions that she made in the epic tome she published in the New Yorker on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem, which she attended. The first assertion had to do with her now famous phrase, "the banality of evil." As captured by Arendt, Eichmann seemed to come across more as a just-following-orders bureaucrat than a figure of Satanic evil. As we now realize (as recently re-explored in a New Yorker feature and from von Trotta’s film), Arendt's perspective of Eichmann was simplified and distorted by many of her critics.

Arendt's other assertion caused even greater controversy: she suggested that the Jews of World War 2 should have done more to organize and protest than they did. Had they done so, she concluded, it might have made a difference in the outcome.  Larry Kramer found himself frequently under attack by critics, including me, who wondered if there weren't elements of internalized anti-Semitism in his Arendt-inspired assertions that gays must not go silently to our own slaughter the ways Jews did in WWII.  At that time, I was undergoing my own very personal journey of coming to terms with my own Jewishness, and with internalized, historical and resurgent anti-Semitism. And here was Larry, who seemed to have little awareness of anti-Semitism in his own life and times, and virtually no inclination to address what was becoming a tidal wave of resurgent anti-Semitism across the globe, embracing a certainty that the Jews had worsened and hastened their own fate by responding sheepishly to the Nazi onslaught. Not so unlike Arendt, Larry seemed to be making judgments of those whose fight he himself had never directly faced. All of this became the stuff of my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America.

There were other questions about the appropriateness of analogizing AIDS to the Holocaust. How otherwise was AIDS comparable to Nazi genocide? "Genocide" was a term used frequently by Larry. It seemed disrespectful of the Holocaust, coopting the great tragic experience of the Jews under Nazism for a very great but very different realm of tragedy, a disease that had become a public health catastrophe. Larry went so far with this as to entitle a collection of his political essays, Reports from the holocaust. Though AIDS was not a conscious, planned act of genocide on anyone's part, "genocide" became the predominant metaphor used by Larry and many in ACT UP. Were government homophobia, indifference and weakness really the equivalent of the Nazi genocide against Jews? Were Reagan and Koch really the equivalent of Hitler? Were gays falling victim to a plague really the same as the Jews or even the gays Nazis persecuted in the camps under the emblem of the pink triangle? Weren't we more like Blacks struggling for our rights, for tolerance and equality, for parity of health care access and services, than a minority targeted for genocide by a maniacal dictator?

So how did all this play out?  Well, the way it played out proved that in greater perspective, Larry was right. And by inference and example, so was Hannah Arendt.  Quite simply, what Larry realized, the experience that fueled his insights and energies, was that if gays did not organize and fight back against enemy forces that were understood to be no less than genocidal, however indirectly, even if standing up and fighting back were at great risk to ourselves, we were inviting even worse calamity. By standing up, acting up, acting out, by screaming bloody murder, by using every tactic we could muster, including character assassination, we had a chance. That Larry proved so right regarding gay people and AIDS could not be more clear or impressive. Not so coincidentally, as Arendt's views are reconsidered, there is growing respect for her perspective about the role Jewish silence played in the deaths of six million Jews. The experience of Larry Kramer and ACT UP invites us to look back now at the Holocaust of WWII, with special attention to what might have happened had Jewish protest been bolder, more commonplace and impassioned.

In other words, if the Jews of the world had had a Larry Kramer to organize and lead them in WWII, might the Holocaust have turned out differently? Hindsight is always relatively easy and in this case extremely controversial. But it is impossible now to look back at the achievements of Larry Kramer and answer anything but yes. What Larry Kramer, inspired so profoundly by Hannah Arendt, and ACT UP have demonstrated is that the importance of our voices--of speaking our minds, our truths, of speaking out, of organizing, of acting up and out--can mean the difference between life and death, not only for ourselves but for others, for populations and times we know and those scarcely imaginable.
 

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Lawrence D. Mass, is a co-founder of Gay Men's Health Crisis, author and editor, "We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer."

 

 
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