Positive Thoughts

Rugby Tackles Homophobia

  • October 29, 2015 - 12:58am

If you’re looking for a stereotypical macho sport, you don’t have to search further than rugby. A full-contact sport – without much protection – it’s got everything: brutal tackling. Dirt and mud. Plenty of parties.

 

But here’s the interesting thing. Those post-game festivities include both teams. Players sing bawdy songs – but with plenty of mutual admiration. Winners and losers gather together, showing respect on both sides.

 

That respect for opponents – for everyone in the rugby world, really – is one reason that the sport is so gay-friendly. Referee Nigel Owens came out in 2007, nearly a decade ago. Player Gareth Thomas came out in 2009; he was soon voted the most influential gay person in the U.K. There are other gay professional ruggers too.

 

The first gay rugby team – London’s Kings Cross Steelers – was founded 25 years ago. Today, there are more than two dozen gay rugby clubs. Some are in places you’d expect. Others might surprise you.

 

The Nashville Grizzlies were formed in 2006. In the decade since, spokesman Thomas Hormby says they’ve been treated well by every straight team they’ve met – even those from rural Tennessee and Alabama. “We talk a lot about brotherhood on the pitch,” he says. “We’ve always been embraced by our brothers, no matter what their views are off it.”

 

So it should not come as a surprise that USA Rugby – the sport’s national governing body – has taken a lead in the fight against homophobia. Last month the organization signed a “memorandum of understanding” with International Gay Rugby, formalizing a partnership to promote a diverse, inclusive environment at all levels of the game.

 

The announcement follows a similar agreement in March. At that time, IGR said it would collaborate with World Rugby on “the promotion of equality and inclusivity” around the globe.

The agreement with USA Rugby specifically ensures that American players are provided with the tools and education necessary to combat discrimination, whether based on sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation or identification.

 

“USA Rugby recognizes the right of any player, official, coach and spectator to be involved in rugby without bullying, discrimination or exclusion of any kind, and celebrates the differences that make its members unique,” the official statement said.

 

International Gay Rugby is one of the most active LGBT sports associations on the planet. Its 56 members clubs in 15 countries receive developmental support and resources. IGR clubs play each other (and straight clubs), and host regional, continental and global tournaments and events celebrating diversity and inclusion in the rugby community.

 

The flagship event is the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament. Named after the gay rugby player who was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 – and who helped lead the resistance against the hijackers that crashed the plane in Pennsylvania, before it could be flown into the Capitol or White House – the next competition is set for May 22-29, 2016. There will be 1,500 players, on 45 teams. The tourney will be played in Nashville – the first time ever in the Mid-South, and the first time since 2010 it has been held in the U.S. The Grizzlies are hosts.

 

The upcoming tournament marks nearly 15 years since Mark Bingham’s heroism. At the time, the idea of a gay rugby player was novel. But as the world realized what transpired on board the plane that horrific morning, one athlete’s sexuality seemed far less important than the sense of purpose – and teamwork – of all the passengers who stormed the cockpit.

 

That camaraderie seems to be an important aspect of what makes rugby such an appealing sport to all who play it – gay and straight. 

 

But just because the Grizzlies’ experience has been so positive – and even though both USA Rugby and World Rugby are committed to inclusion and diversity – work remains to be done.

 

There are still pitches where anti-gay slurs are used. Some ruggers still resent gay athletes. That’s why the official statements from governing bodies – and the educational efforts that follow – are so important.

 

The anti-discrimination policies are also intended to encourage straight players to step up as LGBT allies. They won’t be the first. The coming-out announcements of gay players so far have been met with strong support from teammates, as well as opponents.

Of course, Hormby notes, plenty of gay rugby athletes have not yet come out. “We want to make our environment safe for everyone,” he says. “We want this to be the most inclusive sport in the world.”

So don’t be surprised when you hear stories about rugby – one of the most macho sports in the world – embracing its gay side. Who knows? There may soon be a post-game drinking song about it too.

 

Viral Fatigue

  • October 1, 2015 - 7:34pm

I recently attended the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s 25th National Convention in San Francisco. NLGJA’s first convention took place in the city by the bay in 1990, so this year’s conference was aptly called Coming Home. The four-day meeting was filled with workshops, plenaries and programs for LGBT journalists looking to sharpen their skills, network and meet up with old friends.

I’ve worked in the HIV field for over 23 years, and participate in dozens of meetings, conferences and activities throughout the year and around the country, but all of them are related to HIV. This conference is refreshing for me because it’s not HIV-specific, and it allows me to break out of my “HIV bubble” and gain a renewed perspective. When you’ve worked in the same field and organization for 23 years like I have, you can easily become siloed in your work and vision myopic. Everything is seen through the lens of HIV, and you stand in danger of suffering from what I call “viral fatigue.”

Those of us in the broader LGBT community can undergo viral fatigue as well. If you’ve made it this far in reading this column, whether you’re HIV-negative or not, congratulations. People often get tired of hearing or talking about HIV – I know I do! “Isn’t that manageable now?” I often hear. Or, “Is that really a big deal anymore?” In this age of successful treatment of HIV to an undetectable viral load (which nearly eliminates the chance of transmitting the virus to others), and now PrEP, a one-pill-a-day medication that prevents those who are negative from acquiring the virus, maybe it’s time for us to just move on?

It would be nice to think so, but sadly, no. New HIV infections are increasing at alarming rates in certain subgroups, including young, gay black men and trans women. And it’s not necessarily because they are taking more risks – a recent study showed that young, gay, black men actually took fewer risks than their white counterparts, but saw more infections, because the sexual networks they interacted with had more people who were HIV-positive, and they therefore had more exposure to the virus.

We have a unique opportunity in our community to change the narrative, and steer the conversation in a new direction. It’s no longer enough to say “use a condom every time.” By having candid, open and honest conversations with our partners, our healthcare providers, and most of all with others in our community, we can gain a fresh perspective and a new outlook. If we take the time to learn about new prevention modalities, and understand that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to preventing HIV, then maybe we’ll be a little less “judgy” about the choices of others.

I admit I get a little viral fatigue now and then. But I never get tired of learning new things, gaining insight or a new perspective, and helping someone to look at something in a new and different way.

Paying it forward on the lacrosse field

  • October 1, 2015 - 7:27pm

OK, sports fans: Who was the first openly gay male athlete to play in a professional sports league?

 

Not Robbie Rogers. Not Jason Collins. And not Michael Sam.

 

The answer is Andrew Goldstein. An All-American lacrosse goalie, he came out to his Dartmouth College teammates a full decade before those three better-known trailblazers.

Goldstein was the first goalie to score in an NCAA tournament in nearly 30 years. The next year he played for the Long Island Lizards in Major League Lacrosse.

 

You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. Professional lax flies under the radar (and pays accordingly). So Goldstein soon moved on, and started a new life as a medical student.

He continued to advocate for gay athletes, through speaking engagements, discussions with sports teams and through You Can Play. But gradually he left lacrosse behind.

 

For the first time, he says, he was out as “a regular gay man.” Living outside of the sports world was an education.

 

He needed the break. But he also needed lax. Eventually he joined a club team in his new hometown, Los Angeles.

 

Goldstein had earned a bit of fame in 2005, when ESPN aired his story. After a surge of contacts from athletes – many of them closeted and struggling – the emails had slowed to a trickle. But last winter, the former college star – now Dr. Andrew Goldstein, a medical researcher at UCLA doing groundbreaking work on a possible cure for prostate cancer – received an email that changed not only his life, but a 12-year-old boy’s.

 

Along with that youngster’s family, friends and now countless other strangers.

 

Braeden Lange’s parents suspected he might be gay. When they asked the sixth grader, he told. His mother was proud of his self-knowledge and courage. His father came around fairly quickly.

Braeden came out to some friends in a group chat. Some were supportive. But middle schoolers can be cruel. There was cyberbullying, and real-space taunting.

 

Braeden withdrew. He cried himself to sleep. He talked about suicide.

 

Braeden’s mother Mandy remembered seeing a story on a gay lacrosse player. She and her husband Scott found the ESPN piece. Immediately, they contacted Goldstein.

 

He read their email at a propitious time. He’d just hear of the suicide of trans youth Leelah Alcorn. Goldstein vowed not to miss this opportunity to help a child in trouble.

 

“When I was that age, no one ever told me my life would be OK,” Goldstein recalls. “I always thought, if I got the chance to tell my younger self that life would be fine, I’d seize it.”

 

He did far more than seize a golden opportunity. Soon after contacting Braeden, he sent him that long-ago ESPN video. And his old Long Island Lizards helmet.

 

Goldstein and his husband, Jamie Duneier, already planned to be in New York two weeks later. They quickly asked the Langes to join them.

 

Incredibly, the day they met was Goldstein’s birthday. The family gave him souvenirs from Braeden’s tournaments. The youngster was shy – “like any 12-year-old would be,” Goldstein explains.

 

Then the boy said, “Your helmet may not have meant a lot to you. But it meant so much to me.” He handed Goldstein a birthday card, with a note. He wrote that receiving the video was “the best day of my life.” Now he was “unstoppable.” He thanked Goldstein for being his role model, and his friend.

 

The two lacrosse players headed off to Central Park, carrying their sticks. “We were just two athletes playing catch,” Goldstein says.

 

But that was just a warmup. Goldstein wanted to do something else – perhaps a talk at Braeden’s school. Administrators nixed that idea (though Goldstein did end up talking about medicine to his science class).

 

A better idea was to organize a lacrosse game – one that would send the message that being gay is fine.

 

Over the next few frenetic weeks, Goldstein worked with Nick Wilson, a Seattle-area coach, to set up the show of support.

 

Goldstein, Wilson and You Can Play co-founder Glenn Wittman called in favors. A former Dartmouth lacrosse coach offered to officiate. Braeden’s mom solicited donations from local businesses. Nike donated jerseys.

On Memorial Day weekend – the day before the NCAA Division I championship match in Philadelphia, hundreds of lacrosse players and allies took part in The Courage Game. It was an incredible outpouring of support. Braeden’s friends and teammates were there. They saw him not as gay, but as a hero.

 

ESPN featured the game on SportsCenter. Many viewers emailed Braeden directly. They called him a role model.

 

Braeden Lange is still only 13. He just entered seventh grade. But – like his own role model, Andrew Goldstein – this lacrosse player is already paying it forward.

 

 

Trans Women are 49 Times More Likely to Have HIV and Here’s Why You Should Care

  • August 25, 2015 - 5:28pm

Let me tell you about a woman I met. Let’s call her Trina. On the surface, we have some similarities. A woman of color and a bottle blonde, Trina grew up feeling like she never fit in. Shuffled between family members, she left home early in an effort to be herself, and ended up homeless at one point.

 

Like my husband, Trina is transgender. Unlike my husband, who grew up in a white middle-class family and has a master’s degree, doesn’t have insurance (yes, even in this age of Obamacare), worries about affording her hormones, and has had to do a lot of things to be the person she is. That includes turning the odd trick or two.

 

She has HIV. When she tested positive last year, it wasn’t a surprise to her or to the other women in her trans support group, which meets at her local LGBT center each Wednesday night. It’s one of the few places Trina feels at home, accepted, able to be honest. And many of the women are also HIV-positive.

 

Transgender women are 49 times more likely to have HIV than the general population. We first heard this number when The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) released a report in 2014, "Trans Populations and HIV: Time to End the Neglect," and this summer, the World Health Organization did a new meta-analysis of data from 15 different countries, which again showed that transgender women were nearly 49 times more likely to have HIV than the general population.

 

Both studies argue that trans women are the most at-risk population around the globe. The numbers are even worse for those who are women of color; 56 percent of black trans women have HIV. Thats over half.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, transgender women involved in sex work have HIV rates that are almost twice that of trans women not engaged in commercial sex work. They’re also six times more likely to be living with HIV than other female sex workers.

 

Perhaps you’re ready to turn the proverbial page because you think women who do sex work deserve it. They don’t.

My friend Trina gave blow jobs to help afford the hormones she needs every two weeks to continue living as a woman. Going off hormones would give her serious medical issues. The waiting list to get into her local clinic was two months. She’s had bad experiences with doctors who refused to treat her because she’s transgender. She’s not alone: The Task Force’s 2011 study, "Injustice at Every Turn," reports that approximately one in five trans people in the United States has been denied medical care as a result of their gender identity.

 

She’s also shared injection needles not for drugs, but at a pumping party, where trans women get low-cost fillers to create a more feminine look in their faces, breasts and hips.

As a once-homeless trans teen – over 40 percent of homeless teens are LGBT, according to a 2011 Williams Institute study – Trina has had to do plenty of things that put her at risk for HIV.

 

But that’s not how she got HIV. Like the majority of HIV-positive people today, Trina became HIV-positive during a relationship that she believed was monogamous. The man she loved was not monogamous – and he was not aware that he had HIV. 

 

Today Trina is on antiretrovirals and sees a doctor at a clinic who knows how to treat trans people living with HIV. Those are few and far between.

 

It’s time for all of us to wake up to this issue. As we revive the conversation around gay and bi men and HIV, it’s time to end this epidemic for trans people too. (Note: Many of my suggestions originally appeared in "Injustice at Every Turn.")

 

This is what it takes:

  • LGBT activists needs to care about the alarmingly high rate of HIV among trans women – and to push our organizations, political leaders and the pharmaceutical industry to do so as well. Silence can still equal death for trans people who can’t access medical care. It’s time to remind everyone of this.
  • The research/medical community and pharmaceutical industry needs to stop misgendering trans women in research studies. Lumping trans women in studies about “men who have sex with men” does not give you true statistics on trans women’s needs and risks, making it difficult for concerned clinicians to properly treat trans women with HIV. We need them to ensure that trans people are properly categorized in future research.
  • We need to push researchers to understand that gay and bi transgender men may be at equally high risk; since there have been no studies, nobody knows.
  • Medical schools and medical organizations need to start training their people to treat transgender patients properly and mandating that people do so. Refusing care to people because of their gender identity is a travesty.
  • We need to elevate trans people into leadership areas in HIV organizations, including their voices when we talk about HIV.
  • We need LGBT organizations to take up the mantle in talking about trans people and HIV, and we need trans organizations to tackle HIV. One such organization is doing just that: The Transgender Law Center has created Positively Trans, a project led by a group of poz trans people who have launched the first-of-its-kind study seeking to determine the obstacles to care faced by trans people living with HIV.

 

In order for all of us – poz or not, trans or not, queer or not – to do right by trans women, we have to do more than tune into I Am Cait once a week. We have to tear down and rebuild the systems that are here to care for trans and gender non-conforming people in a way that really works. We have to remove the stigma of being trans, of being positive, of seeking to take an HIV prevention treatment. That’s only one step, and there are many needed, but just that, understanding and truly caring about trans people, can take us quite a way.

 

 

Tracking Anna Aagenes’ Activism

  • August 25, 2015 - 5:04pm

Anna Aagenes took a girl to her junior prom. Still, she did not feel comfortable being fully out as a bisexual then, especially to her high school track teammates. It was not until she got to the University of Pennsylvania – where she found a girlfriend, became a two-time NCAA regional qualifier and school record holder in three relay events, and was named captain of the cross country and track and field teams – that she was fully out.

 

At Penn, Aagenes moved quickly, on and off the track. She majored in gender, society and culture, was elected co-chair of Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia, and chosen as co-chair of the school’s large Queer Student Alliance.

 

Her work on the Ivy League campus showed Aagenes the power of collaboration between the LGBT community and allies. But she also realized that while many people understood the importance of LGBT issues, the athletic sector lagged behind. Many athletes were not out to their teammates or coaches. Gradually, her work focused on the intersection between sports and society.

 

She is particularly proud of helping to create Pride Games. Now nearly a decade old, the annual event brings together Penn varsity and club sports teams, fraternities and sororities, a wide range of campus organizations, and other groups in the Philadelphia organization, for competition, fun and consciousness raising. In 2010, Aagenes joined the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Sports Project advisory group.

 

Aagenes’ activism continued with GO! Athletes. She co-founded the group – the first national network dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBT student-athletes – and served as its executive director for several years. She worked tirelessly to give young men and women the tools to feel as open on their campuses as she had at Penn.

 

Meanwhile, she was building her own professional career: first at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Adolescent Initiative, serving young people living with HIV/AIDS, then as deputy chief of staff for state representative Brian Sims, the first openly gay legislator elected in Pennsylvania.

 

Earlier this year, though, a new opportunity presented itself. The You Can Play project hired her as vice president of program development and community relations. Now Aagenes is back working full time for LGBT student-athletes. You Can Play helped jumpstart the gay sports movement – and Aagenes is helping take it to new levels.

Co-founded in 2012 by Patrick Burke (son of noted hockey administrator and coach Brian Burke, and brother of openly gay Miami University student manager Brendan Burke who had been killed in a car crash two years earlier) and two others, You Can Play gained notice by promoting videos in which college athletic teams celebrated inclusion. “If you can play, you can play” on our squads, athletes said. The idea spread to high schools, pro teams and entire leagues. The videos – upbeat, creative and shared on the You Can Play website and through social media – quickly became life-changing elements in the LGBT sports world.

 

You Can Play has since branched out. Using a variety of educational tools, its mission is to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports – including LGBT athletes, coaches and fans – while challenging the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas.

 

Aagenes’ gig is full time. It was tough leaving Brian Sims’ political office, but she’s made a seamless transition working with folks like executive director Wade Davis – an openly gay former professional football player – and vice president for operations and development Jillian Svensson.

 

In addition to helping shape educational programming, building outreach strategies, strengthening partnerships and developing curriculum, Anna is raising awareness of homophobia in women’s sports.

She’s also done training sessions with Major League Soccer and the Big Sky Conference.

 

In Philadelphia, she helped organize a You Can Play event with the local Arena Football team, as well as a “Courage Game” built around a 12-year-old lacrosse player who had been cyberbullied. Over 300 people were in attendance – “and they were all there supporting inclusion,” Aagenes notes.

 

After six months with You Can Play, Aagenes says she is motivated by her colleagues; inspired by the partnering teams, leagues and organizations she’s worked with, and energized by the chance to make a difference in LGBT sports.

 

“For every naysayer, there are 100 people who are super-supportive,” she says. “We’re adding trans athletes, and we’re committed to addressing gender and racial identities.”

 

Anna Aagenes could always run. Now she’s helping run a major LGBT organization – ensuring that anyone who can play, can play.

 

 

Positive Thoughts: HIV Is Not Your Enemy

  • July 27, 2015 - 2:30pm

Please don't be afraid of HIV. It doesn't deserve it, and you deserve better.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not anti-fear. I've got a whole mess of fears myself – of failure, of illness, of crossing the hectic street outside my office in Manhattan. I've got fear pretty down pat.

Heck, it's even healthy. Fear is one of our most fundamental human instincts. It helps keep us safe.

I even think it's healthy to have some fear when it comes to HIV. It's OK to fear becoming infected with HIV, and it's OK to be scared of what HIV might do to your body if you're positive, or to be concerned about the potential side effects of treatment.

Those fears can be good if they result in action that makes us better. If we're appropriately afraid of becoming infected with HIV, we'll (hopefully) learn more about how the virus is transmitted and the right ways to protect ourselves, and we'll seek to make changes in our lives that reduce our risk. For some of us, that'll mean using condoms or starting pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). For others, it may mean leaving an abusive relationship, or challenging conditions such as poverty and lack of safe housing that put many at greater risk.

If we're living with HIV and afraid of what comes next, we'll (hopefully) talk to our doctors and read information on reputable websites, like the four sites who have teamed up to write this monthly column, so that we can ease that fear with information and a plan forward.

But to fear HIV itself? That's where I think we run into problems. Fearing HIV because it exists isn't logical: HIV itself is not some kind of cold, calculating, devious enemy that seeks to destroy us. It doesn't care about us at all. It just wants a place to live, and we happen to be a pretty hospitable environment.

Nonetheless, a whole lot of us fear HIV itself. Maybe part of that is sheer, animal instinct, but I think much of it is learned. Over the years, an endless array of awareness campaigns has cast HIV as a villain to be conquered, as though it were some kind of inherently evil creature. We're at war with HIV, the common refrain goes (I'm as guilty as anyone of using it), and in that life-or-death fight, the virus is the big bad.

But here's the thing: When we see HIV as a vicious enemy, many of us – far too many –tend to start seeing HIV-positive people as enemies by extension. "Those people!" we think. "They allowed this thing to get inside them. They've put others at risk. They bear as much blame as the virus itself."

When HIV-negative people become HIV positive, that fear – that judgment, that blame – needs somewhere to go. A lot of the time, it lashes out in two directions: inside, toward themselves; and outside, toward the person they think they got HIV from.

This can also be the reaction when HIV-negative people find out that a person they’ve been intimate with has HIV, even when there’s little or no risk of transmission and they remain negative.

This is how stigma happens, and when it happens, discrimination follows. It's how people – Americans, in 2015 – get sent to prison for HIV exposure, some serving terms that are longer than sentences for voluntary manslaughter. These people didn't share their status because they were afraid. Afraid to be judged. Afraid of the stigma. Afraid to be alone. And, in some cases, maybe at least a little afraid of themselves.

It's a cycle that feeds on itself. We see it in too many HIV education advertisements; one recent campaign features a couple in bed, one partner facing toward us, the other sitting behind them and looking down at them, wondering, "Do I trust him (or her)?"

Screw that. Preventing HIV isn't about whether we trust our partner. It isn't about fearing the virus or people who live with it. Those instincts are the reason HIV continues to thrive in so much of the world, the U.S. included. Fear breeds stigma, and stigma breeds silence.

No, preventing HIV means caring about ourselves enough to understand what HIV is, how it works and what the risks are. And it's about respecting ourselves enough to know that we're worth the steps we can take to keep ourselves, and others, as healthy as we deserve to be.

I'm not saying it's easy to do this, neither for us as a society nor for you and me as individuals. But we need to, or HIV will continue to hurt us in ways that go far beyond the damage it does to our bodies.

Maybe it can start with HIV education efforts that focus less on fear, and more on self-respect.

In mid-July, humanity lost a man named Bob Munk. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, and immediately dove into AIDS activism, which became his passion. He was a brilliant, kind, deeply caring man. One of his most enduring legacies is AIDS InfoNet, a Web-based effort he started in the early years of the Internet to create and distribute a huge array of fact sheets on HIV-related topics to as many people, in as many languages, as he could possibly manage.

These fact sheets are short, to the point, easy to understand and deeply rooted in reliable research. They say to people: "Here's what we know. We trust you with this information. Read it, learn it, and use it to make life better."

In a world so often gripped by an obsession with using fear as an HIV prevention tool, Bob Munk opted to take the high road: education, empowerment, self-care. His fact sheets have helped countless thousands, and they push back against what sometimes feels like a relentless tide of fear, stigma and ignorance.

I think he had it right. Fear of HIV isn't the answer, and doesn't help anyone. We need to respect ourselves, and each other, enough to ensure that we each understand HIV so that we can help one another get past it. We deserve that.

Extreme sports seek LGBT acceptance

  • July 21, 2015 - 3:46pm

Five-year-old Tedi Bowler was “totally into” sports. But in Duluth, Minn. in the 1980s, she says, “girls were not allowed to do that.” So she grew wary of following her passion.

Two years later, she rode her first BMX bike. That too was a bit odd for a girl. But she loved everything about it – the tough terrain, the danger, the adrenaline rush – and she kept riding.

In seventh grade, Bowler came out as a lesbian. “It was a mess,” she recalls. “I was a loner. Plus, I had anger issues.” Being biracial, and born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, added to her stress.

Yet she kept riding. On a BMX bike – also called “bicycle motocross” – she felt free. She performed tricks. And Bowler was getting much-needed exercise.

Bowler gained the confidence to join team sports. She played ice hockey, flag football, softball and basketball, but extreme sports were the best.

At 35, after watching the X Games, Bowler began skateboarding.

For more than a decade, Bowler says, “I’ve been able to fully enjoy extreme sports.”

She’s worked two or three jobs at a time, since she was 19. Her Fetal Alcohol Syndrome made it hard to keep any one job, she says, so she has done mostly temp work. The variety appeals to her. “Otherwise, she says, “I’d be bored and agitated.”

“Boredom” is not something that BMX riders, skateboarders and other extreme sport athletes suffer from. They constantly seek the next challenge.

For Bowler, that challenge means getting extreme sports into the Twin Cities Pride celebration. And not just for the traditional participants: men.

About 10 years ago, Bowler says, women’s skateboarding was added to the X Games. However, BMX racing still has not made it into ESPN’s annual homage to extreme sports.

Bowler says that, very quietly, women have become a presence in the extreme sports world. But she knows of very few who self-identify as lesbian, or are open about it.

“We’re already being judged as women by the extreme sports community,” Bowler explains. “Most lesbians probably keep quiet. They don’t want one more issue to contend with.”

She assumes there are “tons” of lesbians – and “probably plenty of gay guys too.” But, she says, extreme sports is one place where homosexuality is still not discussed.

She recalls one “aggressive” inline skater who came out in the 1990s. Bowler says his disclosure did not go over well.

Google searches for “gay or lesbian BMX riders” come up empty. There are a few online discussions about whether anyone is out in the sport. The level of discourse is not high. “It’s too manly a sport,” is one comment. Speculation about a rider with a pink bike is another.

After Tim Von Werne’s career was cut short under what one magazine called “a cloud of controversy,” gay skateboarders seem to have remained in the closet too.

Bowler has vowed to increase visibility of extreme sports, and of the lesbians and gay men who love it.

She envisions BMX racing, skateboarding and more as part of the 2016 Twin Cities Pride festival. “I’m tired of walking around every year at Pride, feeling like I’m ignored,” she says. “This is a real sport.”

The celebration at Loring Park already includes several sports, Bowler notes. Minneapolis and St. Paul are filled with gyms; cross-training is very popular. Why not add extreme sports into the mix?

She also hopes her work will bring visibility to the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome community. If others can see that she’s gotten involved in something athletic, daring and fun, they might be tempted to ride a bike or skateboard too.

Dot Belstler is in charge of Twin Cities Pride. Her title is executive director, but it’s not as if she runs a huge staff. Virtually everyone else is a volunteer.

She points with – well, pride – to the day-long men’s volleyball tournament held on Saturday every year. On Sunday there are tournaments for soccer, rugby, touch football, softball and men’s and women’s basketball. The “Studs vs. Femmes” women’s basketball event creates particular energy; bleachers are brought in to handle the crowds that watch.

In addition, many sports organizations march in the Pride parade. “The rugby boys are favorites,” Belstler says. WHAM – the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota – “marches” on rollerblades.

Professional and amateur teams staff booths in Loring Park, including the Minnesota Lynx of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and two women’s full-tackle football teams: the Minnesota Vixen and Minnesota Machine. Minnesota United FC – a professional team in the North American Soccer League – offers demonstrations.

But, Belstler says, adding extreme sports may be easier said than done. Ramps and other equipment must be trucked in, and Loring Park is already filled to capacity.

Still, Teri Bowler is undeterred. She has a year to “ride” to the rescue of extreme sports.

LGBT Summit Thinks Small, Scores Big

  • July 1, 2015 - 2:52pm

The first Nike LGBT Sports Summit four years ago was a modest affair. Twenty-five men and women – coaches, professors and activists – spent two days in Portland, Oregon assessing the gay sports landscape, and figuring out how to cast a wider net.

Over the next two years, the event grew. A hundred people gathered, for three days each. Big goals were set, bold plans envisioned, to make the sports world more open and accepting for LGBT athletes and coaches.

This year’s Nike LGBT Sports Summit was the biggest and best, participants agree. And the reason is that the focus became more narrow.

“We finally got it,” says LGBT Sports Coalition co-chair Cyd Ziegler. “Our outcome changed from grand projects to trying to figure out what attendees can do in their own local communities. We ended up with 100 different things” – one for each person in Portland – “and I think everyone left with a real sense of community and purpose.”

This year’s Nike LGBT Sports Summit – sponsored by the Oregon-based footwear, apparel and equipment giant – was the most diverse ever. Last year’s summit included a few college-age athletes, so this time around a concerted effort was made to invite younger participants. Approximately half of the 125 attendees were 17 to 24 years old.

“They bring so much energy. It was palpable,” Ziegler notes.

They inspired the “veterans” – who watched with wonder as some of the young athletes participated in their first Gay Pride event ever. (The final day of the summit traditionally ends at Portland Pride.)

The LGBT Sports Summit was also a chance for teenage and college athletes to meet others like themselves. One of the most powerful parts of the weekend for Ziegler began Friday night, at Nike’s party. A young African-American football player described what happened when he came out. There was abuse from his family and team – but also incredible support, from people he did not expect.

The next morning, Ziegler invited the young man up to tell his story to everyone. On the final day, all 125 attendees gathered together, linked arms, and gave a “group hug” to the football player. It was a small, but very powerful moment – for the individuals, and the entire movement.

Others shared personal moments too. A distance runner from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho is a Jehovah’s Witness. He described his own very recent coming out process, and the effect it has had on others.

Trans athletes added their own perspectives. Nearly a dozen attendees identified as trans or gender-fluid.

Trans man Isaiah Wilson, 20, attends the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. A former high school athlete who now coaches youth basketball, he appreciated sharing “space and air time” with athletes who are making a difference.

One of his favorite workshops centered around the inclusion of trans students in athletics. “I know a number of trans people who either aren’t coming out or aren’t transitioning because they think they will be completely barred for playing sports,” Wilson says. “This weekend reminded me that athletics keep so many LGBT individuals alive and going. Athletes inspire people – and that’s exactly what the attendees of the Summit do too.”

This year’s Summit featured more breakout sessions than ever, but also large group discussions. “It’s not easy with 125 people,” Ziegler acknowledges. “But people really did listen to each other, and learn.” Topics included the importance of inclusion, anti-bullying strategies, the responsibilities of social media, taking care of oneself after coming out, how to lead training sessions for coaches, and how to create trans-inclusive policies.

At the end, each attendee came up with an action plan to bring to his or her community. The plans range from organizing panels on college campuses and creating videos to show at professional conferences, to influencing policies in athletic conferences (especially around trans issues) and creating support networks and safe spaces on campuses for LGBT athletes and coaches.

“Big grand plans are hard to make happen,” Ziegler admits. “This year, we had one big plan: to create an army that can head out across the country and influence local communities. It’s very empowering to feel that you as an individual can make an impact wherever you live.”

The final Pride Parade pulsed with energy. “There was an overwhelming sense of community,” Ziegler reports. “No one felt alone. The people who already were active in the community found new people to help. And everyone who was at the Summit now has a network of people they can count on.”

In a sense, this year’s LGBT Sports Summit marks a turning point for the entire gay sports movement. The torch has been passed to a new generation. Veteran leaders like Ziegler and his LGBT Sports Coalition co-chair Kathleen Hatch are eager for this new crop of now-empowered athletes and coaches to assume leadership roles.

 

 

Positive Thoughts: Crossing the Viral Divide

  • June 19, 2015 - 12:07pm

It was little surprise when HBO’s Looking – a critically acclaimed but poorly rated TV series about gay men in San Francisco – introduced an HIV-positive character in season two. After all, the city was once the epicenter of the AIDS crisis and now has one of the nation’s highest rates of HIV-positive gay and bi men.

The real revelation, though, was that Eddie, the character Daniel Franzese (already popular from his influential role in Mean Girls) plays is poz, proud and body positive.

People with HIV are rarities on TV (the last series to have one was Brothers & Sisters in 2011), and when they exist there’s usually a lot of stigmatizing, handwringing and self-loathing around them, with singular storylines that play like a “very special episode.”

But Looking (and the season finale of How to Get Away with Murder, in which Conrad Ricamora’s character Oliver finds out he has HIV) broke the mold with an ordinary gay man who just happened to have HIV. Moreover, it was the first scripted television series to talk about PrEP, or Truvada, as pre-exposure prophylaxis.

“The brief conversation that we have in the Halloween episode happens in a way that I’ve heard PrEP come up amongst my friends… not too preachy,” Franzese told Plus magazine. “I really like the way that it’s handled.”

So did I. Eddie is sexy, healthy and – this is important – romantically pursued by an HIV-negative character. So that the pair can have sex without either of them worrying about transmission, the love interest begins a regimen of PrEP, the daily HIV prevention pill that the iPrEx study proved can reduce HIV infection by up to 99 percent when taken properly.

The fact that Looking handled PrEP in this manner may mean the tide has turned on PrEP, a prevention method initially debated – and actually lobbied against – by some gay men (notably AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Michael Weinstein, who argued it was a “party drug” that would make users ditch condoms).

Today in many gay communities, on TV or otherwise, we’re increasingly hearing one thing about PrEP: It’s changing everything.

Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begun recommending PrEP to gay and bi men and transgender women, in hopes of stemming the tide of the 50,000 new HIV cases each year in the U.S.

It’s not the numbers, though, that are interesting. It’s the sociocultural changes we see from PrEP. The social dynamics among gay men are changing. I’ve talked to dozens of men who are dating across the viral divide: poz and negative guys dating each other, marrying each other, becoming what romantics call “magnetic couples.” (The rest of us call them serodiscordant couples, partnerships in which one is poz and one isn’t.)

Between “treatment as prevention” (a method in which someone with HIV suppresses the amount of HIV in their blood, or their viral load, to “undetectable” levels and thus can no longer transmit HIV) and PrEP, many gay men are now having sex without the fear that they can transmit, or acquire, HIV, whether or not there are condoms involved.

My friend Alex Garner, who conducts HIV awareness and prevention programs across the country, says this has impacted how gay men now relate to each other because it’s eliminated a key emotional obstacle to love that gay men have had since the late 1980s: fear.

Like a lot of guys, Alex used to almost exclusively date other HIV-positive men, but PrEP has changed that. He told Plus magazine that the possibility of having a real relationship with someone who is serodiscordant seems much more realistic now because PrEP is available – and it changes the relationship too.

Despite Weinstien’s rants, PrEP really doesn’t seem to be really used by wanton sluts who want to man-whore about town. (But, if it is, more power to the users, I say; the LGBT rights movements was built on sexual liberation, and PrEP is to gay men in 2015 what birth control was to feminists in 1970, but I digress.)

In fact, when someone is considering PrEP because their partner has HIV, it’s very often a sign that they love and want to build a future with that person, the exact opposite of one-night stands popular in hookup culture.

Weinstein’s ditching condoms theory seems inaccurate. At least one study from Brown University found that many HIV-negative men in relationships already ditch condoms because they want more intimacy in their relationship (and they do so even when one or both of the guys are having sex outside of that relationship). 

Over half the men in that study said they’d go on PrEP, which is good because we know from another study out of Emory that nearly 70 percent of all new HIV transmissions for both gay and bi men and transgender women occur in a primary relationship. But the Brown researchers are quick to note: These men and women are willing to go on PrEP, not to suddenly ditch condoms once they’re on PrEP, but to protect themselves because they already ditched those condoms long ago.

Today, PrEP is appearing in dating profiles and on apps like Grindr and Scruff. Even sites aimed at HIV-positive men, like BarebackRT, report that HIV-negative men are now posting profiles there and touting that they are on PrEP. For generations of men and trans women who’ve lived in fear of HIV, suddenly having a prevention pill is a godsend. That it’s mired in controversy is no surprise; birth control was once as well for many of the same concerns.

But the bottom line is that Truvada as PrEP is one option, one of the best we have available today. Like birth control pills, though, it isn’t for everyone. Soon we’ll have a rectal microbicide, injectable pre-exposure prophylaxis, vaginal rings, and more. And when we do, I hope the writers of Looking get at least a tiny footnote in history for breaking ground on TV and for having helped destigmatize PrEP for a generation of LGBT viewers.

Positive Thoughts: Surviving With Pride

  • June 19, 2015 - 11:55am

The month of June is typically jam-packed with parades, events and festivities that bring many of us in the LGBTQ community together to revel in our uniqueness, pay tribute to our leaders and honor achievements in our ongoing fight for equality.

For those like me who are long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS, there is even more to celebrate – the fact that we have survived long enough to be able to continue to achieve our own personal goals, have a career, or even start a family. But surviving HIV/AIDS can often come with its own set of issues, such as isolation, depression, substance abuse, stigma, and early aging and mortality.

Over the last 30-plus years I’ve lost hundreds of friends, acquaintances and colleagues to HIV and AIDS. In the 25 years since I first tested positive and began treatment, I’ve developed strange conditions such as thrush, kidney sludge and shingles. I’ve been poked, prodded and bled, and made out living wills and medical powers of attorney. I’ve stood in protest lines and marched on Washington, walked marathons and participated in a bike ride. I’ve fallen in love, and broken hearts.

I’ve probably been on 10 different drug regimens during that time, which most likely saved my life but definitely have taken their toll. My viral load is undetectable, and my CD4 T-cells and CD4 percentage are near what a normal, healthy HIV-negative person my age might be expected to have. But as the population of people living with HIV and AIDS ages (approximately 50 percent of those living with HIV are now over age 50), we’re beginning to understand that there is much more to the story than simply numbers and percentages. Underneath the surface of the syndrome we know as AIDS lies a darker and much more sinister enemy. Those of us who have come through the fight know that enemy intimately, and we have the battle scars to prove it – but we need new tools and weapons to fight it.

I was first diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shortly after I tested HIV-positive in 1989 and went into psychotherapy. PTSD, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing or witnessing it. Not everyone who experiences the event will develop PTSD. Some may just have difficulty coping for a while, but eventually they’ll adjust and get back to their “normal” life. It’s only when symptoms (which can manifest as intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking or mood, or changes in emotional reactions) start to cause significant problems in social or work situations and relationships, that it becomes a more serious issue.

While my PTSD was related to childhood sexual abuse, it was triggered by living in the midst of a holocaust and ending up testing positive myself. The disorder was no less real to me, however, and I still struggle with the effects to this day.

Just as veterans who return from war and who may have difficulty re-assimilating, long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS can often feel out of place and useless. In a perfect world we would pay proper respect to our own soldiers, and let them know we appreciate all that they’ve been through. Programs and services designed and tailored specific to our own unique needs as AIDS veterans are desperately needed. It’s time for us to create the structures and support systems that will help our veterans financially, mentally and physically, well into their golden years. They we deserve no less.

In June, Positively Aware magazine and its publisher, the Chicago-based HIV service organization TPAN, will launch The Reunion Project (TRP), to help long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS honor our past, examine resilience, and identify and develop successful strategies for living – today and into the future. The Reunion Project will be a series of summits and activities happening across the country, the next one being held in Palm Springs in November.

Those now coming into young adulthood never knew a time when HIV didn’t exist, and for their entire life effective treatments for HIV/AIDS have always been available – in other words, for them it’s always been a manageable chronic illness, such as diabetes or hypertension. While fear motivated us to fight to survive early on in the epidemic, it’s no longer an effective deterrent or motivator for those who aren’t experiencing the same sense of loss on a day-to-day basis. The fear of death from HIV/AIDS is now a distant memory, an abstract concept.

They say that with age comes wisdom – I’m not sure if I’m the best example of that, but I do think there’s another exciting opportunity for long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS, and that is to engage the next generation to talk about some of the experiences we’ve been through, challenges we’ve overcome, and triumphs we’ve achieved, to try to start to bridge the gap that currently exists between us. And I’m sure we could learn a thing or two from those who are, or will soon be, leaders in their own right.

It’s necessary to hear and share our stories with one another, for they define us. It’s where we come from; it’s who we are. We have the opportunity to learn from our past, and to mentor and guide an entirely new group – while honoring our history, and the fallen.

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