Healthy pride

NAMASTE: Allé K teaches yoga geared toward queer, trans and larger-bodied people. Image via TransYogaTeacher.com

Western North Carolina is a health-conscious place, but one that hasn’t always been welcoming for the LGBTQ community. And without health and wellness opportunities that provide care, while also affirming sexuality and gender identity, some LGBTQ folks may not share essential information with their providers or avoid health care settings entirely.

Numerous local organizations and wellness providers are seeking to change that by prioritizing LGBTQ health. As Scott Parker, the director of development for Western North Carolina Community Health Services, puts it, “If you’re providing care to someone and you leave out the sexual health component, you’re leaving out a big part of who that person is.”

In honor of June as LGBTQ Pride Month, Xpress caught up with several of these providers to learn more about their efforts.

Western North Carolina AIDS Project

WNCAP formed in Asheville in 1986 in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, providing food and care for people with AIDS. The nonprofit now serves 18 WNC counties, with offices in Asheville, Shelby and Franklin.

WNCAP offers services for the treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse and mental health issues, says spokesperson Michael Poandl. “There continues to be a lot of stigma around these health issues,” he says. “Of course, these issues don’t just affect queer people, but they do disproportionately affect queer people.”

The organization provides free testing for HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis.WNCAP also operates a pharmacy services program that works with Sona Pharmacy, Avita Pharmacy and Appalachian Specialty Pharmacy to arrange unlabeled home delivery of medications. “We take anonymity very seriously,” notes Poandl.

WNCAP can connect patients to affordable treatment for hepatitis C, as well as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) — pills that can prevent HIV transmission if taken before or after sex or injection drug use, respectively. Case management for people living with HIV/AIDS is also available. According to a N.C. Department of Health and Human Services report, Buncombe and Henderson counties were home to 730 and 176 people with HIV, respectively, in 2019. (WNCAP estimates that about 3,000 people in WNC are currently living with HIV.)

As part of its harm reduction services, WNCAP distributes the anti-overdose medication naloxone, properly disposes of unsterile syringes and provides sterile injection equipment. A mobile syringe exchange unit travels to rural areas as well. WNCAP also assists clients with transportation to medical care, including medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder, and can help clients enter rehab. All services are free and confidential.

More information at WNCAP.org.

Western North Carolina Community Health Services  

Western North Carolina Community Health Services is a primary care provider offering family medicine, dental care and behavioral health care. But unlike other providers, Parker says, at the core of its work is the acknowledgement that sexuality and gender identity impacts every aspect of life. He says the Asheville-based organization’s approach of “whole person care” seeks to make the clinic a safe space where every provider is approachable about any issue.

WNCCHS opened in 1994 to offer health services for people with AIDS, and in 2010, the clinic partnered with Buncombe County, with a mandate to address health disparities in the region. Of the 14,800 patients who received care from the clinic in 2019, 60% were uninsured, and 95% had an income at or below the federal poverty level.

Addressing this population, Parker says, means continually adapting to its changing needs. For example, WNCCHS received federal funds at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to address food insecurity by providing food boxes.

“We realized that was an unmet need for a lot of our patients,” Parker explains. When that pandemic relief funding ended, the clinic adjusted its own budget to continue the program in partnership with Loving Foods Resources, a local food pantry. “We’re anticipating that food insecurity will continue after COVID, so we’re continuing to provide it as long as we can,” he says of the aid.

Also known as the Minnie Jones Clinic, named in honor of the nonprofit’s co-founder, WNCCHS offers HIV treatment and prevention services, including PReP and PEP, and operates an in-house pharmacy. Its transgender health clinic offers everything from primary medical care to hormone therapy to support services, such as assistance with officially documenting gender changes.

More information at WNCCHS.org.

Allé K – Trans Yoga Teacher

Asheville-based yoga instructor Allé K teaches a practice geared toward queer, trans and fat or larger-bodied people. It’s something that he himself needed. “I know that it’s important to have affinity spaces where pronouns and chosen names will be respected, and so that’s why I do what I do,” he says. “I’ve been misgendered in many yoga spaces so I want folks to feel affirmed in their healing journey, unlike I was.”

Classes begin with a community check-in where anyone who wants to can share their name and pronoun. His slow-paced dharma yoga instruction is “gender-affirming, accessible to beginners and accessible for folks with different needs and shapes and sizes of bodies,” he says.

On the physical side of the classes, K offers pose modifications that other instructors may not be aware about. “I had top surgery and I’ve had to learn how to move my body in different ways,” he explains. “I’m good at offering different options based on my lived experience.”

K’s weekly yoga class in Carrier Park geared toward queer, trans and fat or larger-bodied people begins in July. Tuition will be sliding scale or donation-based.

More information at TransYogaTeacher.com or Instagram.com/TransYogaTeacher.

Blue Ridge Pride

The nonprofit Blue Ridge Pride is best known for community-building events like its LGBTQIA+ oral history project (I and A representing intersex and asexual people, respectively) or the Pride celebration in September. While not a health organization, Blue Ridge Pride runs a program called Generation Plus that offers an essential mental health resource: social connection for LGBTQ folks over age 55.

“As we age, whether we’re gay or straight, people tend to isolate more,” says Butch Thompson, president of Blue Ridge Pride’s board. But isolation, he continues, can present particular challenges for the well-being of older LGBTQIA+ people.

“They tend to go back in the closet, so to speak,” says Thompson. Elders can lose social support and affirming medical care, letting health issues go untreated out of fear of discrimination and stigma.

COVID-19 forced the organization to operate primarily online. Throughout the pandemic, Generation Plus has held two twice-monthly online meetings: Rainbow Inspiration, which is sponsored by AARP NC Mountain Region and spotlights LGBTQ community members, and Pride Time, an hour-long social chat over Zoom.

“We saw the need when COVID hit that people couldn’t get out. And unfortunately, for some elderly people, it was already challenging to get out,” explains Thompson. “We thought by doing these virtual segments online that it would really help them.”

Through its website, Blue Ridge Pride seeks to connect the aging LGBTQ population to services, like education about Medicare, telehealth and caregiving assistance. Generation Pride also anticipates restarting its in-person lunch and learn events in September, including some with a health focus.

More information at BlueRidgePride.org.

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