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HIV/AIDS: The other U.S.-Mexican border crisis

VICE’s Paola Ramos looks at HIV epidemic in Brownsville, Texas

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Paola Ramos talking with Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka ‘dragtivist’ Beatrix LeStrange (Photo courtesy VICE)

The Trump administration’s unplanned “zero tolerance” family-separation immigration policy has created a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border. But while the focus is rightly on reuniting mothers with their children stripped away by government agents, there is a whole population of people desperately in need of help, many seeking asylum, who are largely being ignored: immigrants with HIV/AIDS.

Roxanna Hernandez, for instance, was a 33-year-old transgender immigrant with AIDS fleeing violence in her home country. After she turned herself in to ICE in San Diego last May seeking help, she was shuffled from detention in Texas to a correctional facility in New Mexico until she died alone on May 25. 

“Because (Roxanna) was trying to get a better life, and because she was running away from the violence she experienced in Honduras, she came to the U.S. to find death. The system is the one that killed her,” Bamby Salcedo, president and CEO of the [email protected] Coalition, told a gathering in Los Angeles. “ICE separates us when we disclose that we are HIV+ and trans. That is what they did to Roxanna—they isolated her to let her die.”

But, as out journalist/activist Paola Ramos explains in a new digital series on VICE.com, border towns such as Brownsville, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley have a crisis of their own—a surging HIV epidemic in the Latino community.

“Brownsville is 90 percent Latino,” Ramos says. “Immigrants know what they’re stepping into. One thing they do not know is that in Brownsville, in this entire region, there is a huge HIV epidemic, particularly among the Latino community.”

Citing CDC statistics, Ramos notes that while HIV infections declined 5% in the US from 2011 to 2015, rates for Latino MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men) ages 13 and older increased 13.4%. And HIV is a crisis in the Rio Grande Valley: 85 percent of people who contract HIV are Latino; 75 percent of new cases are male, according to the Valley AIDS Council.

Why? Ramos asks in the first episode of her VICE series exploring the Latin-X movement. She turns to Joe Colon-Uvalles, aka Beatrix LeStrange, a local LGBT organizer, HIV/AIDS educator and “dragtivist” who started “Drag Out HIV!” in 2017 to fight the oppressive stigma surrounding HIV in the Catholic-heavy region. Texas is an “abstinence-only” state that fails to teach HIV/AIDS and sex education.

Colon-Uvalles and his organization are also helping immigrants during the border crisis.

These activists “are so brave. They’ve gone through so much and they’ve seen so much pain but now is when they’re shining the most in these moments of crisis, when people need them. This is when they’re stepping up and Joe is helping these immigrant communities,” Ramos tells the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. “I was so proud to have met him. That’s the hope that I have now—that there are people like Joe down there right now helping other people.”

In May 2017, Ramos, the former deputy director of Hispanic Media for Hillary for America, was honored in Hollywood by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Her Fueling the Frontlines Award was presented by her father, Jorge Ramos, the acclaimed Univision News anchor and journalist who famously stood up to presidential candidate Donald Trump and was forcefully removed from Trump’s news conference.

The younger Ramos has a similarly keen sensibility for fighting discrimination, sharing how Latinos are responding to the current humanitarian crisis.

“That’s when the Latino community comes together,” Ramos says. “Regardless of your status, regardless of the color of your skin, regardless of what group you’re working with and for and whether you’re gay or not, people are coming together and that’s something you’re seeing in the protests, you’re seeing in the way these incredible groups have organized. And that speaks to the Latin-X movement. It’s just these young Latinos that are trying to make change. And that’s exactly what you’re seeing right now in a moment of crisis,” she says.

Refreshingly humble for a millennial familiar with fame, Ramos says she’s had the privilege of meeting many incredible people, including Bamby Salcedo when she visited the Trans Wellness Center.

“If you want to talk about courageous Latinas and incredible stories, it’s them. On a personal level, to me they are one of the bravest human beings I’ve met,” she says. “Within our community, there are still stigmas and discrimination against our own people.” 

Ramos hopes the digital VICE series will galvanize activism. “How do I get young Latinas to care and to be educated and to understand what’s at stake for our community?” she asks. “Right now, it’s through content. It’s through opening people’s eyes through these stories—to have content on their screens, on TV, on their cells that looks like them and telling stories about them. To me, as a millennial, that is the first step that has been missing in this space. Content that looks like you, that’s uplifting voices like yours.”

But content is not enough. “You have to do something about it,” Ramos says. “You have to take action. My hope is, with everything happening with this administration, people understand that you need to vote in the midterms, you need to show up at that rally. It’s all tied to action. You’re not only seeing that there’s an HIV crisis, you’re also seeing what people are doing about it. Tying content to action is key to me.”

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Texas

High School removes LGBTQ ‘Safe Space’ stickers- students walk out

“These aren’t political stickers, they are merely a signal that a teacher has the confidence to have conversations with LGBTQ+ students”

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Photo Credit: GLSEN

IRVING, Tx. — A sizable number of the student body of a suburban Dallas, Texas high school walked out in protest after faculty members were forced to remove LGBTQ “safe space” stickers from their classroom doors.

Dallas ABC News affiliate WFAA ABC 8 reported that hundreds of students walked out of MacArthur High School on Wednesday after students said they began noticing the stickers were being removed from the classroom doors by the administration.

Carrying rainbow flags, the students walked out protesting what they describe as targeted discrimination against the school’s LGBTQ+ students and teachers.

One teacher reported a Safe Space poster she had printed and laminated was missing from outside her classroom too. “I was freaked. The kids were freaked out,” Rachel Stonecipher, an English teacher and sponsor of the campus’ Gay Straight Alliance told CBS-DFW.

Students, she said, immediately wondered who had removed them and what message their disappearance was sending.

“I was a little scared too because I’m the only openly, very obviously gay teacher, lesbian teacher,” said Stonecipher. She and at least four other teachers signed an e-mail to the principal asking for an explanation.

In a statement released to the media, the Irving Independent School District administration said that district policy does not allow teachers to use classrooms to “transmit personal beliefs regarding political or sectarian issues.

“To ensure that all students feel safe regardless of background or identity, the district has developed guidelines to ensure that posters, banners, and stickers placed in classrooms, hallways, or offices are curriculum-driven and neutral in viewpoint,” the statement added.

“These aren’t political stickers, they are merely a signal that a teacher has the confidence to have conversations with LGBTQ+ students,” Stonecipher told reporters.

Irving police were at the school during the walkout as an added presence.

“We have extra resources deployed at MacArthur HS to maintain a safe environment for all,” Irving police tweeted.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lambda Legal seeks to add two more Trans plaintiffs in West Virginia suit

Federal class-action lawsuit challenging blanket exclusion of health care for Trans people in WVA’s Medicaid & state employee health plan

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Shauntae Anderson and Leanne James (Photo Credit; Lambda Legal)

CHARLESTON, WVa. – Lambda Legal filed a motion seeking leave to add two additional plaintiffs—a Medicaid participant and a public employee—to its federal class-action lawsuit challenging West Virginia’s blanket exclusion of health care coverage for transgender people in West Virginia’s Medicaid and state employee health plans.

If granted, Shauntae Anderson, who is a Medicaid participant, and Leanne James, a public employee and Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) member would be added as additional plaintiffs to Fain v. Crouch.

“My life as a Black transgender woman has not been easy. I suffered years of agony and desperation without appropriate care and treatment for my gender dysphoria. Like other Medicaid participants, I rely on Medicaid for health care coverage and it has been heartbreaking to hear that just because I am transgender, I can’t access coverage for care that is medically necessary. It is not only inhumane but also unjust to be singled out this way,” said plaintiff Shauntae Anderson.  

“It is deeply upsetting that I am deprived of coverage for critical and urgent health care simply because I am transgender. As a public employee and PEIA member, being denied coverage for medically necessary care that cisgender state employees have full access to is an insult to my dignity. The exclusion in the state employee health plans is a reminder to myself and other transgender state employees that we are being denied equal compensation for equal work.” said plaintiff Leanne James.

Filed last November in West Virginia’s Southern District, Fain v. Crouch is a class action lawsuit challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia state health plans. The blanket exclusions of coverage for care are stated expressly in the health plans offered to Medicaid participants and state employees. West Virginia’s state health plans serve approximately 564,000 Medicaid participants and 15,000 state employees, some of whom are transgender. 

“The state of West Virginia continues to deny medically necessary gender-confirming health care to transgender West Virginians – via explicit and targeted exclusions. West Virginia’s ban on gender-confirming care is unconstitutional and discriminatory; it causes physical, emotional, and financial distress; and it denies transgender West Virginians basic dignity, equality, and respect. Ms. Anderson and Ms. James are just two of many transgender people in West Virginia who are being denied basic health care just because of who they are.” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on the case.

“We admire Ms. Anderson and Ms. James for stepping forward and joining our original plaintiffs in this lawsuit,” said Nicole Schladt, Associate Attorney at Nichols Kaster, PLLP. “Together, we seek an end to healthcare discrimination in West Virginia.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lawsuits against Ohio State over sexual predator sports doctor tossed

“The judge just threw 300 survivors in a trash can,” Steve Snyder-Hill said then adding, “a trash can with an OSU logo on it”

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Screenshot via WBNS-TV, CBS News 10, Columbus, Ohio

COLUMBUS, Oh. – A Federal judge Wednesday dismissed hundreds of pending lawsuits against Ohio State University, (OSU) in cases related to a former OSU sports team doctor Richard Strauss, who had sexually molested young male athletes and other students for twenty years.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson of the Southern District of Ohio wrote;

It is beyond dispute that Plaintiffs, as well as hundreds of other former students, suffered unspeakable sexual abuse by Strauss. It is also true that many Plaintiffs and other students complained of Strauss’s abuse over the years and yet medical doctors, athletic directors, head and assistant coaches, athletic trainers, and program directors failed to protect these victims from Strauss’s predation.”

According to Judge Watson he dismissed the cases because the statute of limitations for criminal rape cases in Ohio is 20 years to report for criminal prosecution or otherwise have legal proceedings initiated.

“If there is a viable path forward for Plaintiffs on their claim against Ohio State, it starts with the legislature rather than the judiciary,” Watson wrote.

Taking aim at Ohio lawmakers Watson noted; ““At all times since the filing of these cases, the Ohio legislature, has the power, but not the will, to change the statute of limitations.” The legislature can provide a “path forward for Plaintiffs on their claim against Ohio State.”

Strauss preyed on hundreds of young men from the time of his employment at OSU in 1978 until he retired in 1998, and allegations about his misconduct didn’t become public until an ex-wrestler named Mike DiSabato spoke out in 2018, years after Strauss’ death by suicide in 2005.

The former athletes were represented by several legal teams including Washington D.C./Oakland, California-based legal advocacy group Public Justice.

Today’s ruling is not only deeply disappointing,” the legal team said in reaction to the ruling today, “but also sends a disturbing message that the very real challenges sexual abuse survivors often face in understanding what has happened to them – and who enabled the abuse they experienced – is irrelevant when they ultimately ask for the court’s help in holding abusive people and institutions accountable.

OSU spent decades denying, hiding, and evading the truth about its role in concealing the abuse that happened on its watch. Today’s ruling punishes survivors already traumatized by the university’s callous campaign of deception. The court’s decision cannot, and must not, be the final word in the survivors’ journey towards justice.”

The case against OSU brought widespread attention as one of the cases involved Strauss victim Steve Snyder-Hill, a prominent LGBTQ activist and a U.S. Army veteran. Upon hearing of Watson’s ruling, a palpably angered Snyder-Hill told several media outlets; “The judge just threw 300 survivors in a trash can,” he said adding, “a trash can with an OSU logo on it.”

Steve Snyder-Hill (Screen shot via WCMH-TV, NBC 4 Columbus, Ohio)

NBC News had reported on the case and profiled Snyder-Hill in 2019:

[…] In the years following the alleged assault, Snyder-Hill would go on to serve in the Iraq War, publicly fight against the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and become an outspoken advocate for same-sex marriage. He and his husband, Josh, married in 2011 in Washington, D.C., in front of the tombstone of Leonard Matlovich, a Vietnam War veteran who had been discharged by the Air Force for being gay. The couple were involved in a lawsuit filed by Service Members Legal Defense Network that challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented the military from giving benefits to legally married same-sex couples, and successfully fought in court to have their surnames combined in Ohio.

Snyder-Hill was unexpectedly thrust into the media spotlight in 2011 after submitting a question during the Republican presidential debate about whether the candidates would reverse the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Some members of the audience booed Snyder-Hill, who submitted his question by video from his military base in Iraq. That an active-duty soldier in uniform would be booed during a presidential debate shocked and angered many Americans during a time when acceptance for same-sex marriage was mounting. […]

The publicity over the OSU cases also ensnared conservative right-wing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), renewing questions over his failure to stop Strauss from molesting former wrestlers Jordan had coached more than two decades ago at OSU. Jordan was accused of that neglect in 2018 by those former wrestlers.

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