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AIDS and HIV

Raniyah Copeland, Black AIDS Institute’s new leader

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“Our house is on fire!” Phill Wilson preaches from the pulpit at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Los Angeles, Newsweek reported June 10, 2001. “AIDS is a fire raging in our community and it’s out of control!”

Wilson founded the Black AIDS Institute two years earlier, in May 1999, to shout “Our house is on fire!” from every pulpit, stage and rooftop he could find as whites with access to the new three-drug cocktail saw HIV/AIDS turned into a manageable disease while new infection rates in the Black community continued to skyrocket. Though not horse from shouting – and having made extraordinary progress in the almost 20 years serving as President and CEO of Black AIDS Institute (BAI)– Wilson announced his retirement in 2015.

After a concerted search, the BAI Board announced a new director on Dec. 1 during their annual Heroes in the Struggle gala: Raniyah Copeland, 34, a BAI executive staffer was picked out of 20 applicants. “I can’t imagine a better choice to lead the institute into the future. Raniyah is bold, brave, and brilliant,” Wilson said about his successor. “She brings a vigor and vision to the AIDS movement that, given the current political environment, is desperately needed.”

And Copeland does “bring it.”  Backed by degrees in African American Studies from the University of California/Berkeley and a Master of Public Health from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, Copeland started her dream job at BAI combining her two passions—Black people and health—in April of 2008, first as the Training and Capacity Building Coordinator and now as Director of Programs, until Jan. 1 when she assumes the CEO mantle.

“What’s really important to me is Black people,” Copeland tells the Los Angeles Blade when asked why a straight married mother of two would want the job. “It’s really quite horrible that we aren’t all really outraged by what HIV looks like in Black communities. HIV disproportionally impacts same-gender-loving people, trans folks, and Black cis women. I am a cis-hetero-woman—but we are one community and I think that for me, it sends an important message that we are in this together.

“The only way we are really going to end HIV is by our entire community coming together,” Copeland says. “It’s important that we all do our work to end HIV stigma and homophobia and transphobia—and that’s not the work of only some same-gender-loving people. It’s work we all have to do and I’m excited to lead that effort.”

It’s an excitement fueled by the lessons of history. “I was raised by what folks might call two radical Black parents. Growing up, I learned a lot about the history of Black people, the oppression of Black people,” she says. “A monumental book for me was ‘A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story’ by Elaine Brown, who was the highest ranking Black woman in the Black Panther Party. I remember thinking that we as Black people have so much to offer and we’ve been through so much, that it was disgraceful that Black people were disproportionately impacted by so many diseases, whether it was breast cancer, diabetes or HIV.”

In college, Copeland worked on reproductive justice issues but was startled writing a report on HIV in Black communities. “I thought how crazy it was that there was this huge HIV epidemic and the highest amount of attention that I ever remembered was around Magic Johnson,” she says. “But there were all these other communities within the Black community that were disproportionately impacted. It didn’t sit well. It didn’t seem right that HIV wasn’t getting the attention that it deserved—it didn’t seem like people cared very much.”

After college, she was thrilled finding a BAI job posting. “Who I am is being able to be uniquely, unapologetically Black. So finding an organization that focused on that was really exciting for me.” And doing HIV work across the country, “really showed me how the epidemic looks so different in different places.”

Copeland’s work is intersectional. “Mass incarceration is one of many themes that is really so important to ending HIV. We work with Black Lives Matters closely and make sure that HIV is part of the policy agenda and the work that they do,” she says. “For many people, particularly Black people, HIV is not the primary concern. Whether they’re going to get shot by police is a primary concern; whether there’s food on their table is a primary concern; whether they’re able to be in safe relationships free of intimate partner violence is a primary concern.”

So how make HIV important? “Respond to those issues,” she says. “To really respond to HIV, we have to discuss the issues that trans people have: how do we ensure that trans folks are supported? How do we ensure that trans folks have access to quality healthcare that’s culturally humble? And make sure they have opportunities to education and employment?”

Part of the answer is by partnering with different organizations. Which leads to: “how do we provide services that are culturally humble? How do we work with institutions to teach them how to better serve Black communities? These organizations are not HIV-specific but they are critically important working on issues such as employment or legal support or education,” Copeland says. “Those are the services and the relationship and the partnerships that we have to develop and further to ensure that the communities that we serve have the support and resources that are part of being human.”

Copeland is excited about BAI’s new expansion into direct services and partnering with different organizations, such as St. John’s Well Child & Family Center. “We end HIV,” she says, by creating access to quality healthcare that’s “culturally humble” and “by making sure that people have access to the human rights and the dignity that they deserve.”

Being culturally humble, Copeland explains, “is a step above being culturally competent. Cultural competency means you have an understanding of the norms and the culture that people come from. You understand the language that you should and shouldn’t use. You understand medical mistrust that is present in Black communities. You understand the need of trans folks and how they different from cis people. These are all things that you learn. Cultural competency – you understand the culture.

“Being culturally humble means that even though you know you have a competency, that each person is going to present to you differently,” Copeland says. “No culture is monolithic. So when people present to you, you have the competency but you let them guide and you let them determine the kind of services they want. It’s a different type of framework around how you position the relationship. And really understanding that the people we serve, the people that we engage with – that they lead us.”

But 57% of new HIV infections are among 13 to 29-year-old African American youths, according to the CDC,  and reaction to using PrEP,  Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis—using anti-HIV medications to keep HIV negative people from becoming infected – has been mixed.

“Pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) is when people at very high risk for HIV take HIV medicines daily to lower their chances of getting infected. PrEP can stop HIV from taking hold and spreading throughout your body. It is highly effective for preventing HIV if used as prescribed, but it is much less effective when not taken consistently,” the CDC reports.  “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%. Among people who inject drugs, it reduces the risk by more than 70%. Your risk of getting HIV from sex can be even lower if you combine PrEP with condoms and other prevention methods.”

HIV reporter Emily Land writes: “Only seven percent of participants part of a PrEP demonstration project conducted in three major U.S. cities between 2012 and 2013 were black, and one study found that heightened concerns over potential side effects may pose one significant barrier to PrEP uptake among African American men,” with stigma throwing up another obstacle.

Photo of Raniyah Copeland and Phill Wilson by Lisa Allen 

“Medical mistrust is not just something that is being made up. Black people, people of color have long history of medical abuse by American institutions and individuals,” Oakland says. “The Tuskegee Experiment is the hallmarker for many Black communities—and many Black folks don’t actually know what Tuskegee was – they can’t tell you the details of what it was.

“But what it stands for is the many experiences that we all can tell you – medical mistrust and medical abuses that have happened: forced sterilization of women, forced hysterectomies, the subpar care that many same-gender-loving people receive today, the experience that trans people have on a regular basis and medical abuses they experience. And so there is a long legacy of it and it currently happens today with improper medical care,” Copeland says.

“When we talk about the tools to end the HIV epidemic, many of those tools are based in biomedical science. But for the work we do— you have to first affirm that absolutely—that Black people, that communities of color have been abused by medical systems for eons,” she says. “You can take it all the back during slave trade. And now today that we have many more institutions to ensure that doesn’t happen again, we have to take advantage of these tools that we know are so important and can save lives. PrEP is one of those and there is absolutely a huge amount of mistrust when it comes to PrEP and Black communities.”

Copeland may helping re-frame the approach to empowering people who are living with HIV to know about sexual health but the passion to put out the fire burns just as bright as when Wilson first issued the call.

“He’s been such a huge game-changer,” Copeland says of Wilson, “and I’m very, very honored to come after him.”

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AIDS and HIV

$48 million earmarked for HRSA centers in effort to beat HIV/AIDS

“Community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations”

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The Hubert H. Humphrey Building, HHS headquarters Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: U.S. GSA)

WASHINGTON – The Biden administration has awarded more than $48 million in allocations earmarked to medical centers under Health Resources & Services Administration in localities with high incidents of HIV infection as part of the initiative to beat the disease.

Xavier Becerra, U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, in a statement said that the contributions are key component of the initiative, which is called “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” and seeks to reduce new infections by 90 percent by 2030.

“HHS-supported community health centers are often a key point of entry to HIV prevention and treatment services, especially for underserved populations,” Becerra said. “I am proud of the role they play in providing critical services to 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. Today’s awards will ensure equitable access to services free from stigma and discrimination, while advancing the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2025.”

The $48 million in government spending allocations went to HRSA centers 71 HRSA-supported health centers across 26 states, Puerto Rico and D.C. — areas identified with the highest rates of HIV infections — to expand HIV prevention and treatment services, including access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as well as outreach and care coordination, according to HHS.

The Ending the HIV Epidemic was set up under the previous administration, which made PrEP a generic drug after an accelerated effort and set a goal of beating HIV by 2030. Biden has continued the project, after campaigning on beating HIV a full five years earlier in 2025. Observers, however, are skeptical he can meet that goal.

Diana Espinosa, acting administrator for the Health Resources and Services Administration, (HRSA) said in a statement the $48 million will go a long way in reaching goals to beat HIV/AIDS.

“We know our Health Center Program award recipients are well-positioned to advance the Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S. initiative, with a particular focus on facilitating access to PrEP, because of their integrated service delivery model,” Espinosa said. “By integrating HIV services into primary care, and providing essential enabling services like language access or case management, HRSA-supported health centers increase access to care and improve health outcomes for patients living with HIV.”

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AIDS and HIV

Surviving Voices, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS

The Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS

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Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial (Photo Credit: NAM)

SAN FRANCISCO – The National AIDS Memorial Surviving Voices storytelling initiative is being recognized for its powerful work in helping tell the story of AIDS through the voices of survivors of the pandemic, now in its 40th year.

More than 700,000 U.S. lives have been lost since the first cases of AIDS were first reported in 1981. Today, more than 1.2 million people are living with HIV, with a disproportionate impact in communities of color and in southern U.S. states.

The Memorial has officially released its most recent mini-documentary, “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” following exclusive screenings at two LGBTQ+ film festivals – Frameline45 and SF Queer Film Fest 2021.  The mini-documentary, along with deep dive personal interview segments with survivors and advocates, can be viewed on the Memorial’s website at www.aidsmemorial.org.

“The National AIDS Memorial is honored to have our Surviving Voices mini-documentary featured at these influential film festivals,” said Chief Executive John Cunningham. “It speaks to the important work our organization is doing to share these powerful personal stories of hope, resilience and the journey of survivors around the issue of HIV/AIDS and addiction in an authentic and powerful way.”

“Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” focuses the camera on the unique challenges of HIV/AIDS faced by this community. Through personal stories of survival, the film powerfully captures the journey of AIDS advocates and those of individual survivors living with HIV/AIDS who have struggled simultaneously with the disease of addiction, in raw, honest and forthright conversations.  It depicts their individual strength, power, hope and resilience, the importance of community, spirit, self-respect, and the will to live with dignity and pride.  It also shows their vulnerabilities, the shame, denial, stigma, and hopelessness they have experienced. 

As Queer Chaplain Bonnie Violet Quintana shares, “I can be as I am. Me getting HIV. Me being in recovery – all of that is a big part of Me.” 

The National AIDS Memorial’s Surviving Voices mini-documentaries are produced and directed by Jörg Fockele and funded through a grant by Chevron, a long-standing partner of the National AIDS Memorial. Community partners include the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, Stonewall Project and the Castro Country Club.

“We believe in the power of storytelling and the lessons it can teach current and future generations,” said Huma Abbasi, General Manager, Health & Medical at Chevron. “Our long-time support for Surviving Voices is part of our commitment to sharing the very human experiences that have shaped 40 years of the AIDS epidemic. At Chevron, our success is tied to the progress and prosperity of the communities where we operate. In line with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, we believe that healthy, educated communities are critical to that success.”

Surviving Voices is a program of the National AIDS Memorial created to ensure the myriad stories and lessons of the epidemic are captured, curated, and retained for current and future generations.  “Substance Users, the Recovery Community & AIDS” is the sixth film produced in this multi-year oral history initiative, which also includes “The Transgender Community & AIDS,” “The A&PI Community & AIDS,” “Women & AIDS,” “The National Hemophilia Community & AIDS,” and “The San Francisco Leather Community & AIDS.”

“I hope that these mini-documentaries will be as inspiring for current and future generations confronting their own challenges as they were for us when we filmed them,” said Fockele.

Learn more about the Surviving Voices, the National AIDS Memorial, its mission, programs and how to provide support at www.aidsmemorial.org.

Surviving Voices Mini-Documentary: Substance Users, Recovery Community and AIDS:

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AIDS and HIV

Governor Newsom signs HIV & Aging Act authored by Sen. John Laird

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE)

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Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of California

SACRAMENTO – On Friday Governor Gavin Newsom announced the signing of Senate Bill 258, the HIV & Aging Act, authored by Senator John Laird (D – Santa Cruz). Senate Bill 258 will ensure HIV+ seniors are included in the definition of “greatest social need”.

“When I was the Santa Cruz AIDS Agency Director in the 1980’s, it was our dream to have people living with HIV live into old age,” said Senator Laird. “To be very clear, this group was not supposed to age. Governor Newsom signing the HIV & Aging Act is a historic moment for the LGBTQ community, and all those who have been affected by the HIV crisis.”

With the recent advancements in HIV treatment, people with HIV can keep the virus suppressed and live long and healthy lives. For this reason, the number of HIV positive older people is increasing. According to a 2018 California HIV Surveillance Report published by the California Department of Public Health, over half of the people living with the virus in California are now aged 50 years or older. This same report shows that 15 percent of newly diagnosed patients were age 50 and older in that same year.

Sponsors of SB 258 include Equality California, AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) Health, Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Sen. John Laird speaking at PRIDE with the LGBTQ Legislative Caucus June 2021 (Blade File Photo)

Equality California Legislative Director Tami A. Martin notes, “After surviving the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, many Californians living with HIV are now over the age of 50, but in dire need of support. Thanks to Governor Newsom, Senator Laird and HIV advocates, the Golden State will now make sure that our elders living with HIV have access to food assistance, job training, transportation or any other vital services. We applaud Governor Gavin Newsom for signing the HIV & Aging Act into law, making California just the second state to ensure older Californians living with HIV don’t just continue to survive, but thrive.”

“Thanks to effective treatments, people with HIV are living longer than we could have ever imagined just a few decades ago and now a majority of people with HIV in California are over 50 years old. Unfortunately, our current health and social service systems are not yet prepared to address the unique needs of this population,” APLA Health Chief Executive Officer Craig E. Thompson said adding; “Many older people with HIV are long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic. They have lost countless loved ones and entire networks of social support. They also continue to face discrimination and alarming levels of stigma. We thank Senator Laird for his leadership on this historic bill to ensure that people aging with HIV have the resources and support they need to thrive and age with dignity.”

“We must ensure that LGBTQ seniors have the affirming care and support so they can age in peace with dignity,” stated Laird. “It’s incumbent upon us to not force individuals back into the closet for them to access adequate care. Once again, I’d like to applaud the Governor for his continued support of the LBGTQ community and to my colleagues for making this a priority bill.”

The HIV & Aging Act received unanimous bipartisan support through both chambers of the Legislature and is a legislative priority for the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus.

Senate Bill 258 will go into effect January 1, 2022.

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