These New Apps Rate Businesses Based on Size, Gender, Disability, and POC Accessibility

In Portland, Oregon where I live, I often work from a local laundromat and cafe. I love the place, but am always anxious to grab a specific spot at the sole bench against the wall as to avoid the inevitable bruises that come from the only other seating options: chairs that cut into my thighs, leaving indentations for a couple hours. Sitting in those uncomfortable chairs is a reminder of how I’ve failed to conform to the thinness that society requires of me in order to sit comfortably. I avoid them at all costs.

When I saw those very same chairs around my own dining table, brought in by my well-meaning but thin housemate, I didn’t know what to say. It’s hard to know what to say about fatphobia, and it’s terrifying when it sneaks its way into your own home.

As people with bigger bodies navigate a world designed for thin people, apps that aim to tell you which places have actually considered their needs helps mitigate fear and anxiety. Both Ample and AllGo, two Portland-based apps with the purpose of identifying and rating businesses on their inclusivity of marginalized bodies, were founded due to personal anxiety and experiences like my own.

For Ample’s Alissa Sobo, it was being fat-shamed at her doctor’s office in a small California town while she was pregnant. “I had one particularly terrible experience that was traumatic for me. I lived in a small town and didn’t have any way of finding a less fatphobic doctor,” said Sobo, now based in Portland.

Ample founder Alissa Sobo (L) with Ample graphic designer Gus Cannon (R)
Ample founder Alissa Sobo (L) with Ample graphic designer Gus Cannon (R)

AllGo’s Rebecca Alexander, a fat, queer fundraiser, said she was tired of   searching the background of pictures on Yelp to see if the restaurant she was taking a new client to had chairs big enough for her.

“I’ve spent the last 10 years raising money for nonprofits,” Alexander told INTO. “Involved in that job was meeting people I’d never met before who had lots of money [to contribute to my causes]. The anxiety I had on a daily basis meeting these people in new places was traumatic.”

During Alexander’s entire senior year of college, the only chairs available in her own apartment left indentations in her outer thighs for almost six hours every time she sat in them.

“Ninety-five percent of self-identified fat respondents [to AllGo’s initial user surveys] reported anxiety about going places with friends. For people who didn’t identify as fat, they felt excited. It didn’t even register,” Alexander told INTO. “So much of the world is just not designed with human diversity in mind.”

AllGo founder Rebecca Alexander. Image via Canweallgo.com.
AllGo founder Rebecca Alexander. Image via Canweallgo.com.

So when Alexander shared her anxieties and desire for a solution with Michele Amar, a tech and design strategist in the Fall of 2017, the two decided to collaborate on an app (Amar has since stepped away from the project). Businesses that appear in the app are given a green checkmark or a red X for having or not having things such as armless chairs or moveable tables, allowing potential visitors to decide if their whole party will feel comfortable at an establishment prior to going there physically. There is also space for users to submit a more extended review.

AllGo’s initial Kickstarter campaign was supported by some famous names in the fat and body positive communities, such as the queer writer Roxane Gay, who donated five signed copies of her critically acclaimed book on the emotional and psychological struggles around food and body image, Hunger, to their fundraiser (a pledge that sold out the first day). Tess Holliday, a plus-sized model who has graced the cover of Cosmo, posted to Facebook, “This app is going to make it easier for people like my mom to visit new places.” The campaign raised over $55k, allowing Alexander to hire some coders.

I'm so excited that AllGo – An App For People of Size is making the world accessible to fat and plus size people! This…

Posted by Tess Holliday on Saturday, March 24, 2018

Portland is a fertile and ideal testing ground. Despite the aforementioned cafe with the terrible chairs, Portland is the home base of many fat activists and organizations such as queer fat femme blogger Bevin Branlandingham, as well as body-positive hiking groups Fat Girls Hiking and Unlikely Hikers. Portland hosted the Association for Size Diversity and Health conference in August 2018, and hosts an annual plus-sized fashion show called Knockout. The city is also home to indie plus-sized clothing shop Fat Fancy; and Chunky Dunk, an outdoor pool party that celebrates the natural diversity of human bodies, and offers fat-inclusive swimming every summer. (It was the setting for a significant pool party scene in the upcoming TV adaptation of Lindy West’s Shrill, starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant).

“Queer people understand what it means to be excluded from public conversation,” Alexander said. “So many queer women and men have contributed to [fat activism]. There’s a lot of queer people doing the work. They want to see a queer entrepreneur [like myself] succeed.”

The amount of fat acceptance and celebration in Portland is one reason this big bottom has remained planted here. So it’s not surprising that another app dedicated to promoting accessible businesses, Ample, also began its journey in Oregon’s biggest city.

For founder Alissa Sobo, it was discussing her idea for a “fat Yelp” with Virgie Tovar, the creator of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to hold your hand through finally breaking up with diet culture, that gave her the final push to start Ample. “[Tovar] loved the idea, and initially she was the impetus for me for taking it from just reviewing doctors and healthcare providers to including restaurants, hair salons — everything we now include,” Sobo told INTO.

Sobo uses Google to gather businesses so almost anything is available to review. If it isn’t already in Ample, users can add any business they like, upload pictures, and continue the review process in addition to choosing a rating of one to four stars on size, disability, trans, and BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) inclusivity (the latter two coming at various points in the initial design process). It became her goal to take conversations that were happening on Facebook, Twitter or other personal groups, and make it accessible and searchable to anyone.

“I think, particularly in fat community, the information gets ‘trapped’ in our small, often geographically specific social media groups,” Sobo said. “And there isn’t one central trove of data that everyone could access for everywhere in the world.”

Image via Ample
Image via Ample

Because Sobo is a coder, she was able to take a more DIY approach and just created an initial prototype herself, but even she couldn’t do it alone. When she moved to Portland, her best friend and graphic artist Gus Cannon joined the team in charge of design. As a trans man, Cannon saw a lot of overlap in the hurdles trans people and fat people face in public spaces, such as gendered restrooms or use of incorrectly gendered language.

“So we expanded the project then,” Sobo explained, “We thought it made sense to allow people to review a place from an intersectional perspective.”

The app added ratings for trans inclusivity alongside the ones they already had for size and disability. Initially, they decided not to include a BIPOC rating on the advice of a POC friend, because none of the contributors were people of color, but after some feedback at launch, ultimately decided it was important to include.

“Shauna McDavis-Conway, the president of [fat activist organization] NOLOSE called us in on the POC perspective being discounted, and as soon as we realized that the community wanted it, and as soon as we realized the error of our ways, educated ourselves a bit more, we worked frantically to include it,” Sobo said. “I worked a solid few days to add it in, practically without stopping, because I wanted to show the community that we cared. We deployed the feature [adding star ratings for this new group] just a few days after it was called to our attention.”

With such a broad target audience, Ample has had to scale back in some other ways. Initially written as an iOS app, Sobo decided to launch Ample as a website first. “Eighty-five percent of all apps are only opened once,” Sobo said. “Our volunteer UX designer, who is a fat babe activist and total badass at her job, also felt that it doesn’t make sense to build a mobile app until you have a reliable and dependable user base. If people opened the app and there wasn’t anything yet in their area, would they ever open it again?”

Sobo hopes to grow the user base organically and has done so in a few different ways. By plotting all the places with reviews on a map, she has a visually engaging way to see what places are rated well in your area. She has also corralled a team of “Amplifiers,” members of the community who have volunteered to identify accessible businesses.

“Businesses are ‘amplified’ when a business or provider are recommended outside of the Ample platform,” Sobo explained.  “This can be from a face-to-face conversation or from a discussion they see on social media. Amplified businesses will show up on the Ample map and in the top search results, alongside businesses that already have reviews. A badge will appear on the pages of Amplified businesses, letting users know that this place or provider is being recommended even if there are not yet firsthand user reviews.”

Businesses can also participate by “claiming” their Ample entry. They only have about 75 claimed listings so far but, “Most of them take our inclusivity pledge,” Sobo said, which consists of a promise to, “treat people of all genders, body sizes, races, and abilities equally.” Business owners pledge to: “keep an open and eager mind towards learning how [they] might improve accessibility on an ongoing basis.”

Sobo emphasized that they’ve had positive feedback from businesses as well as users. “This isn’t a business-bashing tool. We hope its an educational tool and an awareness-raising tool.”

Alexander also hopes businesses will see her project, AllGo, as an opportunity to grow and change, as well as a marketing tool. “One-third of the population is considered overweight or obese,” she said. “If potentially one-third of their customer base can’t fit into the seats at a new restaurant, with an industry with that slim of a profit margin they can’t afford [to alienate them]. We can help them out.”

Both Ample and AllGo continue to grow. Alexander expects betas to launch in up to 10 other cities this year but is looking to angel investors to help make that happen. She also has some other projects directed at plus-sized consumers that should become public in the coming year.

Sobo hopes more programmers and Amplifiers will want to participate. I have personally already used both apps when deciding what coffee shop to work from. It’s good to know that I can quickly glance at either Ample or AllGo to check if I will be comfortable at a meeting spot suggested by a friend.

“[AllGo] would save me and people like me so much anxiety,” tweeted Roxane Gay. It also gives thin people a chance to learn how to be allies. Maybe then our new knowledge will make our options feel ample, and ensure that we can all go to places we feel comfortable and welcome.

Tips on Getting Healthy for the New Year from Mina Gerges

In 2019, we are aiming to be healthy and in shape — and body positivity advocate Mina Gerges is here to help us out.

Gerges, a proud proponent of loving the skin that you’re in, joined INTO for a video to talk about how you can be happy and healthy in 2019. The goal isn’t to look like the Instagays that fill your Explore tab, but to get to a place where you really love your body.

“Let’s get to the point where thinking about our body isn’t the only thing that we do,” Gerges says. Amen to that!

In the video, Gerges shares tips for getting to a healthy place in the new year. Watch the full thing below.

Party Dyke, Interrupted

Trigger. That was the name of the Castro bar where I attended my first ever lesbian party. I was 18 and the only two gay people that I knew in the world were closeted. I was in love with one of them, but they were in love with each other. Naturally.

As a freshman, I would overhear the seniors in my upper division queer theory class talk about the queer bars they were going to on the weekends. I sat anxiously in my seat, eavesdropping and hoping that one day they would ask me to join.

I wanted so badly for these older queers to accept me as one of them. The invitation I was waiting for finally came on the third week of class. I convinced my only friend with a fake ID to join. It wasn’t hard to convince my friend to come along — even straight people knew that the Castro was the best place to get drunk on a weekday.

My friend with the fake ID, like everyone else, thought I was straight. My tumblr page filled with vintage photos of Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie and the fact that I was in a Queer Theory class wasn’t a dead giveaway for them, nor for me, at the time.

Before that night, my forays into the Castro were by accident.  I used to wait on the corner of Market and Castro in front of the old Diesel store three times a week to transfer onto a bus that would take me to work after school.

Bored out of my mind at the stop, I would read the informational billboards offering drug counseling and free HIV tests featuring images of people with hairless, glistening chests. The artfully curated ads were everywhere, but I doubted that the group that I so badly wanted to be a part of had “real” drug problems. They probably just like to have a good time, I told myself.

My first real night out in the Castro took off quickly. After pounding dollar drinks at The Edge, a corner street dive that played classic ’90s movies to its mostly burly, bearded clientele, and then two-for-one wells at Q Bara strobe-heavy bar that is barely wider than a hallway, we walked over to Trigger.

Girl parties aren’t known for drink specials, but the rest of Castro is full of heavy pours. So by the time we reached our final destination, the fake ID I gripped in my hand, like everything else, blurred in front of me. I didn’t need to worry because the bouncer didn’t closely examine to check if it was fake. He was too distracted by a group of snapback-clad girls pulling at his shoulder sleeve, reminding him that he has to let them in because he let them in last time. They don’t have IDs, and Trigger would eventually shut down for letting in too many underage queers like the snapback lesbians and me.

Once I made it past the doorman, a bitter butch in a too-tight flannel stamped the inside of my wrist, and I zoomed in without waiting for my friend to make it inside. Everything was exactly how I dreamed it would be — bartenders with asymmetrical haircuts and lip piercings, go-go dancers gyrating on top of the bar, neon colored shots in lab-inspired tube glasses, and dykes everywhere.  

“It’s just like The L Word,” I muttered to myself. My straight friend asks me to repeat what I just said, but I couldn’t give away that I was an avid watcher of the most lesbian TV show in history. Plus, I was already at the bar ordering a Dos Equis because that’s what Shane drinks. The rest of the night was a blur.

Gay culture is deeply interconnected with drugs and alcohol. Blame it on the fact that most of us are reliving our adolescent years in our twenties, or that we need more sedation than your average hetero to put up with the daily attack on our human rights — either way, there’s always a good reason to order another round of shots.

Historically, the only places that queer people could be out were undisclosed bars, clubs, and parties. Queer people couldn’t fly their flags high back then, so underground venues and exclusive parties served as the primary place to meet other queers. Although we have more freedom now as queer people than our elders did, the desire to escape into a safe space still exists. Queer bars are spaces where we can embrace every part of ourselves without fear being perceived as “different.”

If we want to be around other queer people it often feels like the only option is to go to a bar, where we tell ourselves we will only have one drink. But, it’s hardly ever one. In my experience, gay bars are fueled by alcohol in a way that their straight counterparts aren’t. The drinks are cheaper, stronger, and you can find a party on any night of the week.

As a baby dyke, I drank to calm my anxieties before entering these unknown spaces without realizing that most of my peers were doing the same. Cheap drinks in the Castro, five dollar AMF pitchers in Boystown, double margarita pints in WeHo that make the extra $1 charge for an additional shot worth it.

Gays are taught how to party. It’s not a secret. Straights know it and we own it. It’s part of our Brand™. Bachelorette parties flock to WeHo in search of a Vegas-style good time, and by the time I moved out of San Francisco, the straight-to-gay ratio on Monday night at Q Bar was pretty much even. Cishets venture into our spaces for a “wild night out” away from their norm, but for us, it’s just another Thursday.

The reason there is such a disdain for straight people with an affinity for partying at gay bars is that these spaces are sometimes the only ones queer people have. Straight people already have everything else. For queer women and non-binary folks, the battle is even steeper. Unlike gay men, we don’t have Grindr to scratch that mid-week midnight itch. Dykes have to wait for the weekly or monthly girl parties. If not, then you can hit up Tinder, but that usually entails spending money to meet up with someone for a drink. Meeting other gays sans alcohol has been not an easy task for me.

I still remember the morning after my Tuesday night at Trigger, when I stumbled into class with a swollen jaw, burns on my fingers and very little recollection of what had happened the night before. I wasn’t a stranger to blackouts, but this night was different. My older classmates laughed and told me that I had probably been roofied at Q Bar.

“Everyone gets roofied at Q Bar,” they told me. I’d repeat that line every time I told the story with a smile or a laugh. It felt like a rite of passage. I finally belonged.

Gay adventures in San Francisco continued for me throughout college and those nights consisted of pouring half bottles of tequila into half emptied sprite bottles, hopping on the back of the train and downing the drink before the operator announced “Castro.” On those nights, I never saw the billboards that lined the MUNI station walls warning against addiction, inviting gays to focus groups that might help them. It wouldn’t have made a difference. Those billboards were talking about meth and ketamine binges. It wasn’t for me. I was a fun gay.

In the past eight years, I spent only two handfuls of weekends sober — eight, to be exact. I wish I could tell you that I had a moment of enlightenment that led me to sobriety, but the reality is that my body just gave out — twice in two years. Last year, I spent two weeks in a hospital being pumped full of blood and was released with instructions to stop drinking for eight weeks and “drink moderately” after then, if at all. It was easy at first. But those eight weeks ended up being more like six weeks and before long, I was back at it. I avoided doctor visits, ignored symptoms until it was too much to ignore.

I rolled my eyes at the nurse who said I had a drinking problem. “I drink the least out of all the people I know. I’m just cursed with a weak stomach lining. Faulty genes.” It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, that while talking to some friends, I realized that I had drank despite all the warnings my body gave me. Just because I didn’t drink as much as I did before, didn’t make my problem any less severe. At first, I pretended to be stoked about my sobriety: “I wanted to quit anyway.” But, on a Saturday night, the only thing standing between me and a well whiskey on the rocks is the stack of hospital bracelets sitting in a box in my room. 

Seven years later and three hundred miles south, I’m now living in Los Angeles. I have been sober for a month. The queer bars with their shiny disco balls and sweaty, gyrating bodies aren’t as fun as I remembered. Sobriety is dulling at times, and the stark realization that so many of the things you enjoyed, you only did under the influence is lonely.

But the incessant hangover state is gone, and my days are longer. I get more stuff done. I look for experiences instead of drink specials.  Most of my queer peers still drink. Some of them don’t have the same issues with self-control that I do, none of them have a stupid stomach lining with a propensity for bleeding.

I’m starting to see a shift. More and more, young queers are opting for sobriety, taking breaks from drinking, tiring of the monotonous weekend festivities. Maybe we’re getting older, maybe the hangovers are getting too gnarly or I don’t know — maybe this is growing up.

Wild Times: 8 Queer Adventurers Discuss Diversity in Outdoor Culture

The image of queer-as-city-dweller is a prevalent one, even as many of us feel a pull to the land. But several organizations are working to make the outdoors a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQ communities. Coming from many different perspectives, these community leaders work actively not just on getting more queers to hike, bike, climb, and learn survival skills — but also to acknowledge the diversity of experience and the range of oppressions that LGBTQ people must deal with in the outdoor community. To find out more about this movement, INTO spoke with eight people who head projects that share the goal of getting queer people outside.

In less than two months, Pattie Gonia, the self-proclaimed “first backpacking queen,” has quickly become the face of drag in nature. Portrayed by 26-year-old Nebraska photographer Wyn Wiley, Pattie Gonia — a riff on the sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia — has garnered almost 50,000 followers. The gender-bending drag queen stars in videos set to popular iconically gay songs in various combinations of outdoor and drag wear but always with his signature six-inch heels, dancing through forests, deserts and mountaintops.

What began for Wiley as a fun way to cut loose became an opportunity to bring people with a love of drag and the outdoors together. Wiley is an attractive, masculine ginger and former Eagle Scout, palatable to a wide mainstream audience. As this is Wiley’s first set of publicized drag performances, he realizes that there is lots he has to learn about drag, gender, and the more marginalized queer communities around him; he is incredibly open to it.

“Pattie is going to school,” Wiley tells INTO. “If there is a bridge between [the outdoors and the queer community], I want Pattie to dance on it.”

The Venture Out Project is a bit more straightforward in its approach to a queer outdoor community, though I’m sure there have been some on trail dance moves. The Venture Out Project began leading backpacking, paddling, and skiing trips in 2014 when western Massachusetts based founder Perry Cohen realized he was trans. After a particularly harrowing climb, Cohen said, he realized, “for the very first time I could trust this body,” and wanted to give other queer and trans people that same freedom. Participants have said that traveling as a pack has made the outdoors feel less scary and Cohen echoes that an important part of Venture Out trips is being able to go out with a group that “validates your identity.”

Traveling this way has helped keep participants safe in situations on popular trails which tend to attract a lot of peak-bagging-bros. Cohen recalls an incident in which a man on the Long Trail harassed a Venture Out group. The man asked: “Are you a school group? Are you a church group? Well, then what the hell are you?” Cohen replied, “We are a group of grown-ass adults!” The group decided to pitch their tents elsewhere.

Venture Out group hike

Older and better-funded than a lot of newer groups, The Venture Out Project has a large educational arm both for adults and students. Youth have been a big focus from the beginning, but adults who felt like they missed out on scouting as kids have helped the project grow. Cohen realizes, too, that as a white trans man he may not always be the right person to lead every trip. For that reason, they also partner with several organizations also featured here such as Wild Diversity and Unlikely Hikers.

When Unlikely Hiker’s founder Jenny Bruso first started spending more time in the outdoors about seven years ago, she struggled to find others like her: queer, fat, femme, on the trails. As a newbie hungry for information, the how-tos and blog posts about how and where to enjoy nature were mostly white, often male.

Michaud-Skog offers group hikes in over 16 locations and makes her vehicle her home as she travels across North America. She describes herself as “living the #fatvanlife [and] chatting with folks interested in being ambassadors for creating body positive outdoor community in their cities.” She makes sure to emphasize that no one is left behind, and makes accommodations for people with disabilities. Bruso does as well, organizing her hikes into three categories: general hikes which are five or more miles and can have some significant elevation gain; “Low-Intensity”—three to four miles, with 500 feet of elevation gain or less; and the “Nice and Slow” series—slow paced, flat trails at two miles or less, so that participants can choose the level that’s right for them.

Bruso’s group Unlikely Hikers showcases queer folks, people of color, differently-abled and, especially, fat folks, an identity Bruso finds to be a difficult one in the outdoors community. It has clearly resonated; the Unlikely Hikers Instagram account has over 50,000 followers. Through various sponsorships from outdoors companies, speaking engagements and other freelance projects, Bruso was even able to quit her day job waiting tables and devote herself full time to writing and outdoors projects earlier this year.

“Fatphobia is so widely acceptable,” Bruso told INTO. “There is pretty much no fat or queer representation in outdoor culture. It’s predictable that I am going to hear a lot of body negativity.” And when fat people are given space in queer community she finds that there is pressure to be the “good fattie.”

“There’s a huge responsibility to be the ‘fat outdoorsperson,”’ Bruso said. “People want a very happy, healthy fat person. They want you to exercise five times a week and eat vegan. But I’m the kind of fattie who will eat an entire pizza and then summit a mountain.”

Their advice on gear also fell flat, as many of the clothing items did not come in plus sizes and a lot of the gear was expensive, a sentiment echoed by Fat Girls Hiking founder Summer Michaud-Skog. As queer, fat, working-class women, the outdoors did not seem to reflect them, so both set out to amplify voices both like and unlike their own.

The new print publication Fatventure Mag is a digital and print zine featuring work by fat women and non-binary creators who are into being active but are not into toxic weight-loss culture. Co-founders Samantha Puc and Alice Lesperance, two self-described fat lesbians who are based in Rhode Island and North Carolina respectively, have struggled with this dichotomy.

“I ride my bike a lot,” says Puc, “but whenever people learn that, their immediate follow-up 90 percent of the time is, ‘How much weight have you lost?’ It’s so frustrating because I don’t ride my bike to lose weight — I ride my bike because I love it. I’ve been called all kinds of horrible things while out riding. People seem to feel very entitled to comment on my body and its shape, size and ability, particularly men, and that’s infuriating.”

Both are keen to give back to the queer community, donating 25 percent of the proceeds from their inaugural issue to Gender Is Over – If You Want It!, a non-profit that works with grassroots transgender rights organizations. But the Fatventure Mag editors also acknowledge that even fellow LGBTQ people can be discriminatory.

Samantha Puc and Alice Lesperance of Fatventure

“I think I actually face more discrimination from thin queer people than from thin straight people when I talk about outdoor recreation, which is kind of bizarre,” Puc mused.

Lesperance agreed: “Hostility comes from all corners, and being fat is always a problem that thin people, both straight and queer, feel that they need to solve.”

This is a sentiment shared by queer outdoors groups that focus on people of color as well. Mercy Shammah started Wild Diversity, an adventure program for queers and people of color, because of a sense of hopelessness she felt as a black person in Portland, Oregon. She loves the outdoors of all kinds and leads trips dedicated to a wide variety of activities such as camping, canoeing, snowshoeing, archery, mushroom hunting and more. Wild Diversity even has a gear library that low-income users can borrow from. Portland is a great place for all these outdoor activities. But Shammah said what Portland lacks is racial diversity and support. Even when partnering with liberal organizations, Shammah said she often feels tokenized and used, to make it look like the organization has put in the work around race.

“It’s like a relationship,” Shammah explained. “On my next Tinder date [with an organization], I’ll know exactly what to ask. How many members in your organization are people of color? I don’t want to be the only one in the room. It’s uncomfortable, and it concerns me if people of color don’t stay.” She said she hopes that her reasons for not partnering with such orgs will help them look at what they are doing to make people of color feel welcome.

Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd from the “education and ancestral skills program” Queer Nature also finds it difficult to find people of color in leadership positions, even in LGBTQ Outdoor communities. The mixed native Huanca, Turkish, and Chinese non-binary person runs the program with their white non-binary partner So Sinopoulos-Lloyd. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Pinar makes it a point to identify the native inhabitants of the land, in this case the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Queer Nature teaches naturalist studies, handcrafts, survival skills, and recognition of colonial and indigenous histories of land. The interracial nature of their foundation creates a space that at once centers voices of color while still welcoming white folks willing to engage in a learning process.

“Biodiversity creates resilience,” Sinopoulos-Lloyd explained, adding that this holds true for both nature and people, which they also see as inherently linked.

They work within DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) communities that focus largely on getting people of color into the outdoors. While this is a goal they wholeheartedly support, they would like to see more attention paid to aspects other than race as well. “I continuously get misgendered, even in those spaces,” Pinar said sadly, “and it’s heartbreaking.”

Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd of Queer Nature

Facing gender discrimination and a lack of knowledge around pronouns and gender identity is taxing and takes a lot of internal resources for anyone, let alone someone with mental health and neurodivergence issues, which Pinar said is also rarely addressed in both outdoor and DEI settings. But Pinar also has a sense of humor about it all, laughing about they and their partner are colonizer and colonized. Or when talking about the struggle over resources and how diverse groups in the outdoors often see each other as competitors rather than allies, a stance perpetuated by the industry. Pinar jokes, “It’s like the Hunger Games sometimes. This horizontal oppression comes from long-term trauma and makes our liberation more difficult by perpetuating that which we are fighting against,. Co-liberatory work that isn’t trauma and resilience informed isn’t anti-oppressive.”

LGBTQ people might not see ourselves reflected in mainstream outdoors media or products yet, but even big companies like REI and Outside magazine are beginning to take notice, and some brands have sponsored Bruso, Venture Out and others. What most of these groups find most important, however, is honoring and supporting each other. Spread across North America, most are already in contact and offering each other support.

The queer outdoors community is small but mighty, one with a goal that Pinar Sinopoulos-Llyod summarizes with a simple motto: “I want to be an honorable ancestor for future beings. Have compassion.”

This LGBTQ Youth Center Is Saving Lives. It’s Also Next Door to the Mormon Church

This year’s Pride Parade in Provo, Utah was derailed by an act of God. Weeks before the modest parade was set to depart from Pioneer Park, a pair of lightning bolts struck the wilderness south of the Mormon stronghold, whose religious devotion is marked with a white letter “Y” carved into the hillside. Signifying the middle initial in Brigham Young University, the concrete apparition is draped in festive Christmas lights during the holiday season.

The fires that tore through Uinta National Forest and Bald Mountain continued to spread throughout the early days of September. It reached a tipping point by Sept. 13 — with the town’s 100,000 residents warned to avoid going outside.

While nearly 50,000 people turned out to the Salt Lake City Pride parade just months earlier, Pioneer Park was empty two days later — save for the smattering of vendors gathered for the weekly farmer’s market. The march wasn’t exactly cancelled. Given the martian brume of smoke which gave the cityscape an otherworldly quality hours before, its dissolution was understood.

But even the viscous air didn’t stop residents from turning out for the annual Pride festival, where attendees gathered with protective masks on. Once tucked away in a tiny park, the event was moved to the town center a few years ago. In a city where being out is an act of daily courage, dozens of vendors gather every year to show support for the LGBTQ community — from advocacy organizations like Human Rights Campaign and the Utah Pride Center to a local African restaurant selling curry chicken.

While Pridegoers gathered on the lawn to witness a lineup of performers ranging from drag queens to an all-LGBTQ cheerleading troupe, a small coterie of smiling figures stood along Center St. wearing “No Sides, Only Love” t-shirts.

That slogan is the motto of Encircle LGBTQ+ Family and Youth Resource Center, which opened in downtown Provo in February 2017; a second location is planned for Salt Lake City. The two-story house, which was built in the 1860s and sits on the National Register of Historic Places, is directly across from the Mormon Temple in Provo, Utah. If you look out the center’s front window, you can see the Mormon house of worship’s single white spire, topped with a golden statue of the angel Moroni playing a trumpet.

The proximity is no accident, according to Encircle Co-Founder Stephenie Larsen.

In 2016, a record number of LGBTQ youth took their own lives. Mama Dragons, a support group of affirming Mormon mothers of queer and trans kids, estimates that over 30 young people took their lives over a three-month span. Larsen, a children’s rights attorney, wanted to open a center “for kids who didn’t feel like their home was a safe place.” Her husband’s uncle, the late Salt Lake restaurateur John Williams, donated $100,000 to start that dream. Williams, who was openly gay, wanted the center to be in a strip mall, but Larsen knew that it had to be visible as possible.

“John wanted the house to be in a neighborhood where the kids could deal with their issues in private, but Provo needs to move forward,” Larsen told INTO. “If you can get your family behind you but you still don’t feel safe in your own community, then you need to leave.”

Unfortunately, many LGBTQ youth in Utah may lack the support of their relatives and loved ones. The state has among the suicide rates in the nation, as suicide is among the leading causes of death for children between the ages 12 of 17. A 2017 report from the Portland Press Herald claimed that 62 percent of queer and trans youth in the Beehive State attempt to take their own lives. There are few kids who haven’t lost someone close to them. Some have explained away this phenomenon as a result of the high altitude and low oxygen levels.

Other youth, who live in a state where an estimated 60 percent of the population is Mormon, cite a different phenomenon. Many young LGBTQ kids face being kicked out of their homes when they come out.

Zac Barker, a teenage student who lives in neighboring Orem, was accidentally outed to his mother after she discovered that he’d searched for instructional videos about “How to Come out to Your Parents” on YouTube. He forgot to delete it from his browser. Barker said that his churchgoing parents “accept [him] fully,” but school has been different. Although he describes his friends as “understanding and kind,” their parents stopped letting them hang out with him. Instead of being bullied or beaten up, Barker was frozen out.

“People don’t want to say anything rude, but they don’t want to be around you either,” Barker told INTO. “I felt alone. I felt like an outcast.”

The isolation that many LGBTQ youth in Utah experience can have devastating impacts. Jacob Dunford was a closeted, gay student at Brigham Young University before joining Encircle as the center’s program director. As a freshman at the conservative college, where homosexuality is still banned as part of its honor code, Dunford told INTO that his suffering was “invisible.” One morning, he put on his running shoes and ran to a secluded field up the street. It was pitch black. Dunford sat down in the middle of the grass and cried.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me crying because they would ask why,” he explained. “Now that we’ve started Encircle, people can run to the center. Now they don’t have to do it alone. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Dunford was instrumental in helping get Encircle off the ground. After transferring to Utah State University, he met Larsen. Although the center is largely operated through volunteer work, the two have worked tirelessly to raise funds for the center. Former NFL quarterback Steve Young, a former BYU student, gave $100,000. Tom Christofferson, whose brother is an LDS apostle, donated $25,000.

But most crucially, Holly Alden — CEO of the headphone manufacturer Skullcandy — offered to buy the property for Encircle and rent it back to them for $1 a month.

Larsen believes that support has been crucial to Encircle’s success. The center runs a packed house. On any given night, over 50 teens and adults attend the weekly events, which include storytelling nights and arts classes. There’s soup on the stove, cookies on the table, and someone ready to listen. One day a mother came to Encircle weeping because she thought her daughter might be a lesbian, and she didn’t know what to do. There was a volunteer waiting at the door with a shoulder to cry on.

“I’ve had youth tell me Encircle has saved their life,” Larsen said. “It gives them hope. It gives them friends. It gives them someone to talk to.”

But as Larsen knows, Utah’s LGBTQ youth need more than an ear to listen. Three years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enacted what’s now referred to in hushed tones as its “November policy.” Those guidelines stipulated that the children of same-sex couples would be ineligible to receive baptism rites. In order to be blessed by the church, they would have to renounce their parents’ marriage upon turning 18.

“To me, that really showed their true colors of how they feel about LGBTQ people,” Nathan Dalley, an 18-year-old who grew up in LeHigh, told INTO. “In the LDS Church, being gay or having a same-sex relationship is right up there with murder. It’s considered to be the same.”

Dalley, who left the church as a result of the November policy, lost a friend to suicide last year. Wyatt was one of two LGBTQ teenagers who took their own lives within in a single week. Dalley met him on Tinder and they stayed close, checking in with each other every few days. When one of them was having a hard time in school or dealing with their family, he would talk to the other about it.

“I could tell him basically anything,” Dalley said. “He understood what it was like to be gay in Utah. I didn’t have to explain it to him.”

But after a long day at work, Dalley couldn’t get in contact with his friend. This wasn’t like him. Dalley remembers Wyatt as having a “big heart,” the kind of person who took care of his friends before himself. If you were friends with Wyatt, you knew he loved you. Wyatt’s friends began to look for him and sent him frantic messages on Facebook, telling him that they were worried. Where was he?

That night, the boy’s parents posted on Facebook that he had passed away. Wyatt was just 17.

The state has worked in recent years to address this ongoing crisis. In 2017, Utah struck down its “No Promo Homo” law, which forbid teachers from addressing topics related to gender and sexuality in school. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has publicly distanced itself from conversion therapy, the discredited practice of seeking to “change” the sexuality of LGBTQ youth. The Church relaunched its website on LGBTQ issues, Mormon and Gay, in an attempt to welcome queer and trans members into the fold. The banner on the current iteration states: “God Loveth His Children.”

But for every step forward the Mormon Church takes, it leaps right back. When 12-year-old Savannah came out to her Eagle Mountain congregation in May 2017, her mic was cut off. “There were scared of me and what I was saying,” she told the New York Times. The week of the Provo Pride festival, rainbow flags planted around the town were stolen; they were later returned.

While the Mormon Church struggles to accept its LGBTQ members, Encircle will be there waiting. The center operates 10 support groups, including groups for transgender folks, people recovering from addiction, and couples in mixed-orientation marriages — meaning one is gay and the other is straight. It offers low-cost therapy to kids who may be struggling with suicidal ideation. But more than anything, LGBTQ youth can come to Encircle and feel loved.

“Encircle is a place where you can come celebrate who you are,” Larsen said. “Hopefully that’ll add up in these kids lives.”

How A Gay Helpline Is Supporting Hundreds Of Isolated LGBTQ Farmers

The challenges facing rural farmers are almost unparalleled in the modern workforce. Long hours, poor conditions, isolation and tight profit margins are taking a toll on this group, with more than one farmer dying by suicide each week.

But the reality faced by LGBTQ farmers can be even more dire. Farming communities are usually small, tight-knit and, often conservative, making it extremely difficult to live an openly gay life. On top of this, there is immense pressure to produce a heir to work on the farm, leading many gay farmers into the closet.

Since 2010, Canon Keith Ineson has run a helpline devoted to gay farmers who are experiencing mental health problems, social exclusion over their sexuality or are having trouble coming out. Ineson has helped hundreds of gay farmers come to terms with their sexuality and live more complete lives.

“I was the agricultural chaplain in Cheshire [a county in northwest England] for about 15 years and around six years ago I found myself working with a few gay farmers,” says Ineson. “Even though I’m gay myself, you don’t really hear about gay farmers, it’s almost like they don’t exist, but of course they do – it’s just that their problems aren’t spoken about.”

Before setting up the helpline, Ineson went to the Office for National Statistics to find out how many farmers worked in Cheshire and from these figures estimated that there were close to 300 gay farmers working in the county alone. With just a mobile phone to receive calls and an advert in a farmers’ newspaper; the Gay Farmer Helpline was launched.

Keith Ineson

From the first few days of operation gay farmers have been calling into the helpline and even now Ineson is averaging one new case every week. Rather than advising callers on what to do, Ineson provides a sounding board for any concerns or questions the farmers have.

“The helpline offers a listening ear. We go down the wrong route with them if necessary and just wait there to pick up the pieces if necessary. In some cases farmers will ring up on a regular basis because they have nowhere else to turn and are stuck because they daren’t come out. For some it’s a one off call and we never hear from them again and others will touch base when things are happening,” explains Ineson.

Practical help is also available for those farmers who ask for it, whether that comes in the form of putting them in touch with local LGBTQ-focused services or simply explaining the dating sites they can use. Ineson recalls a Sunday morning when a farmer called up the helpline panicking about having unprotected gay sex, after going out on the gay scene for the first time the night before.

“He was very concerned with what he had done and what was going to happen next. He was even scared to go to a nearby doctor, as he was worried about being outed. We told him he could go to a health clinic far away from where he lives, where no one will know him to get checked out. He rang back the following day and told me the nurse was wonderful, and was surprised she didn’t have a heart attack when he told her he had unprotected sex,” says Ineson.

The typical farmer that rings up the helpline is in their 50s and married, usually with children. As their children go off to University or begin working at the family farm, many gay farmers begin to ask themselves difficult questions about their future and think about coming out. Divorce within the farming community is still very difficult due to the costs involved and many farmers thinking about coming out often just stay in a marriage that isn’t happy.

These complex circumstances contribute to the extremely high suicide rate of farmers, with the isolation faced by rural farmers combined with anti-gay stigma driving the suicide rates of gay farmers even higher. Ineson believes that although there may be higher levels of homophobia in the farming community than in other parts of society, the bigger problem is the fear of coming out rather than the experience itself.

“We never tell callers what to do or say they must come out or mustn’t come out, but instead point out various options – they decide. There was one fella who was getting closer and closer to coming out and eventually he did so on Facebook – you can’t get much more public than that. A few days later I asked him how things were going and he was really annoyed, so I immediately thought he’s had some negative comments, but then he tells me: ‘I’m really annoyed, I was sat there waiting for all the trouble and I haven’t had any at all!'”

When Ineson first set out to create the helpline he had a similar fear, as he puts it, “that the heavens would fall in on me.” Despite the widespread coverage of both Ineson and his Gay Farmer Helpline in in national press, he has only heard from 13 people in the past decade who said they don’t approve of his idea.

Yet it’s far more difficult for agricultural workers to come out in isolated areas of Northern Ireland than in a place like Cheshire, where attitudes are relatively more progressive. Equally, rural farmers in the hills of Wales or the Highlands of Scotland face many additional challenges living an openly gay life but, in general, the worst fears most farmers have about telling friends and family they are gay simply don’t materialise.

Highlighting the problems faced by gay farmers is helping reduce the stigma attached to talking about LGBTQ issues and mental health among people who are most vulnerable and at risk. In turn, some of the more damaging aspects of the farming community are slowly changing, but perhaps not fast enough.

“I expected that the younger generation wouldn’t have the same type of problems but when I gave talks at agricultural colleges and mentioned gay issues, there were young folk coming up to me afterwards and saying: ‘I’ve never told anyone else this but I’m gay,’” says Ineson. “I honestly didn’t think it would be a problem at their age. Attitudes in the countryside are perhaps 10 to 15 years behind those in say London or Manchester. There are parts of London where you can walk down the street with your partner holding hand, you wouldn’t even think of doing that in many places in the countryside.”

Exposed: The Basic Bitch Account

Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see us—until, as people often say on social media, someone gets “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.

It felt like the end of summer and the end of her life.

Almost a decade after moving to the United States, Olivia arrived at an airport in the middle of the country. She sat up to get out of the car and the seat, sticky with August humidity, pulled at her skin as if to say, Don’t do this. Don’t go.

But she had no choice. Olivia exited the car, stepped out into the sun, and walked toward the shadows cast by the brutalist concrete building. By the time she boarded her flight to the Caribbean, the sky was darkening. She left the ground and the plane tilted south, pivoting toward the island nation where she grew up. She looked out the window and said goodbye to the country she was leaving to once again live with a family that didn’t — and couldn’t — know the real her.

Olivia had moved the U.S. in her late 20s to work and go to graduate school. Eventually, she graduated and then a new presidential administration began, and with it, new immigration policies were implemented. Suddenly, for the first time, she had visa troubles. Though the new administration terrified her, she was happy in the U.S. and had no desire to leave. But she didn’t even consider staying in the country undocumented — her mother’s health was declining and Olivia didn’t want to risk not being able to leave to see her if she needed to, knowing that if she left undocumented she wouldn’t be able to return.

So she wept, and screamed, and resigned herself to moving home.

As soon as she returned to her country of origin, Olivia felt something inside of her shift. Or, rather, she felt several things inside of her go underground. Her family, a large collective of evangelical Baptists, was as devout as ever. But since leaving, Olivia had come to realize that she wasn’t so devout. In fact, she wasn’t even an evangelical Baptist at all.

She had also realized a number of other things: She was politically progressive, theologically agnostic, and bisexual. Sharing any one of these things would put her at risk of being cast out of her family, or worse. A queer cousin of Olivia’s was so thoroughly rejected that not only do family members act as if he no longer exists, it’s almost as if he never did in the first place. So upon moving home, Olivia put the aspects of herself that were in conflict with her family’s beliefs into a box and buried it deep inside of herself.

The change couldn’t have felt more abrupt. While living in the U.S., she had been not just out but outspoken. Everyone around her knew about her sexuality and her beliefs; she was opinionated and vocal in both professional spaces and as an activist. Silencing herself, hiding her beliefs and identities, wasn’t just counterintuitive — it was suffocating.

But Olivia had one lifeline: her Twitter account.

Unlike Facebook or Instagram, where members of her family follow her, Olivia’s Twitter has never been associated with her legal name. Mindful of how easily a family member could find her anonymous Twitter account, she’s never posted pictures of herself or talked about where she’s lived. From the very beginning of her time on Twitter, she has always been intentionally vague about personal details.

She’s not vague about her beliefs and her identity on Twitter, though. Through her anonymous account, Olivia is able to be as outspoken as she used to be in other areas of her life, regularly posting about the difficulties of immigration, her views on conservatives’ calls for “religious liberty,” or what she thinks about the fragility of straight white men.

On the one hand, her Twitter account is a freeing space to share things that she can’t articulate in any other area of her life, but using it can also exacerbate how isolated and lonely she feels. On Twitter, she can say things that she desperately needs to say. Doing so also reminds her, however, that she can’t say them anywhere else.

Since moving home, Olivia’s posts on Twitter have become even more vulnerable than they were before. But her Twitter also feels increasingly fraught. She catches herself writing out a tweet — about how hard it is to go back in the closet, or the anti-LGBTQ comments her family makes — but then deleting it before hitting post, wondering if she’s venting too much. She worries that people will eventually get so sick of her complaints that they tune her out — by muting her, or worse still, unfollowing. The idea of losing the one venue she has for self-expression, of becoming even more isolated and alone than she is now, is too devastating to imagine.

Olivia also feels protective of her followers, many of whom are friends she made while living in the United States. She doesn’t want them to know how bad things actually are, how desperately she’s struggling with feeling alone and unsafe, and she also worries that her posts sometimes cause even her to focus too much on her problems. Not once has someone told her that she’s sharing too much, but still, the fear of alienating others or hurting herself by sharing so much of her struggle weighs heavily on her.

Though Olivia’s experiences are unique to her current situation, certainly many of us can relate to the feeling that we need to scale back — that if we really say it all, if we share everything we’re feeling, it will be too much and drive people away, or that it may even exacerbate our own unhappiness.

During some of the more difficult periods of my life, I’ve often spent hours in front of the computer drafting out status updates that would lay bare my suffering, only to delete them out of a fear that I would be judged, or that I would estrange the people from whom I so badly wanted support. Like Olivia, I’ve often created rules, limits, and thresholds for others in my head, based on my imagined understanding of how much they could tolerate — rationing out posts about my mental health and cutting myself off at an arbitrary number, or couching my laments about ongoing difficulties in self-deprecating humor.

Even when I do allow myself to post a bit more uninhibitedly, I, too, have found myself worrying that social media sometimes makes it harder for me to not fixate on what’s going wrong.

To help her practice focusing on happiness, Olivia made what she calls a “basic bitch” account, where she primarily posts cheerful things: casual thoughts on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Scandal, or pictures of a cute outfit. Although she’s often worried that her Twitter account allows her to stew in a way that’s not healthy for her, having this account allows her to preserve her other handle as a space for pain and fear.

As an added bonus, if someone who knows her offline asks if she has a Twitter, she now has a handle to share with them. Her family has never asked, but if they did, she could point them in the direction of that account.

Her private Twitter account remains a very necessary lifeline. Despite her concerns about it, Olivia can’t imagine how she would be getting through this period in her life without social media. She still gets nervous — especially about Facebook, which is the most mixed space of all of her social media accounts, where members of her family and people from her life in the U.S. interact with her alongside one another — but she’s trying to focus on the good she’s getting out of it.

While she trusts her friends from the U.S. to be careful and practice discretion, she’s also given them clear instructions not to post certain things, and to never tag her private account in anything her family might come across. The consequences of Olivia’s private account being connected to her offline identity, of her family discovering that she is proudly queer and agnostic, would be great. For Olivia and many others, coming out to family just isn’t possible, which makes having safe, low-risk spaces in which she can be out — particularly digital spaces — that much more important.

Despite her fears about being ostracized both by family and by the friends she worries will tire of her social media venting, Olivia is still here. The person she was in the U.S., where she could be more open about her queerness, isn’t entirely gone. You can still find that Olivia on Twitter, tending to herself until she can step back out into the light.

Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerable — in either a positive or a painful way (or both).

Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.

Image via Getty

Watch This Top HIV Researcher Break Down How Medical Racism and Bias Hurt Black Gay Men

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Do white supremacy and colonialism influence how well a Black person can live with HIV? The answer is yes, according to David Malebranche, a top HIV doctor, researcher and professor who tackled racism and HIV treatment in an emotional and applause-provoking speech at the 2018 International AIDS Conference.

As a member of the medical community, and someone living with HIV since 2007, Malebranche spoke frankly with doctors in the room about how their own behaviors might be hurting health outcomes for black gay and bi men in America.

“Most research on black [gay and bi men] ponders what’s wrong with the vulnerable community first and looks at the medical community later,” he said. “Blaming the victim never gets us far in public health, but that’s exactly what we seem to be doing.”

The focus of Malebranche’s talk, aside from racism and bias, was the HIV treatment cascade. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s basically a visual of what percentage of a population has successfully been diagnosed, referred to a doctor, made it onto HIV medication and then become virally suppressed. Thirty-four percent of gay and bi white men in America are currently undetectable, meaning they’re healthier and can’t transmit the virus. But for their black counterparts, the number is at 16 percent.

Malebranche pointed out that there are several studies that attempt to ask why marginalized patients are unable to become virally suppressed. But, all these studies have the same fault: they only ask what patients are doing wrong and often fail to examine how racism and implicit bias might deter queer men of color from seeking them out.

Rather than focus on individual-level problems, Malebranche suggested alternate inquiries.

“What about the scourge of white supremacy and colonialism that has been a global epidemic for centuries? What about anti blackness? Does the trauma of racism, implicit bias and associated microaggression influence how black [gay and bi men] navigate the treatment cascade?” he asked. “Do the power dynamics of white supremacy get in the way of optimal patient care?”

While there aren’t many studies that look exactly at what Malebranche described, he pointed to a few that unearth the ways racism impede facilities from delivering the best care. There are studies that prove that HIV stigma exists among workers in medical clinics, that some gay and bi men cite sexual stigma and discrimination as deterrents to going to the doctor, that doctors often fail to engender trust in patients of color and even a study proving that racial differences in how doctors and patients discuss adherence can affect health outcomes.

Malebranche called on future studies to examine how clinics lose patients and not why patients might have trouble being retained. Malebranche added that, too often, black patients are called “hard to reach,” untrusting of doctors or “uneducated,” which he said “[absolves] medical systems from holding themselves accountable for not just access but the quality of health services we provide.”

Malebranche drew an analogy to a restaurant inquiring why customers might not return for a second meal by studying and blaming customers’ palates rather than improving the food and service.

“Maybe as medical and research communities, we’re afraid to conduct assessments,” he said. “Maybe we’re scared of what we’re going to see when we look into the mirror.”

He added, throwing a little shade and spilling a little tea, “Maybe it’s easier to just congratulate ourselves on our efforts while we sip expensive wine in hotels at international conferences. Maybe we are so invested in our savior complexes, that we refuse to consider the power differential between medical systems and vulnerable communities may be partly responsible for why viral suppression rates are so low right now.”

Several times throughout his talk, Malebranche discussed what it means to be “vulnerable,” which in the public health world applies to populations who are often put at risk for HIV by societal drivers like racism and poverty. That includes, Malebranche listed, black and brown queer men, other sexual minorities, cis and trans women, those living in poverty, the homeless and incarcerated people.

“Often times vulnerability equals blackness,” Malebranche said of the US HIV epidemic, which disproportionately affects Black Americans. Malebranche also pointed out that gay black and bi men comprise 1/3 of new HIV infections in the US though they only account for about 0.5% of the population. Currently, most estimates show that 1 in 2 black gay and bi men will contract HIV in their lifetime.

“The global community frequently assumes that because we spearheaded PEPFAR, the United States is doing an admirable job of handling our domestic HIV epidemic,” Malebranche said. “I can assure that you we have much work to do at home.”

Part of what makes people vulnerable is criminalization and stigmatization of their sexuality, Malebranche added.

“People will choose to live in a trance-like denial of HIV, whether positive or negative, when so many of the social messages around them about HIV are negative or judgemental,” he said. Malebranche drew parallels between the high rates of HIV infection in the US South and the high number of HIV criminalization laws and convictions in those states. He also mentioned that many states in the South still have anti-sodomy laws on the books. In other countries that criminalized same-sex behavior, he said, the rate of infection is twice as high as countries where there are no laws criminalizing queer sex.

“Imagine a world where you are being criminalized because of who you naturally love,” Malebranche said. “Imagine your country saying it’s a crime for you to naturally love who you love.”

Malebranche ended his talk with several examples of how medical facilities and public health professionals can reach black gay and bisexual men without stigmatizing them. He said not to treat Black men as “hard to reach just because you don’t know how to reach us.”

He said:

“It means acknowledging that communities may know more about saving themselves than you do. It means that if you are truly committed to eradicating HIV stigma, you will stop using the phrase ‘HIV-infected’ when describing human beings in your speeches, presentations, abstracts and journal articles. Try embracing terms like ‘living with HIV’ and ‘HIV positive’ when referring to your research subjects. It means changing the stigmatizing phrase ‘retained in care’ to ‘engaged in care.’ ‘Retained’ implies possession, as if you are retaining prisoners in custody. The treatment cascade is not a correctional facility.”

To illustrate his point, Malebranche invoked an “old Wakandan proverb” courtesy of Black Panther.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.”

Malebranche ended, tearfully, by showing love to all the black same gender-loving men who have influenced him and calling for black men to celebrate intimacy with each other.

“We are much more than a hard to reach population, walking risk factors for HIV or vectors of disease transmission,” he said. “We are proud black men.”

“Let’s love on ourselves and each other.”

They Tried to Make Him Go to Rehab

Two months before we met, Mike was sleeping in a crack house in London. “My career was well and truly fucked, I was losing friends fast and I was in and out of hospital,” he recalled. He’d been injecting crystal meth and escorting to support his habit. “Again.” “Was that rock bottom?” I asked. “There were many rock bottoms,” he replied wryly.

We were chatting in a comfortable sitting room in Resort 12, located in Mae Rim about half an hour outside of the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. “Resort” is a euphemism for a brand new rehab center that opened in November 2017 where LGBTQ clients like Mike, dealing with a range of issues from substance abuse to sexual addiction, come in the hopes of getting their lives back on track. It’s the only specifically LGBTQ rehab center in the world outside of the United States.

Charmed Life

Mike’s is a story of ups and downs, lucky breaks and poor choices. Traveling halfway around the world to Resort 12 could be his last chance, and Mike is determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Now 35, Mike grew up in Slough, the sort of town that sounds like the butt of a half-funny joke, a suburb of London that could most kindly be described as nondescript. “London was 26 miles up the road but it could have been 500 miles in terms of mentality,” he says. He left school at 16, came out and led what by his account was a pretty charmed life.

“We were poor working class Irish and my dad was from the Irish gypsy traveling community. On paper, it should have been quite difficult for me to come out, because they [can be] socially quite backward sometimes. If you’re gay or a woman…” He doesn’t need to finish the sentence to express the ambient machismo.

But it turned out not to be an issue. “Coming out was fine, my mum and dad were cool, there were never no problems.” If anything, being gay was his ticket to bigger and better things. “I never saw that as a hindrance. I knew in some way that being gay was going to take me out of the town where I was living. Coming out was an exciting time. It was a positive experience.”

He got gigs acting and when he wasn’t in front of the camera, he found work on building sites where his father worked. He moved into handling PR for a record label and “living the London life.” He describes his twenty-something self as “quite social, and fairly kind of promiscuous.”

He gets nostalgic when he recalls going out at the time. “There were still clubs! G-A-Y, Heaven, Ghetto, The End,” all iconic venues of the gay scene in the nineties and noughties. “You’d meet guys in clubs and have one night stands, cultivate relationships on the dance floor. Even though drugs were always a constant in these clubs, and drink, it was just done in a social way. You were out and about, clubbing. It was fun.”

Harder Drugs, Darker Sex

At 28, Mike started his own PR agency. “I was earning loads more money. I thought I was less answerable because I wasn’t going into an office.” But that was when things started to change. “I fit my life going out around work.” He pauses. “No, I was getting work around going out. The balance changed.”

What could have been a step towards independence turned out to be a spiral of addiction and dependency? “The day that I started working freelance was the day I picked up a crystal meth pipe. For about two years, the company was successful but it just wasn’t sustainable. My addiction got worse, I was using more. I wasn’t turning up to work. It was pretty textbook. I was canceling appointments, stopped seeing friends, I was isolating [myself], taking drugs with people I didn’t know. Randoms. It got really messy.”

He is very lucid about losing control. “The drugs got harder. I suppose the sex got darker. My life went from being out in clubs to being in bedrooms with the curtains closed. Towards the end, I was escorting to fund my habit because I needed to use every day and it went to me injecting crystal meth.”

What followed was a pattern of ups and downs, looking for help, periods of clean time and going back to work, then relapses and binges. Mike was “making life manageable then fucking it up” over and over. The craving for sex and drugs took over and led to hospitalizations, psychoses, a second rehab, more time clean and an umpteenth relapse.

And then out of the blue, Mike’s guardian angel called with an offer that could save his life.

Counselors and Clients: Shared Experiences

In a separate conversation, Stuart Fenton, Principal Counsellor at Resort 12, acknowledges that the pattern Mike describes is a common one among the resort clients. “The majority of our clients have been alcohol-related, maybe a third crystal meth [and then] sex addiction,” he says. “There is a real variety.”

He, like much of Resort 12’s support staff, knows what he’s talking about. Stu’s own background includes a variety of drugs, starting near home in Sydney and then in New York and London. After a couple of attempts at rehab and finally cleaning up his act, he trained as a counselor and opened his own private practice in Sydney to help others. He’s been in recovery for almost two decades. He moved to Thailand at the end of 2017 to help open the facility.

Mike has responded well to the staff with whom he identifies. “They get you. And they make a point of telling you. They speak to you in a way that you are equal. I think it’s very powerful to have people who are talking to you on the level.”

Homophobia Inside and Out

Stu says that it’s usually not a question of conscious homophobia, but the lack of experience and exposure to situations on the part of the caregivers that creates an obstacle to communication. “It’s not even the depth of understanding or the empathy, it’s the language and the terminology,” he states. “It was an enormous relief when I was able to talk to someone” who understood what he’d been through.

“All of the Resort 12 staff identify as gay. Having people who understand some of the language and who have experienced different things is hugely important,” says Sandi James, also Principal Counsellor at Resort 12, a registered psychologist and former university lecturer with a Master’s of Education. And that’s what makes the place unique. “I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere,” she says, with a note of wonder in her voice.

She “was born in Sydney and did heroin in Sydney” before moving around Australia. Once she sought help and went into recovery, she decided to work to help others. She also joined the team last year. She points to the patients’ own homophobia as a challenge to be addressed. “There are higher rates of trauma experienced by the LGBT community: bullying, harassment and just living in a hetero-dominant world” which lead to “internalized homophobia and the shame of coming out.” Is that true of everybody who comes here? “Pretty much,” Sandi nods.

Mike says that is one of the lessons he has learned since arriving at Resort 12. “When you’re gay, you’re sort of born with the innate shame, whether you like it or not,” he states. “You’re told to harbor the secret for fifteen or sixteen years of your life, and whether you’re cool with your sexuality and I certainly was, it’s there. You are conditioned to watch what you say and how you act and [you have] that fear of getting called out.”

Addressing issues of self-esteem and self-worth is a big part of successful recovery. “The whole point of recovery is a gradual rebuilding of your self-esteem over many years,” says Stu.

Star Power

So how did Mike start his journey to a tropical rehab halfway around the world?

Celebrity endorsements from husband and husband David Furnish and Sir Elton John (who call Resort 12 “vital”), from Boy George who is publicly marking his ten years of sobriety this year, and from Boy George’s best buddy Tony Marnach, better remembered as London DJ Fat Tony, all of whom talk openly about their addictions and recovery, have come pouring in. Fat Tony has been speaking out about his addiction and recovery as Resort 12’s public face, and it is he who was Mike’s unexpected guardian angel.

Mike recalls getting a call from Fat Tony just a few weeks earlier just when he thought he had nowhere to turn. “Before there was always a glimmer of hope, certain friends, a bit of money in the bank. This time there was nothing. I didn’t even have any clothes because I had a suitcase where I was staying and using, and the suitcase got stolen, probably by another user.” Fat Tony, who knew Mike from their clubbing days, called to offer him the opportunity to spend two months at Resort 12. Days later Mike was on a plane to Thailand.

Staying Clean

Mike isn’t out of the woods yet. He made it to Thailand and stepped off the plane. Wasted. “The day before I flew out I decided to use again because in my head that crazy thing said ‘fuck it, if I am going to go to rehab, I am going to have one night and get obliterated.’ Which I did.”

Once he came down, he took in the beauty of the place and embraced the program, well aware that an opportunity like this isn’t going to come twice. He is articulate about why he’s here (“I have a two-pronged addiction to sex and drugs”) and what he’s learned so far.

He draws strength from the non-religious 12-step program, familiar to anyone who has attended an AA meeting, based on surrendering control and developing self-awareness. “You just become a better person [and] a big part of this program is having faith.”

In addition to spiritual strength, he has also found scientific grounding to explain what he’s experiencing. “Looking at addiction as a disease of thinking, of the mind. To learn about the science of it was really powerful.” Other tools he knows he’ll find once he’s back outside are AA or NA meetings, as well as trauma therapists or drug counselors. Resort 12 also runs intensive outpatient services in many major cities for its clients.

He knows it won’t be easy, but he also knows that seeking help is a non-negotiable step on the road to recovery. “I think this place will keep me clean,” says Mike with hope in his voice.

Full disclosure: Mike is a guest of Resort 12, not a paying client. However, all the paying clients we spoke to off the record were satisfied with their experiences and two had voluntarily extended their stays. Four-week all-inclusive treatments at Resort 12 start at $15,000. Some insurance policies will cover the expense of treatment. The center is also actively looking for sponsors to assist clients who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford treatment.

#NonBinaryIsntWhite Is a Social Media Reminder of the Gender Diversity Among People of Color

Nonbinary people of color have decided to take visibility into their own hands.

People who identify as nonbinary people of color have been sharing selfies using the hashtag #NonBinaryIsntWhite on social media to remind people that nonbinary doesn’t just equal white and nonbinary.

“I often feel my experience as a nonbinary person of color is pushed aside for those who are white and masculine,” one Twitter user wrote. “This is for those of you who are or want to be on T AND still be femme, you totally can!”

“I LOVE to see #nonbinaryisntwhite to remind all of y’all that us non-binary POC have BEEN here and will continue to be here!” another person wrote.

If you want to see more nonbinary cuties of color, head over to Twitter.