As dozens of people gathered around tables in the gymnasium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, Ivy Gibson-Hill reflected on why a pop-up clinic was created for the third annual LGBT in the South conference, held March 18-20.
Last year, a young man who was having suicidal thoughts came to the conference, and he wanted someone to talk to. Gibson-Hill was able to find some chaplains and social workers who were also attending the event. This year, she wanted to do more.
“We wanted to be really intentional about it,” she says. “When we look at the statistics for LGBT folks, we see a lot of disparity, so we wanted to be able to connect people directly to services while they’re here.”
The Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality sponsored this year’s third annual conference. The first conference, held in the Friendship Hall of the United Church of Christ, brought about 150 people. The second, held at Pack Place, drew about 500. This year, registration closed at 653 people — full capacity for the new A-B Tech Event Center.
Tables around the pop-up clinic are staffed by people from a variety of agencies and services, from HIV/AIDS testing, services and education to help with advance care directives and information about care for transgender people.
Lee Storrow, executive director of the NC AIDS Network, stopped by the Western North Carolina AIDS Project table to be tested for HIV.
“I do this a couple of times a year,” Storrow says. “I think I know my status, but it’s important to know for certain.”
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that one in two African-American men who are gay or have sex with men will become HIV-positive, Storrow says.
“People need to understand that the HIV epidemic is not over,” he says.
The HIV/AIDS education that happens here is important because it can help people understand the other risks involved.
At a workshop on the importance of expanding Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income people, Carolyn McAllaster, founder of the Duke HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic, explained that although most HIV-positive patients can get federal Ryan White Funding to help pay for their medications, they have no access to care for other ailments.
Carolyn Reeves, a master’s degree student who is gathering stories about the need for Medicaid expansion, shares the story of a young man who is HIV-positive but also has hepatitis C and serious back problems. He can get his HIV medications, but his back pain and hepatitis are not being treated. He has applied for both Medicaid and Social Security disability and been denied.
“If he could get treatment for his back problems, he could get a job,” Reeves says. “Instead, his condition just gets worse.”
Amanda Stem, advocacy supervisor at WNCAP, says people who have health problems that aren’t being treated often fall out of care for their HIV treatment as well. Many of the people who come to WNCAP do so from distant counties where public transportation is nonexistent. Getting to Asheville from Cherokee County is a hardship, but if Medicaid were expanded, patients likely would be able to get treatment closer to home instead of having to travel to where the funding is.
Storrow says many states are repurposing federal AIDS medication money to help patients get assistance with health insurance premiums.
“If you offer insurance, treatment for all health problems is available,” Storrow says. “If you just pay for AIDS medications, people aren’t really getting comprehensive care.”
The conference also held workshops on ending “conversion” therapy and the behavioral health problems that accompany it. Most of the larger organizations that attempt to “cure” homosexuality have gone out of business, but some survive, and the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully sued one such program in New Jersey for consumer fraud.
“The theory that a gay person can be ‘fixed’ furthers the appearance of ‘other’ and ‘less than,’” says Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. Although there are no reliable statistics, Wolfe says, he knows of a number of people who have contemplated or committed suicide after failing to be “cured.”
“We do know that higher levels of rejection by family or community are associated with a higher risk of suicide,” Wolfe says.
Similar problems exist within the transgender community, says Dr. Jennifer Abbott, director of the transgender health program at Western North Carolina Community Health Services’ Minnie Jones Clinic.
Abbott did not know much about transgender care before working at the clinic, when a counselor asked her to prescribe testosterone for a young woman who wished to transition to male.
“I had never done that before, but I agreed to see him,” she says. As she watched his life transform, she decided to learn more. Today, WNCCHS offers care to transgender people as part of its family practice program.
“It’s not just about coming in for your hormone treatment,” Abbott says. “It’s about checking your blood pressure. We don’t have a special day for trans care; it’s just part of your regular primary care.”
Dede Dallas, a patient at WNCCHS for a year, says that for the first time since she began her transition, she feels as though she’s finally seen as a person:
“I’m not just a trans woman; I’m a whole person.”