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Pedestrians may not notice Better Existence With HIV, an HIV/AIDS prevention and testing center located inside of Bethany Lutheran Church, 1244 W. Thorndale.

Minus a sign on the door, a passerby won’t know about the people sitting in a waiting room where large glass containers full of various condoms (female condoms, male condoms, polyurethane varnish sheets for safe oral sex, flavored condoms, and lubricants) greet them in colors resembling a box of crayons. BEHIV patients are invited to take as much protection as they want, and are taken downstairs to be tested in the basement of the building where there is a comfy couch and different contraception and handouts about sexually transmitted diseases on the table. Test takers fill out a confidential form of their sexual past history and then wait to be called.

When called, patients have a confidential and intimate conversation about their past, take the Oraquick Rapid Advance Test, and within 20 minutes, know their status. A positive result sets a team of BEHIV workers in motion. The client is then “linked to a primary care facility to test the client for viral load, retest to confirm HIV status, upon confirmation linked to a case manager, and the case manager assists with their social needs,” Ariq Cabbler, prevention manager at the North Side center, explained.

“It’s so overwhelming when you find out your status because there are so many mixed signals that go through one’s brain because it’s still categorized as a terminal disease chronic terminal but manageable,” said Greg Sanchez, an HIV positive Education Outreach Prevention Specialist at BEHIV. He was diagnosed as HIV positive when he was 19 years old and has lived with the disease for 23 years. “It does scare people. The initial thing is how do you tell your parents or your church members or friends or date. If you’re working, how will my employees find out? Will this affect my insurance? There are so many different responses and reactions to that.”

But Sanchez, like other BEHIV workers, is concerned about the number of minority men who refuse to be tested. He attributes the hesitation to cultural experiences and expectations. “It took me five years to come to grips with it. I was in denial. I think it’s really hard for Blacks and Hispanics because we have things in our cultures church, spirituality, religion, and you’re dealing with this disease that has so many stereotypes and stigmas attached to it,” Sanchez said.

Gender roles and biases also come into play, he explained. “Men, on the other hand…there’s this social expectation in the Black community and the Hispanic community and in the community overall that men are supposed to be a certain way, and that’s to be strong and not to take care of our physical health. And you’re a wimp if you do this, or you’re gay if you ask that question. The pressure that we have as a culture with poverty, immigration, language barriers, different social statuses within a culture, you’re dealing with a lot. There’s a lot of hierarchies and a lot of dos and don’ts in our culture. HIV is hitting our cultures badly because we’ve been in denial about it so long.”

Still, BEHIV strongly encourages being tested. “As men, we have to step up by encouraging our women to be tested,” said Cabbler. “Encouraging our sons to be tested. If we’re fathers, and we have a homosexual son, we have to make sure he’s tested. African Americans tend to think of HIV with only the gay person.” In a 2005 study completed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 percent of the cases among Black men were related to male-to-male sexual contact, 23 percent were related to injection drug use, and 22 percent were linked to high-risk heterosexual contact.

“The myth is that men who are positive are all homosexuals, and that’s not the case. It sets women up, and we need to be aware of that,” said Cabbler.

According to several HIV/AIDS organizations, including BlackAIDS.org, Black women make up nearly 70 percent of new HIV cases. “The concept of the down low men has been an injustice in the African American community because it causes women to look for the certain type–the gay guy, the bisexual guy versus having a clear understanding that a heterosexual male can transmit the virus as well. Look for someone besides the man that wears pink. If you’re not wearing a condom, you’re not protecting yourself.”

BEHIV was founded in 1989 by community volunteers in Chicago and Evanston, and the organization is funded through grants, in addition to donations from churches, and corporate and foundation donors. “If you don’t receive services from (BEHIV), any department of Chicago Public Health or Cook County Public Health facility would provide you with free HIV testing,” said Cabbler.

“It’s a matter of letting the community know that they have access to that technology. We need to be able to access it, not be afraid of our results, because you can’t hide from HIV. You can pretend you don’t have it. You can refuse to know your status. But the only thing you’re doing is delaying the inevitable.”

Lesser Known Info on HIV/AIDS 

HIV/AIDS can be transmitted through oral sex. (Note: 62.8% of VIBE magazine [July 2008] readers said they do not use protection for oral sex.) "Although the transmission is less, you are putting yourself at risk for sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea. Once you contact in oral sex, that can lead to ulcerated lesions that serve as an open pore for the virus." -Ariq Cabbler, BEHIV Prevention Manager
Straight women can give heterosexual men HIV/AIDS. "Women have premenstrual cycles. That’s blood flow. Men are the driving force, but just as a female can infect her unborn child, she can infect a man. If you have rough sex without a condom, some women have dry walls, so therefore, they require more lubrication. And if you’re having sex without lubrication, those are microscopic tears, so that creates opening portals to transmit the virus. Women have anal sex. Those are rectal tears." -Ariq Cabbler, BEHIV Prevention Manager
Religion factors into why African American men don’t disclose their sexual preference. "If you maintain a homophobic environment and you cause guys to stay in the closet and less likely to be tested for fear of being considered a queer, homosexual, or faggot, what you’ve done is kept a positive individual having access to treatment, knowing their status, and decreasing the likelihood of that person transmitting to the next person whether that be male or female. We don’t reach out. We shut doors. ‘You’re not saved. You’re not Christian. So therefore, I can’t reach out to you.’”  -Ariq Cabbler, BEHIV Prevention Manager
Other co-factors can also lead to not knowing one’s STD status.

"A host of factors put us in the position to be HIV–sexual abuse, domestic violence, crime in our neighborhood, health illiteracy, lack of health services." -Ariq Cabbler, BEHIV Prevention Manager                                                                                                    "Black neighborhoods, according to published reports, are more likely to be plagued by joblessness, poverty, drug use, and a high ratio of women to men, a significant portion of whom cycle in and out of a prison system where the rate of HIV infection is estimated to be as much as 10 times higher than in the general population." -Rhonda Parrow, Special Events Associate

Black women are getting HIV/AIDS in higher numbers than anyone else. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of new AIDS cases for Black women was 20 times that of white women and five times greater than the infection rate for Latinas." -Rhonda Parrow, Special Events Associate

Shamontiel L. Vaughn can be reached at svaughn@chicagodefender.com.

______ Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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