Reducing HIV Stigma and Discrimination: Crystal and the HOPE Program

Crystal joined the AACI HIV Outreach, Prevention, and Education (HOPE) program in June 2015. As Program Coordinator, she works directly with clients providing HIV testing and sexual health counseling. A big part of her work concentrates on educating clients about HIV, how it can affect them, how it is transmitted and teaching them ways to protect themselves. Crystal also reaches out to bars, schools, as well as during LGBT events.

The HOPE program is unique because the approach is different and more relaxed than with a traditional medical center or doctor. When clients come to her, Crystal uses casual conversation to engage with them.“Every once in a while, we have to give somebody some bad news. But beyond that, for the most part, I am helping people find out how their sexual history might affect them, and giving them peace of mind, knowing that now they are sexually healthy and if not, I am able to give them tips on what they can do to be healthier. I do all of this in a very sex positive context. A lot of standard doctors are not very affirming of people’s sexuality or sexual practices, which can make people scared. People don’t want to be talked down to or to be put down because of how they practice their sex life, how many partners they have, what kind of partners they have, the activities they’re doing. I encourage people to have a healthy active sex life, just giving tips maintaining what they’re doing, but doing that in a safer manner. People feel a lot more comfortable sharing their stories with me, and share things they would never tell to a doctor, because of the connection they feel with me.”

Through HOPE, people are reminded to keep on top of their sexual health. “HIV has had a major stigma for a long time, that stigma creates anxiety in a lot of people. They just don’t want to think about it. Youth thinks they’re indestructible. Some people are just finding themselves. With some of the older people, they haven’t been out yet, or they know their sexuality but because of the circumstances –whether that’s being from another region of the US, or from overseas- there is still a lot of stigma. There are people in their 50’s or 60’s who have been having sex with other men, or who have a wife and family but still have sex with men on the side. They are scared to go to the doctor, because they don’t want it to show up on their insurance bills,” Crystal said.

Using testing with the HOPE program is free and allows clients to remain anonymous, at a place where they feel safe and comfortable. AACI also partners with the LGBT Billy de Frank Community to offer free testing. Since the center offers yoga and meditation classes, and support groups, being tested there provides clients an extra aspect of wellness to keep their minds and bodies healthy.

The HOPE program keeps individuals and their sexual partners healthy. It has a positive and enormous impact on the LGBT community. “A lot of transgender people, women especially, make less than $10,000 a year. Some won’t get hired, even at fast foods, or lose their jobs after coming out. A lot of times, people have to fall back on sex work as a way to making ends meet. That is why this community and the LGBT community in general are at high risk of HIV. It is important to reach out to them since they’re engaging in these high risk behaviors because of necessity,” said Crystal.

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