A Furry Convention Offers Lessons in Safe Sex

Last month Midwest FurFest attracted over 10,000 folks, in and out of fursuits, for one of the world’s largest furry conventions. They came for a mix of attractions both familiar (gaming sessions, writing workshops, dance parties) and surprising (appearances by Insane Clown Posse’s Violent J and his furry-famous daughter Ruby).

But one feature of the con drew some consternation: Chicago-based public health nonprofit Sinai Health offered free confidential HIV tests to all attendees. And while access to health care and related information is a definite asset to any gathering, the testing also drew a bit of a backlash, exposing widespread ignorance and stigma around HIV.

Responding to tweets from con organizers and attendees, various people claimed on Twitter that HIV tests are a sign of irresponsible behavior, that HIV testing is too depressing a topic for a con, and that people in other fandoms don’t need to know their status. One person claimed that HIV transmission was caused by dirty fursuits.

To their credit, health providers, con organizers, and attendees did their best to dispel the myths around HIV, turning the weekend into an impromptu — and clearly much-needed — lesson in safe sex for all.

With roots in mid-’90s sci-fi conventions, Midwest FurFest draws thousands to a convention center just outside Chicago each year. Charitable giving and community service have always been a component of the event, which raised $94,000 for a literacy program in 2018. And for the third year in a row, counselors and testers with Sinai Health were on hand for anyone interested in checking their HIV status.

The timing was apt, coming just a few days after World AIDS Day and the release of a roadmap for ending the epidemic, signed by hundreds of HIV/AIDS organizations. Among the many recommendations in the roadmap was a call for all adults to be tested for HIV at least once in their lives.

But the frank, open discussion of sexual health troubled some observers on Twitter. “It’s supposed to be a fun weekend but HIV testing makes everything iffy,” wrote one person. “It’s just a little worrisome is all.”

“NEEDING it at a con is a sign that’s there’s way too much unprotected sex going on,” wrote another. “Most cons don’t need it.”

Many of the online responses were laden with undisguised homophobia and ignorance about what HIV is: “Your con is filled with sexual deviants who think it’s ok to spread diseases around like candy, some deadly like HIV;” “The spread of HIV is perpetuated by irresponsibility;” “People should get tested multiple times a year? What, so everyone’s a prostitute now?”

And then came the most forehead-slapping tweet of the con: “I just think that maybe if SOME furries WASHED their fursuits, the spread of HIV would be a little less severe.”

To be clear: HIV testing is a normal part of a healthy lifestyle and isn’t “worrisome,” any more than visiting a doctor for a cholesterol test or a flu shot. When treated, HIV isn’t by itself deadly, and as with diabetes or measles, treatment generally leads to a long healthy life. Even otherwise-responsible people can transmit HIV if they don’t know their status; and sex workers aren’t the only ones who should be aware of their status.

And in case it needs to be said, fursuits are an unlikely vector for transmission, since the virus can’t survive for long outside the body. (But it’s still good manners to wash your suit after yiffing.)

Tweets like these inadvertently illustrated the need for counseling and testing at fandom events — not just Midwest FurFest, but any gathering of people who might be ill-informed or carrying emotional hangups around sexual health that put them at risk. And having health care professionals on-hand is vastly preferable to previous solutions, such as the ‘90s-era handout “The Yiffy Guide to Safer Sex.”

“At the end of the day, anyone that’s engaging in unprotected sex should get tested,” said Kimberly Ramirez-Mercado, Program Manager with the Sinai Infectious Disease Center. She oversaw the testing at the con and noted that many of the people they saw had never had a rapid test before.

Now in its third year, the testing area at FurFest recently expanded to three rooms. Ramirez-Mercado estimates that they tested 225 people, and reached at least 600 with educational material. That’s up from 70 people tested in 2016, and 126 in 2017, according to FurFest. It’s been a helpful experience for both con attendees and health providers.

“This has really opened our eyes to engaging communities,” said Ramirez-Mercado. “We’ve had conversations with the lead organizer at FurFest about doing it at anime conventions. We do see that there’s a big LGBT population that goes to those conventions, but also people who aren’t being reached out to with information about HIV.”

That sentiment was echoed by FurFest’s board of directors. “This testing service was not intended as a statement, or out of any specific health concern,” wrote spokesperson Corey Strom, “but simply as a way to provide valuable information to those who may not otherwise have access to such services.”

Those services include testing, but also providing supplies like condom and lube, as well as information about preventative measures like PrEP. Expanding awareness and access to PrEP is seen as a key step in ending the epidemic.

“We want to give people the right information and possibly risk reduction suggestions so they can lower their risk for HIV,” said Ramirez-Mercado.

For all the fun, sharing of art, and sex that happens at a con, education remains a priority for organizers. “Since 2000, Midwest FurFest has existed primarily for the purpose of facilitating education in anthropomorphic literature and art,” Strom wrote.

Far from being “worrisome,” reaching out to convention-goers “empowers them to take control of their own health,” said Dan Regan, Director of Communications and Public Relations for Sinai Health.

And just to dispel one more myth, when asked if the furry fandom is at heightened risk of transmitting HIV, Ramirez-Mercado answered instantly and confidently, “Absolutely not.”

In other words, all people, no matter what community they’re a part of, should know their status and talk to a counselor about safe sex.

Furries who actually visited the testing area, rather than simply venting about it online, generally seemed appreciative.

“The experience was nice, quiet, confidential,” an attendee who goes by Ambient told INTO. “Would totally recommend it.”

She added, “Furry cons are pretty much the only place I go to where it’d even come up!”

Another onlooker offered sound advice about taking advantage of testing in any setting it’s offered: “Midwest FurFest is in the fucking US,” they wrote. “Take free health care WHENEVER IT’S AVAILABLE.”

Image via Facebook

Top 10 Reasons to Do AIDS/LifeCycle 2019

Be zero feet away from fun.

Costumes, Red Dress Day, and the spandex. 7 days of fun while riding your bike from SF to LA, seeing California from a whole new perspective…on your BIKE! You won’t need to look very far for whatever you consider to be  FUN!

Commit to being into more.

Find a purpose and be part of something big! Raise money that will impact thousands of lives, ensuring continued healthcare coverage for people living with HIV. You may not realize it, but you would be saving a life….actually thousands!

Your bike won’t ghost you.

It’ll be there when you go to bed and when you wake up. Riding it will help you get your summer body ready.

The Ride is the BEST friend zone you’ll ever be in.

Over 3,000 people participate in AIDS/LifeCycle every year from all over California, the U.S., and even abroad. For a whole week, you’ll be surrounded by loving people from all different communities. You’re guaranteed to make a few new friends!

Summer camp for seven days

Growing up did you secretly wish for a gay summer camp? Well, make that wish came true! Not only do you get to travel through our beautiful state, you’ll be entertained every day with fun things like our Root Beer Bust and Movie night in Camp. Or check out one of Rest Stop 4’s Drag Shows!

Disconnect and Unplug

The world can be a bit overwhelming at times. The Ride is a great way to disconnect and get involved with a community of people who care.


Ride to Pride

End your epic, seven-day journey by riding into LA during Pride weekend! Ride past the festivities while spectators cheer you on. Trust us, it’s an amazing rush.

It’s the way the world should be.

You may not understand this right now, but you will once you join the Ride community.  We’re made up of people who believe in helping others. We believe our community should stand together and provide support for those who do not have any. We hold each other up in times of need. The Ride really IS the way the world should be.

Make a difference in the fight against HIV and help end stigma.

Discrimination against HIV is still a reality for the millions around the world living with HIV. By participating in AIDS/LifeCycle, you can help start conversations about the virus in your communities, which will help sort out what is myth and what is reality when it comes to HIV.

Accept the challenge.

Who doesn’t want bragging rights? Be that person who gets to say, “I just rode my bike from SF to LA and I helped raise millions of dollars in the fight against AIDS!” Challenge yourself mentally, physically and spiritually!

Images via Getty & Courtesy of ALC

Sign up for the ride here.

HIV Groups Say We Can End America’s Epidemic in Just Seven Years

America has the tools and knowledge to end the HIV epidemic by 2025, according to a new policy paper released by a coalition of leading HIV/AIDS organizations. All that’s needed now is the political will.

The paper, entitled “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the United States: A Roadmap for Federal Action,” was released to coincide with World AIDS Day on December 1st and is signed by over 250 organizations, including AIDS United, the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council), the National Coalition of STD Directors, and The AIDS Institute.

In the report, six achievable pillars are identified for ending the epidemic for good: committing to ending the epidemic; ensuring access to care; preventing transmission of the virus; addressing social and structural barriers to care; ongoing research; and supporting the involvement of people living with HIV. Within each pillar, the report lays out specific recommendations, such as upgrading prevention programs in Puerto Rico; eliminating the waiting period for Medicare; urging every American to get tested at least once; and decriminalizing sex work.

Analysts consulted by the coalition of nonprofits estimated that a quick ramp-up of these recommendations would save the country $57 billion over the next decade.

These types of measures have been proven effective in addressing the epidemic at the local level, said William McColl, AIDS United’s Director of Health Policy. On a conference call unveiling the roadmap, he cited the work of AIDS Free Pittsburgh, a community coalition that oversaw a decrease of new HIV cases by 30 percent from 2015 to 2017. In New York City, McColl added, similar efforts resulted in a record low in new diagnoses in 2017 — just over two thousand cases, a record low since tracking began.

The roadmap calls for a “95/95/95” framework. That means 95 percent of people living with HIV are aware of their HIV status, 95 percent of diagnosed individuals are retained in care, and 95 percent of individuals on antiretroviral therapy are virally suppressed.

“When we talk about ending the epidemic, we mean bringing new infections down so low they drop beneath the number of deaths each year while the numbers of HIV related deaths also drops,” AIDS United’s Senior Policy Manager Alex Smith told INTO. The goal is to make HIV-related deaths as rare as deaths from diseases like measles, mumps, or tuberculosis, for example.

The plan begins with a national commitment to the goal of 95/95/95 by 2025, which includes increasing PrEP uptake to 40 percent of people vulnerable to HIV. PrEP is a suite of interventions that include regular testing, counseling, and a daily dose of antiviral medication that helps block the HIV virus from taking hold in the body. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in 2016 only about 80,000 people were using PrEP, representing just six percent of the 1.2 million vulnerable people in the United States.

Without a rapid scale-up, the paper warns, “the U.S. HIV epidemic will continue to outrun the response.”

To meet that target, America will have to improve HIV monitoring nationwide and also upgrade access in overseas territories like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Island.

Care programs will also need to implement specific protections to guarantee care for LGBTQ patients. Health care discrimination remains a widespread problem in the United States, with the Trump administration working to undo provisions that bar discrimination.

The roadmap also recommends equitable access to care, particularly for Medicaid and Medicare patients. Medicaid covers over 40 percent of people with HIV in care, with Medicare covering about 20 percent. But more could be done to cover those with HIV, such as eliminating the 29-month waiting period that  Social Security Disability recipients must endure before they can use Medicare. In addition, the report says, it’s urgent that the Affordable Care Act be maintained, especially nondiscrimination protections and a stable insurance marketplace. Congressional Republicans have been trying to dismantle ACA since it was passed.

To prevent new HIV transmissions, the document recommends implementing routine HIV screenings for everyone over the age of 15, as well as broad access to PrEP and harm reduction services like syringe access.

Southern states are identified as needing particular focus, accounting for over 50 percent of the estimated new cases despite representing only 37 percent of the US population. In Indiana, for example, Governor (now Vice President) Mike Pence oversaw a catastrophic spike in HIV transmissions after the closure of testing facilities and the restricting of needle exchanges.

At a ceremony this week marking World AIDS Day, Pence delivered the same speech, word for word, as last year, and failed to make any mention of LGBTQ people. Previously, Pence expressed support for “ex-gay” conversion practices instead of funding the Ryan White Care Act. This year, he tweeted that the Trump administration will funnel $100 million to faith-based organizations.

HIV experts were diplomatic in responding to Pence’s announcement.

“I think there’s a space for faith based communities in implementing this roadmap,” Smith told INTO, “especially in addressing stigma in the South.”

Effectively ending the epidemic will require addressing numerous social and structural barriers to care, according to the roadmap. That includes overturning laws that criminalize HIV and consensual sex work, and also an end to disproportionate incarceration of people of color and transgender people. In addition, more needs to be done to extend care to immigrant populations; and Congress must repeal SESTA and FOSTA, two Trump-signed bills that restrict speech around sex work online and have prevented basic protections for sex workers.

The roadmap places particular emphasis on meeting the needs of people of color, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, undocumented immigrants, people in prison, and more. Many of those groups are frequent targets of Republican policy; but the coalition hopes to educate incoming lawmakers about the urgency of their plan, as well as its achievability.

“We need to avoid creating the impression that this is a simple and easy fix that can occur without resources,” McColl told INTO. “We need to create a real sense of urgency about this. We’re going to make sure that every single member of Congress, including new members, have an opportunity to understand the fact that we now have the tools to end the epidemic in the United States.”

In the meantime, everyone else  can lend a hand by contacting elected officials and attending public events. AIDS United issues regular alerts about opportunities to get involved.

“This is an ambitious goal, but one we believe is achievable,” said Jesse Milan, President and CEO of AIDS United, on the conference call announcing the plan.

That was met with agreement by Jeanne White-Ginder, whose son Ryan was a poster child for combating HIV stigma in the 1980s.

“We have to insist that AIDS is a priority,” White-Ginder said on the call. “We must all demand that Congress and this administration pursue it with the same urgency that we called for at the height of the crisis. It can be done.”

Image via Getty

On ‘Élite’ and HIV Representation in Pop Culture

Élite, the Spanish teen drama that’s been compared favorably to shows like Gossip Girl, hit Netflix back in October. Produced by Zeta Producciones — giving the company a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes for its very first series — Élite features plenty of classic teen show tropes, from slow-motion kisses, epic school brawls, and parents who just don’t understand, to drug use, date rape, and teen pregnancy. The show manages to avoid the feeling of an after-school special, and remains both sexy and thought-provoking. Élite is especially thoughtful, however, when it comes to representing living with HIV.

The story, packed with a huge ensemble cast, follows three impoverished students who are given scholarships to attend an upscale private school after their local school collapses. Most of the rich kids are offended by their presence. They make sure the poor kids remember their status. One manic pixie dream girl, Marina, embraces the new kids because she, too, knows what it feels to be an outsider.

Marina contracted HIV with a sexual partner a year before the story begins. Her brother and his friends beat her boyfriend until he nearly died. Élite‘s writing team has done an excellent job of removing a lot of the stigma surrounding STI’s: Marina works hard to take care of her body, is on meds, attends therapy, and gets regular blood tests to ensure that the infection is undetectable. She gets tested regularly, and knows she has a low chance of passing the disease to any of her sexual partners.

Her family, however, views her disease as a death sentence; if not from life, then from the social elite. Though Marina is adamant that the sex she had when she contracted the disease was consensual, her family is insistent that she was drugged and raped. When she tries to discuss her feelings on what happened, they shut her down. Embarrassed by her need to understand what’s happening to her, they label Marina crazy and avoid her.

When it began in the United States, the HIV and AIDS crisis was ignored by both the government and greater culture. Early contractors were forced to live on the fringe of society. Shame, judgment, and isolation awaited early carriers. Most pop culture references to HIV showcase this era of the disease — films like Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club, and Gia.

In television, HIV+ representation is often limited to guest roles on hospital procedurals. The best representation of positive characters is currently happening on FX’s Pose. Set in the mid-’80s, the show doesn’t lean heavily on despair and death. Instead, survival, friendship, and prevention are the heart of the story.

But Pose isn’t a teen drama, though there are certainly elements of the genre throughout the show. While everyone needs to be practicing safe sex, educating and informing teens early is the best way to prevent further transmission. That’s exactly what Élite does: It encourages teens to educate themselves.

The internet can remove a lot of second-hand embarrassment when trying to understand the ramifications of HIV. Marina’s crush, Samuel, is dedicated to learning everything he can to be a good boyfriend to Marina. When they consummate their relationship, they are both informed and safe.  

Stateside, contributing factors for the rise in STDs include lack of sexual education, doctors see patients without asking them if they’d like to be tested, and patients tend not to ask for the tests. Therefore, many carriers go undiagnosed for years and continue to spread the disease. Worst of all, federal funding for education programs and STD prevention have decreased by 40% over the last fifteen years.

Of course, there are many potential complications that follow unsafe sex. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise globally. According to the executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, David Harvey, “The United States continues to have the highest STD rates in the industrialized world. We are in the midst of an absolute STD public health crisis in this country. It’s a crisis that has been in the making for years.”

The last scripted teen drama that explored stories of HIV characters was A Different World in 1991. Since then, safe sex lessons are told through accidental pregnancy. Frequently, women receive the brunt of the punishment for shared transgressions. Entire shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager predicate on that punishment. 

Unfortunately, Marina suffers the same punishment. She has unprotected sex with Samuel’s brother, Nano. Isolated and reckless, Marina falls in love with both brothers. Élite never slut shames Marina for her decision, though. If her family had been willing to listen to her, she wouldn’t have felt the need to search for love in all the wrong places. The escape drugs provided wouldn’t have been so alluring. Love could have led Marina back home.  

Instead, when Marina discovers she’s pregnant, she decides to run away with Nano. They plan to run away to Morocco and live by the sea. Though it sounds romantic, Marina is sixteen and Nano is at least in his early 20s. Nano aggressively pursues her and encourages her to leave everything she knows. Once again, isolation pushes Marina into dangerous situations.

She doesn’t make it to Morocco. Marina is murdered in the high school. She becomes another victim of an insecure and wounded man. There’s no resolution of her death. That will have to wait until season 2.


While Marina’s death is devastating, she chose to live her life fearlessly. Three times throughout the show, Marina reveals her positive status. The first time Marina tells Samuel as they work on a group project. Marina tells Samuel hoping it will drive him away. On a subconscious level, she believes she’s bad for him. But Samuel is unphased. He loves her and wants to know how to make it work.

Distressed at his reaction to Marina’s status, Samuel tells his brother Nano. What Samuel doesn’t know, of course, is that Nano drunkenly slept with Marina without reaction. Nano drives to Marina’s house and demands to know why she didn’t tell him herself. He says he doesn’t care, but the response isn’t exactly comforting. Marina repeats that the HIV is undetectable.

The final time Marina comes out is in the middle of class. Desperate to talk to Marina, Samuel sends her a text message that includes her status. When he’s caught with his phone out during class, the instructor forces Samuel to read the message out loud. The air evaporates from the classroom. Silently, judgment and disgust bombard Marina in the claustrophobic classroom. The little bit of privacy and control vanishes in an instant.

Marina pushes herself up from her desk and addresses her class. “I was infected a year ago,” she begins. “I suppose people are going to talk about this. I just think you should know all of the facts before you do.” Her voice wavers as she repeats the same facts she’s told every single person who learns of her status.

Her exhaustion is palpable. It’s not the HIV that wears Marina down, it’s a lack of understanding. Even Nadia, a Muslim classmate exhausted by the judgment she receives at school and home, is initially disgusted when she learns of Marina’s status. Later, Nadia admits that she simply hadn’t ever been around someone who was HIV positive. Her ignorance scared her. Ignorance alienated Marina from everyone who wanted to love her. The best thing viewers can take away from Élite is to get to know someone with HIV. It’s not a death sentence, and when managed carefully, there isn’t anything to fear.

‘Quiet Heroes’ Celebrates the Lesbian Couple Who Helped Hundreds of HIV/AIDS Patients in the ’80s

Dr. Kristen Ries moved to Salt Lake City on the same day the CDC first described HIV/AIDS as affecting gay men in 1981. A year later, after setting up her own practice, she had her first patient come in with what she thought looked like the disease. When she reached out to other medical professionals for guidance, they told her they had no interest in helping. She was on her own.

By the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS was the top killer of men in the conservative, largely Mormon-based city, which struggled with supporting HIV/AIDS patients. Dr. Ries, whose specialty was in infectious diseases, becamse the go-to doctor in Utah, but couldn’t keep up with the demand. Soon, she met Maggie Snyder, a nurse-turned-physician’s assistant who she became romantically involved with, and the partnership evolved into a lifeline for those living with (and dying from) HIV/AIDS. Their work with Holy Cross Hospital and the nuns that ran the only hospital ward in the city that would take them in are the focus of the documentary Quiet Heroes.

“This is a cultural touchstone for the LGBT community in Salt Lake,” says co-director Jared Ruga. “The story in this film becomes something that the community is rallying around … a celebration honoring the work that Kristen and Maggie and the sisters of the Holy Cross and really the LGBT community came together to achieve in some of our darkest moments.”

Co-directors Ruga and Amanda Stoddard spoke with INTO about the love story that is Quiet Heroes.

INTO: How did this story come to you?

Jared Ruga: So I discovered this story through a law professor of mine who was working through the university that set up a special collection where they would archive materials from Kristen and Maggie’s practice, the medical practice that I found out was the only one that treats AIDS at the height of the crisis. And I thought it was a great story, wanted it to be more accessible to more people than the special collection at the library could attract, so I asked if anyone was making a film or writing a book or doing any sort of like mass media rendering of the story and the answer was no. And so I said, “OK, let’s get in there and see what we can do.”

I was introduced to Dr. Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder and immediately fell in love with them and upon hearing more about their story from others in my network who lived through that experience. I knew that it was something that needed to be memorialized for the sake of preserving that history but it also needed to be propagated to my generation who really doesn’t know that much. I’m 29 and, you know, the HIV crisis is like a ghost story to a lot of people my age. It’s something that happened in the past and is scary and terrible but we survived it and now we don’t have to worry about it anymore, right? But that’s not true.

There are lots of reasons to still be concerned about HIV and we really haven’t made that much progress toward a cure. We may be coming closer to a vaccine but you know, 35 years of research and we’re still not there and so and then we have other advancements in medicine like PrEP that can help prevent it but that relies on the medical system complying. You know, fortunately here at the University of Utah, we’ve got the state’s first free PrEP clinic opening up now and so that’s pretty fantastic, but people need to know about it and then once they have the free PrEP, they got to take it according to you know all the medical guidelines and so there’s a lot that goes into preventing and managing HIV and I feel like often my generation can be a little cavalier about it and I wanted to bring a historical story into the present to put it back on everyone’s radar.

In the last year or two, more HIV/AIDS narratives are coming out — I’m thinking about BPM and 1985  — and I’m wondering why you think that may be happening right now.

JR: Well, I think there’s that phenomenon of multiple discovery where there’s something in the zeitgeist and a lot of people read that at the same time and they pursue it, but I think right now, particularly for the LGBT community and other communities, we feel under attack. The administration and the White House is openly hostile to the LGBT community and just about every out underrepresented demographic and the AIDS crisis was in a lot of ways a very similar attack. It was something that threatened, it was an existential threat against the community that the government wasn’t helping to mitigate, so we had to turn inward, circle the wagons, and take care of our own. And reminding ourselves that that’s possible and that you can make it through, even a terrible crisis like the height of AIDS. That’s a good reminder to have today in our political climate and I think that story still resonates. There are people out there who are willing to self-sacrifice to protect their own and to give compassionate and comprehensive medical care. It’s a nice example of bringing out the best in people in the worst of times.

This story is specific to Salt Lake City — through your research, did you find a lot of other people like Kristen and Maggie doing this work in other cities?

JR: Yes. I mean, they had to, right? Throughout Utah and really the Intermountain West, it was kind of Kristen and Maggie. But I’ve heard stories out of Minnesota and Iowa where similar things were happening. But really, it’s just, I think Quiet Heroes tells the story that’s a little more emblematic of what was happening across the entire country. You know, New York, LA, San Francisco, cities with large LGBT populations that had a little bit more political capital and a little bit more force behind them, they were more organized, they had more resources, and so they were able to kind of get on the map and they god they did because that’s what ultimately drew change. But that didn’t really help people in suburban bedroom communities and more rural areas and even small retro areas like Salt Lake. So we wanted to tell the story that was actually closer to the dominant experience that most people affected by the AIDS crisis went through.

Kristen and Maggie weren’t really closeted around the nuns, but they also didn’t bring up their relationship. It wasn’t something they discussed with them. You make an interesting parallel in the film about the nuns also having this sort of like repression of their own sexuality. How do you think that the relationships between Maggie and Kristen and the nuns were ultimately able to be so helpful to all of the patients?

Amanda Stoddard: Well, they were helpful because they could and I think that’s, I mean one thing that brings it back to present day, there are no places like Holy Cross hospital anymore. Not in Salt Lake. There’s nowhere that anyone can go and get treatment and have people treat them out of the goodness of their hearts anymore. Like, we’re in dire straits when it comes to healthcare and so this kind of shows a compassionate care model and why we need healthcare for all and those nuns, I mean, they were really, really special and I think when we talk about the film being about quiet heroes, it’s not just Kristen and Maggie. There were a lot of people that kind of stood up. It would have been really easy for us to focus on  Kristen and Maggie’s love story and make it about that but that’s not what the story was about. It was about people who went in and did the work at their own personal expense.

Quiet Heroes is just such a perfect name for the film because they seem so — they make their work seem so easy and it’s not an easy choice for some people. What was it like when you went to them and said you wanted to make a film about them? Were they open to it? How did they feel being the subject?

JR: They were a little shy at first; were kind of questioning “Why us?” To them, they were just doing their job. They were taking out the trash and stocking the grocery store shelves and counting beans, right? They weren’t saving lives every day and creating a sense of community and extended family for those who were exiled from everyone they knew. To them, they had a job to do and they just showed up and did it everyday and they didn’t quite understand why there was so much fanfare around what they dedicated their lives to do. But eventually, I think they warmed up a little bit and we told them, you know, it’s not just going to be about you. We’re also interviewing some of your former patients of families of patients and we’re making it about the time period and we really want to juxtapose it with today and show how some things have changed and some things haven’t and I think that got them more comfortable to open up and then beyond that, it’s really just building and maintaining the relationship, letting your subjects know that you got ethics as a filmmaker and you’re not going to misrepresent anything and you’re not going to make them look bad but you’re going to tell the truth in the most interesting way you can come up with.

AS: We were talking to them last week and their house is just filled with all this memorabilia from all of the patients that they served, and so they really had, once they felt they were doing, they trusted us, they also really wanted to honor those patients and I think we did that.

Were there any particular challenges in creating this and anything that was really difficult to show visually maybe or getting anything done?

AS: Yeah, it’s historical so you have a lot of interviews to work with. You don’t have a shortage. So it was a big challenge and also the story was really big, so if you look at it now and say this is what the story should always have been, but getting it to that point was really tough because there’s so many people that wanted to talk about Kristen and Maggie and how do we do this and tell this story in a way that honors them and honors what they did and also the other quiet heroes, the nuns, Paula, all of the people that participated but I think that the biggest challenge was trying to make it relevant to honor them but we’re trying to work around how to we make all of these interviews come to life.

JR: We spent a lot of time and effort figuring out the cadence of the film and the visual aesthetic and the music and how all of that would assemble into a complete package that would tell the story in a captivating way and really make people feel what it was like to be alive back then, for those who weren’t alive like me or were very young, or for those who were alive to kind of remind them of what it was like without getting into it being to sappy of maudlin. We didn’t want this to be sympathy porn or inspiration porn, right? That’s not interesting. That’s an easy path to take with a film about AIDS and we were highly resistant to doing it that way. So I think what we ended up with was a spree of hope and resilience that is an inspiration without feeling too inspirational.

Quiet Heroes is now available on Logo.

Thirty Years of World AIDS Day And Combating HIV Stigma

The first World AIDS Day was observed on December 1, 1988. That year, more than 28,000 people died from AIDS-related causes. I was 12, probably somewhere in Philadelphia dancing and lip-synching to Paula Abdul, blissfully unaware that the epidemic would later alter my life in significant ways. The only HIV prevention that seemed to exist back then for young gay boys like me, were vocal demands to not get AIDS. As we mark the 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, the number of annual HIV-related deaths has dropped tremendously to around 6,500. While science has made strides in expanding HIV prevention, systematic stigma and shame continue to prohibit folks from leading safe and healthy lives, especially youth of color.

In many ways, the crack epidemic was the equalizer in our neighborhood. My mother had friends who were lawyers, blue collar workers, and business executives – all of whom were addicts. I watched them come and go as our one-room apartment became a revolving door. I never paid them much attention, choosing to retreat to the sounds of Paula Abdul, Janet, or Donna Summers. That all changed when Miss Tina walked in.

Miss Tina was Black, tall, muscular, and unapologetic about her sometimes revealing five o’clock shadow. Instead of studying for school tests, I studied Miss Tina. I’d ask her questions about her nail color and shoes, but what I desperately wanted to know was how to beat up the boys who called me “faggot” at school.

One night, I woke up to urgent whispers and cries from Miss Tina. “I think you need to go to the hospital,” I heard my mother say. I peeked through the sheet dividing our one-room apartment and saw Miss Tina’s bloodied and swollen face. I wanted to ask what happened, but even then, I knew. She got beat up for being herself, just like I got beat up at school.

As I grew older, Miss Tina and I developed our own friendship. We talked about the night that she showed up bloody in our apartment. She told me about the many times she showed up bloody somewhere. We talked about how she endured. She told me to never do drugs or get AIDS. She made me promise. I promised.

In 1996, Miss Tina died of AIDS complications. There was no wailing, no explicit mourning. People spoke about her death as matter of fact. I can’t say I blame them. By that time, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV worldwide. Trauma and shame meant many of us didn’t talk with our families about AIDS or death. Back then, demands to never get AIDS was the only HIV prevention there was to give young gay boys like myself.

It has been more than 20 years since Miss Tina’s passing, and I’ve been living with HIV for more than 10 of those years. Looking back, I now know that I didn’t break Miss Tina’s promise. She wasn’t really asking me to promise to abstain: She was telling me to live. Tina knew, even before I had officially “come out” to her, that I was in need of direction and helpful hints that could, and would, eventually save my life.

Now I have the privilege of providing LGBTQ youth the same direction and guidance that she once gifted me. I’m launching the first-ever National council of youth activists living with HIV, called Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing (ECHO), focused on combating rampant HIV stigma. We must end laws and policies which criminalize people living with HIV, and make sure every young person living with HIV is cared for and valued.

Today, I am older than Tina was when she died. Effective treatment and care have helped to make HIV a survivable diagnosis. We now even have PrEP, the daily pill that helps to prevent HIV infection. It all would seem like science fiction to Miss Tina and the little boy she unknowingly saved.

On the Anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s Death, Here’s How to Honor the Late Icon

On Nov. 24, 1991 — 27 years ago today — Freddie Mercury died. The Queen frontman’s stated cause of death was bronchial pneumonia, brought on by AIDS. He left a legacy that burns passionately even to this day. The anniversary of his passing inspires emotional tributes every year, as well as reminders that the disease that took his life remains a plague in our world.

On Twitter, many have used the occasion to direct people to donate to the Mercury Phoenix Trust, the charity founded by Queen’s surviving members Brian May and Roger Taylor, plus manager Jim Beach, in the wake of Mercury’s death. Additionally, one user, @THOUGHTCRIME, directed fans to learn more about HIV/AIDS from other sources.

In addition to donating, we’d highly recommend streaming Mercury and Queen’s greatest hits in his memory today, or watching the group’s legendary Live Aid set on YouTube. It’s as fitting a tribute to Mercury’s artistry and legacy as you can imagine.

Note that we won’t recommend going to see Bohemian Rhapsody in theaters, though. Even though the movie is immensely popular, it also whiffs in a major way when it comes to Mercury’s sexuality, all but totally erasing his queerness. Remembering Mercury properly means remembering all of Mercury — and this selective history won’t cut it. There are far more honest ways to remember a legend on the anniversary of his death than this.

Doctor for Early HIV/AIDS Patients Among Dead in Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

On Saturday, anti-Semitic gunman Robert Bowers opened fire on attendees at the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As names of those killed in the shooting were released throughout the weekend, people began to pay tribute to the 11 victims, including Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a Pittsburgh-based doctor who helped treat patients living with HIV.

According to Michael Kerr, a New York City-based activist and member of ACT UP, Rabinowitz, 66, treated HIV-positive people prior to the advent of highly active antiretroviral therapy, when few doctors were willing to even touch those living with HIV. Kerr wrote on his Facebook about Rabinowitz and what it was like to be in his care.

“Before there was effective treatment for fighting HIV itself, he was known in the community for keeping us alive the longest,” Kerr wrote. “He often held our hands (without rubber gloves) and always always hugged us as we left his office.”

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🔻 . “My doctor Jerry Rabinowitz was among those killed in the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting. He took care of me up until I left Pittsburgh for NYC in 2004. . In the old days for HIV patients in Pittsburgh, he was to one to go to. Basically before there was effective treatment for fighting HIV itself, he was known in the community for keeping us alive the longest. He often held our hands (without rubber gloves) and always always hugged us as we left his office. . We made a deal about my T cells, in that I didn’t want to know the numbers visit to visit, because I knew I would fret with every little fluctuation and I also knew that AZT was not working for my friends. The deal was that he would just let me know at some point when the T cell numbers meant I needed to start on medications. The numbers were his job and my job was to finish my masters thesis and get a job with insurance and try to not go crazy. . I got lucky beyond words — because when he gently told me around November 1995 that it was time to begin taking medications —there was an ACTG trial for two HIV medications that saved my life. One of which I still take today. . Thank you ACT UP for getting these drugs into a safe but effect expedited research protocol. You saved my life. . And THANK YOU Dr. Rabinowitiz for having always been there during the most terrifying and frightening time of my life. You will be remembered by me always. You are one of my heroes just like the early ACT UP warriors —- some of which I now call friends.” — by Michael Kerr @michaeljkerr63. . #whatisrememberedlives #theaidsmemorial #aidsmemorial #neverforget #endaids

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Kerr remembered Rabinowitz telling him that he needed to start on medications in November 1995, before HAART, when AZT was one of the few treatment options available to HIV-positive people.

“Thank you Dr. Rabinowitiz for having always been there during the most terrifying and frightening time of my life. You will be remembered by me always. You are one of my heroes just like the early ACT UP warriors — some of which I now call friends,” Kerr wrote.  

According to NBC, Rabinowitz is survived by his wife, Miri, his mother, Sally and his brother, Bill.

Image via Getty

‘Saturday Night Live’s Joke About Charlie Sheen and HIV Threw People With HIV Under the Bus

Saturday Night Live’s 2018 season premiere featured an HIV joke that’s straight outta the 1980s.

During the “Weekend Update” segment with Colin Jost and Michael Che, Che spoke about Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding his alleged assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. During the segment, Che was making a joke about Brett’s supposed alcoholism and, somehow, made people with HIV the butt of the joke.

“I don’t know if Mr. Kavanaugh actually has a history of assault or if he actually has a drinking problem, but I do know that he might,” Che said. “And you shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court if you might. You shouldn’t be on the People’s Court if you might.”

Che continued, “Sometimes ‘might’ is enough. I don’t want to pet your dog if he might bite me. I don’t want to leave you in my house if you might be a crackhead. I’m not going to have sex with you if you might have dated Charlie Sheen.”

Yikes, there’s a lot to unpack here. I don’t know why Che chose to compare Kavanaugh to a person living through the crack or HIV/AIDS epidemics, but here we are! A lot of people might say it’s never a good idea to drill down too hard into a joke, but I’m going to anyway.

Che’s joke wasn’t just about Charlie Sheen, who is probably now one of the most famous people living with HIV in the world. It was also about the fear of sleeping with someone who has slept with someone who has HIV — which is an outdated, scientifically unsound position to take. The joke probably won’t do Charlie Sheen himself great harm, but to those casual viewers of Saturday Night Live who are also not up on science, the joke reifies the worst stigmas against people living with HIV, namely that they are unworthy of love and physical affection.

Despite lots of awareness campaigns trying to teach people that people with HIV who are undetectable can’t transmit the virus, that message still hasn’t permeated the zeitgeist. Even worse, despite acknowledgement from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that U=U is real, studies have shown that a lot of people still don’t believe it. One recent study in the Journal of the International AIDS Society showed that a disturbingly high amount — two-thirds — of HIV-negative gay men, or gay men who don’t know their status, believe that U=U as a statement is not completely accurate.

What is funny, unlike the SNL joke, is that SNL has tackled Sheen’s HIV status before, and with better results. In a 2015 episode, hosted by Matthew McConaughey, a fake TV game show called “Should You Chime In on This?” posited that you should not, in fact, chime in on Sheen’s disclosure of his HIV status. (A quick reminder that Sheen was forced to disclose his diagnosis before an expose on him was published the next day.)

Saturday Night Live has tackled HIV in the past and was able to joke about it with a bit more panache. Back in 1985, Madonna hosted the show’s season premiere and appeared in a skit about HIV stigma in which HIV-negative people who had a fear of potentially catching HIV through kissing were the skewered subjects.

You can watch that skit here.

Chicago Is Building an AIDS Garden On the Lakefront Where Queer Community Once Flourished

It started in the days of blacked out bar windows, down by the lakefront, the sun burning through the afternoon. It was a place you could kiss in the daylight, where Lake Michigan met the skyline.

“It became a symbol of our right to be here, a right to exist, a right to gather,” remembers Chicago author and historian Owen Keehnen. “It was a huge step forward for gay liberation. I see how important the community building was that went on there, whether it was partying or group meetings or picnics or hookups or anything else you want to name. It really became a focal point for our community.”

From the 1970s to the 90s, queer Chicago got drunk, found love, mourned its dead and celebrated weddings it couldn’t legally hold at the Belmont Rocks, a stretch of limestone beachfront off the city’s gay neighborhood.

Little remains of the graffitied patchwork that hints at its storied past. But next year, that will change.

In early 2019, the city will break ground on AIDS Garden Chicago, a park that celebrates the historic site and honors a generation decimated by the virus.

The project is a longtime dream of the city’s first openly gay Alderman, Tom Tunney, who spent 13 years trying to get it funded during the recession.

“Those plans were laid on a bookshelf for a number of years,” said Tunney. “About 18 months ago, I said look, if we don’t do this and follow through on this, I don’t think the younger generation will do this.”

The younger generation likely never saw the rocks, painted with remembrances for the dead and rainbow stripes for the living. For 30 years, the Belmont Rocks hosted rallies, late-night hookups, Saturday picnics and parties. For decades the city’s annual Black Pride event was held there.

When the AIDS epidemic began to consume Chicago’s queer community, people painted messages of mourning on the rocks.

Tunney, who owns Chicago’s Ann Sather restaurants, watched AIDS decimate his community. In 1985, he moved the restaurant’s Lakeview location into a former funeral home. The eatery served as a kind of ground zero for community activism and memorializing as the virus ravaged the community.

“People have short memories, maybe,” said Tunney. “I don’t. It was devastating for the community. There were one or two individuals that I knew from the community dying every week.”

The AIDS crisis changed the rocks from a lively open-air spectacle to a marker of time, a physical homage to the many queer people who vanished during that time.

“It turned this carefree life into something different,” recalled Keehnen. “That’s a huge loss, and an AIDS garden would be a huge step in healing that.”

In 2003, the rocks were bulldozed by the Army Corps of Engineers for a project to prevent erosion. A handful of the graffitied blocks were salvaged, but the current lakefront stands in stark contrast to its colorful past.

Last year, Keehnen revisited the site and was rattled by how vacant and nondescript it was.

“What I saw was the disappearance of that part of our history,” said Keehnen.

Over the last year, Keehnen has gathered stories about the Rocks on a Facebook page, A Place for Us: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks. He plans to publish those memories in an upcoming anthology.

But the building of a physical AIDS garden that memorializes the rocks and the vibrant history the virus stole is a triumph so big that Keehnen is afraid to talk about it for fear of jeopardizing its success.

The $1 million project will stretch over 2.5 acres between Belmont and Diversey Harbors. The garden has the blessing of the City and funding from the Chicago Parks Foundation. Last week, to much fanfare, the City announced that the Keith Haring Foundation had donated a sculpture by the renowned late artist.

“Keith Haring’s Self-Portrait finds its rightful home at AIDS Garden Chicago, where it will serve as a point of reflection and a place of discussion for all Chicagoans,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a statement. “This sculpture is one of the many ways we are bringing the conversation around AIDS to the forefront to ensure that Chicagoans are better able to live long, healthy, well-rounded lives.”

For Keehnen, whose dreams of honoring the Belmont Rocks started with a simple scrapbook, the AIDS Garden is more than just a wistful nod back. It’s the chance to give young people a sense of belonging to this community that lived and died and partied by the lake before that was sanctioned.

“My whole goal in doing LGBTQ history for the most part has just been to help preserve the things that don’t make headlines,” said Keehnen. “The things that defined day-to-day life, maybe more than the huge occurrences. But in a lot of ways they’re more what life’s about, you know?”

Photos courtesy of the Facebook page “A Place for US: LGBTQ Life at the Belmont Rocks.”