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Local Hero Runningbear Ramirez: young, gifted and Native American

An inspiration and an emerging next generation leader

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Humility is not a trait routinely associated with being a rich 30-year-old gay guy. But Runningbear Ramirez defies stereotypes, exuding a kind of humility born of ancient spiritual strength and sense of responsibility for a culture and community too long ignored and too often violated – while also representing the tribe best known for the popular San Manuel Band of Mission Indians casinos.

Runningbear Ramirez in Milan at Fashion Week. (Photo courtesy Runningbear)

His name, Runningbear, “means that I’ve been able to incorporate animal instinct and courage for myself to take care of things that need to be taken care of.  Whether it be family or business, I’ve always had that personality to take charge,” Runningbear tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“The name was given to me as a child, but I decided to incorporate it into my normal day-to-day when I started to take on more responsibilities for the tribe,” he says. “That was when I actually changed my name to Runningbear so that way I’ll be able to live my life as who I was meant to be.”

Everywhere symbols and signs reflect the culture and deep history of his tribe. “The people of the San Manuel reservation are the indigenous people of the San Bernardino highlands, passes, valleys, and mountains who the Spaniards collectively called the Serrano, a term meaning highlander,” according to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians website.

“Our people are the Yuhaaviatam people. The arrowhead (on the tribe logo) is actually on our mountain, our historical land. Where our reservation is,” Runningbear says, “there is a granite arrowhead in the mountainside that’s over 1,400 feet tall. Our family believes that was a spiritual territory and that’s what that arrowhead represents on the side of the mountain….It’s very personal to us.”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 14: Running Bear attends Project Angel Food’s 29th Annual Angel Awards on September 14, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Project Angel Food)

Runningbear uses fashion and body art to display his culture, as well, including a huge tattoo on his chest.

“This is just me being able to portray my artistic side a little bit differently,” he says with a slight chuckle. “It’s a chief on the front of my chest with a female warrior. It’s still not finished, yet. It hurt too much to finish at the time. It’s supposed to show a whole family of different people to represent the past and the present, as well as the future — to know that it took your ancestors to get where you are today.”

Runningbear’s childhood also helped get him to where he is today. A child of divorce who stayed with his non-Native mother as a boy, he experienced poverty and discrimination.

“We didn’t have much. Growing up with my mom, we were extremely poor. I can remember times when I’d have bugs crawling on me when I’m sleeping, because there was no window,” he says.

But in the 1990s, the no-frills 24-hour San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino was “an economic miracle for the tiny San Manuel tribe, which once scratched out an income raising apricots and lived in shacks and trailers on a dusty 648-acre reservation. Now, 40 landscaped houses dot the hillsides behind the casino’s walls, and security officers on bicycles patrol newly paved roads,” the New York Times reported in October 1998, noting the casino was part of California’s $1.4 billion Indian gambling industry.

“Growing up, it was a little hard because I had cousins that would discriminate against me because I didn’t grow up fully on the reservation,” Runningbear says. “I didn’t get some of the perks that they did. They grew up with money.”

But in 1998, after San Manuel and about 40 other tribes installed slot machines, intense opposition from a coalition of Nevada casinos, unions and anti-gambling church groups claimed they violated the 1988 Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and Gov. Pete Wilson threatened to shut down the casinos.

Runningbear’s father, Ken Ramirez, then the 38-year-old vice-chair of the San Manuel tribe, led the fight for Proposition 5, the Tribal-State Gaming Compacts Initiative on the Nov. 3, 1998 ballot.

Among the opposition was Christian fundamentalist lobbying group Traditional Values Coalition, whose anti-LGBTQ leader Rev. Lou Sheldon objected to California tribes asserting they are sovereign nations. “I hate Las Vegas but am thrilled that they’re helping us,” Sheldon told the Washington Post in September 1998.

The opposition got ugly. “Lil’ Petey Wilson,” OC Weekly reported, “told a group of reporters on Oct. 22 that the lawyer who advised Indian tribes to put Proposition 5 on the November ballot ‘ought to lose his scalp.’….We obtained a copy of da gov’s next speech, where he warned tribal leaders to keep firewater out of their casinos, quit spending big wampum on Prop. 5, and remove slot machines or face having their tepees burned and squaws raped.”

”This is our livelihood,” Ramirez told the New York Times, which noted that he “grew up on the reservation when it held only a few families, with water too fetid to drink.”

Ken Ramirez in a Nov. 2019 KTLA “visionary tribute” to him 

“Today, we are proud people. We’re not living in Third World conditions on our reservations,” Ramirez told the Washington Post. “It was our option to take it to a vote of the people. We have faith they’ll stand behind us.”

”Frankly, I think it’s an incredible con game,” Frank Schubert, leader of the ”No on 5” campaign, told the New York Times. ”We’ve had millions and millions in TV ads bombarding the state for months now about reservations getting electricity and being able to have linoleum on a dirt floor, when in fact it’s a handful of tribes spending a fortune to keep a special deal.”

The Prop 5 campaign cost over $68 million but won with 62.4% of voters.

Runningbear remembers the victory, “having dinner with governors and attending a lavish party at the Beverly Hills Hotel on the night of the vote. That was definitely the start of my own journey in influencing politics. My dad, to this day, is a big inspiration to me.”

An incredible irony of the Prop 5 fight is that Frank Schubert — who would manage the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 in 2008 — lost to Ken Ramirez, an openly gay man in a same-sex relationship. Now Runningbear is married, too, to Frank Romano. They’ve been together for six years.

“I didn’t have to really come out. They already knew about me,” Runningbear says. “My parents never made me choose a man or a woman. I had grown up my whole life seeing my father with another man and my mother with a man. I had a stepfather for my mom and a stepfather for my dad. They all came together and raised us together, which they’re still doing now. We still have very modern family views. We still hang out together. My family was always very open and appreciative of whatever, as long as I was happy.”

A few years after the Prop 5 fight, at 13, Runningbear started his long activism with and commitment to the tribe. But he never forgot walking between the two worlds of poverty and money.

“For me, going through that really opened up my eyes to say, between the haves and the have-nots, I’d much rather be able to help people than to just sit back and collect a check,” Runningbear says. “You have to be able to spread your wealth and your love. I think that growing up in that way, it really showed me a way to do that.”

Now, he says, “I’m able to walk in both worlds, to speak with people and understand certain issues based on my perspective within the tribe, within the reservation.” Even his cousins “appreciate that I am two-spirited,” which he defines as “being able to walk in both worlds of feminine and masculine.”

But it was serving on the Board of Indian Health Services at 23 when Runningbear had his “ah, ha” moment.

“I was able to see the plight of Native Americans — that really opened up my eyes,” he says. “Wanting to get more into philanthropy was seeing other reservations and how they were doing, outside of the gaming industries. That really got me to think about starting this five-year pilot program I did with Project Angel Food to help the diabetic community in Los Angeles counties, providing healthy meals for Native Americans.”

A friend introduced Runningbear to Project Angel Food a couple of years ago and he subsequently joined the board, inspired by a family member with HIV and a sister who last year recovered from cancer.

“I really wanted to learn more,” Runningbear says. “I felt that if I could philanthropically get to know the way that the disease runs its course and how it affects people, and if I could help in that way, that’s how I wanted to learn.”

Runningbear Ramirez (Photo by Daniel Sliwa for the Los Angeles Blade)

Project Angel Food clients, he learned, were getting healthier on meals that are based on their personal needs. “I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to utilize my wealth and my knowledge of being on Indian Health Services to bring a pilot program to the forefront for Native Americans in our area,” he says.

“I know that cancer is on the rise and being able to access healthy meals is a big problem on reservation. That’s why we’re trying to make sure that the research is done and recorded right, so we can hopefully take it bigger or national.”

Runningbear Ramirez seems to smile broadly over the phone, humbly grateful for the recognition as the Los Angeles Blade’s Local Hero honoree enabling him to share his story. “I feel like just because being gay and Native, we are a class of people who are sometimes looked down upon,” Runningbear says. “You can still do good for other people and yourself.”

 

 

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AIDS and HIV

Gilead Sciences awards grants to HIV/AIDS groups in Caribbean, Latin America

Stigma, criminalization laws among barriers to fighting pandemic in region

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Free condoms in a São Paulo Metro station. Gilead Sciences has announced it has given grants to 35 organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean. The groups will use the funds to fight HIV/AIDS in the region. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

FOSTER CITY, Calif. — Gilead Sciences this week announced it has given $4 million in grants to 35 organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean that fight HIV/AIDS.

A press release notes Asociación Panamericana de Mercadeo Social (Pan-American Association of Social Marketing) in Nicaragua, Fundación Genesis (Genesis Foundation) in Panama, Fundación por una Sociedad Empoderada (Foundation for an Empowered Society) in Argentina, Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals) in Brazil and Caribbean Vulnerable Communities are among the groups that received grants. Gilead notes this funding through its Zeroing In: Ending the HIV Epidemic in Latin America and the Caribbean will “improve access to care, increase health equity and reduce HIV-related stigma for populations most affected by HIV.”

“The HIV prevention and care needs of people throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are incredibly diverse, and each of these programs addresses a unique community challenge,” said Gilead Vice President of Corporate Giving Carmen Villar. “Our grantees are deeply embedded in their communities and best positioned to provide needed HIV care and support services.” 

“Their expertise will be essential to achieve the Zeroing In program’s goals of improving access to comprehensive care among priority populations, decreasing HIV-related stigma and reducing HIV and broader health inequities,” she added.

The pandemic disproportionately affects Transgender people and sex workers, among other groups, in the region. Activists and HIV/AIDS service providers in the region with whom the Washington Blade has previously spoken say discrimination, stigma, poverty, a lack of access to health care and criminalization laws are among the myriad challenges they face.

First Lady Jill Biden in 2022 during a trip to Panama announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. 

Cuba in 2015 became the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The Cuban government until 1993 forcibly quarantined people with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria.

Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago in recent years have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations. 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2021 ruled Jamaica must repeal its colonial-era sodomy law. The country’s Supreme Court last year ruled against a gay man who challenged it.  

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Human health studies & sciences

Genetic variations linked to human bisexual behavior

Behavior, risk-taking, & offspring numbers uncovered in a study from Professor Jianzhi ‘George’ Zhang at the University of Michigan

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In a groundbreaking study published Wednesday in Science Advances, scientists have identified genetic variations associated with human bisexual behavior for the first time.

Led by Professor Jianzhi “George” Zhang at the University of Michigan, the research delves into the intricate relationship between genetics, behavior, and societal factors, shedding light on the long-standing evolutionary puzzle of why natural selection has not eradicated the genetics underpinning same-sex attraction.

The study, based on data from more than 450,000 people of European descent who participated in the UK Biobank, a long-term genomics project, builds on growing research, including a seminal 2019 paper in Science that found genetic variants influencing same-sex behavior, with environmental factors playing a significant role.

Professor Jianzhi George Zhang, Zhang Lab of Molecular & Genome Evolution at the University of Michigan. (Photo Credit: University of Michigan media affairs)

Zhang explained that the motivation for the new research was to differentiate between various forms of homosexual behavior, recognizing that there is a spectrum. “In the past, people lumped together all homosexual behavior…but actually, there’s a spectrum,” he said.

Analyzing participants’ complete sets of DNA and combining that information with survey responses, Zhang and co-author Siliang Song confirmed that the signatures associated with same-sex behavior and bisexual behavior were distinct. This allowed them to analyze these behaviors separately, leading to intriguing discoveries.

Male heterosexuals carrying markers associated with bisexual behavior (BSB)-associated alleles were found to father more children than average, suggesting reproductive advantages. Moreover, men identifying as risk-takers tended to have more children and were more likely to carry BSB-associated alleles.

“Our results suggest that male BSB–associated alleles are likely reproductively advantageous, which may explain their past persistence and predict their future maintenance,” the authors wrote.

Nature’s complexity was underscored by Zhang, noting that a single gene can influence multiple traits, a phenomenon known as “pleiotropy.” “Here we’re talking about three traits: number of children, risk-taking, and bisexual behavior—they all share some genetic underpinnings,” he said.

Exclusive same-sex behavior (eSSB) associated alleles, however, were correlated with having fewer children when carried by heterosexual men, indicating that these traits may diminish over time.

The UK Biobank data revealed a significant trend—the proportion of people reporting both bisexual and homosexual behavior has been rising for decades, likely due in part to growing societal openness.

In an additional report, scientists announced on Wednesday that they have identified genetic variations associated with human bisexual behavior. The study builds on the University of Michigan research and further emphasizes the link between these genetic variations and risk-taking behavior, as well as the impact on offspring numbers when carried by heterosexual men.

The authors of both studies estimated that approximately 40 percent of a person’s behavior regarding bisexuality is influenced by genetics, while 60 percent is influenced by the environment. Emphasizing the contribution to understanding human sexuality, the researchers stressed that their results are not intended to endorse discrimination based on sexual behavior.

This comprehensive research provides a nuanced perspective on the interplay between genetics, behavior, and societal factors in shaping human sexuality, opening the door to further exploration in this complex and evolving field.

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AIDS and HIV

Local, national events to mark 35th annual World AIDS Day

HIV disproportionately affects certain populations. Men who have sex with men accounted for 70% of 32,100 estimated new HIV infections

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – UNAIDS dubbed this year’s World AIDS Day theme as “Let Communities Lead.” This is how conversations around HIV and AIDS should be structured, Duante’ Brown said, who manages two programs at NMAC — a nonprofit dedicated to working to end the AIDS epidemic. People living with HIV need to be considered the subject matter experts, he said. 

“Bringing those people into the room, showing them that they have a voice and that there’s not just this group of people who are making a decision for them … is definitely the way that you go about this.”

Brown manages the ESCALATE program at NMAC, which aims to empower people to address HIV stigma, and the ELEVATE program, which is a training program for people with HIV to be more involved in the planning and delivery of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which is the largest federal program designed specifically for people with HIV. 

In the United States, it’s estimated 1.2 million people are living with HIV, according to HIV.gov. About 13% are unaware they have HIV.

HIV also continues to disproportionately affect certain populations. Men who have sex with men accounted for 70% of the 32,100 estimated new HIV infections in 2021. And Black individuals accounted for 40% of the new infections that year, while only comprising 12% of the population of the United States, according to the CDC

In 2023, stigma is a key inhibitor to ending the epidemic, Brown said. When stigma gets out of the way, there could be a day when there are no new cases of HIV transmissions, he said. To get around that stigma, people need to have meaningful and productive conversations about AIDS. 

“Not treating it as taboo, making sure that we are empowering people living with HIV and AIDS to tell their stories and to be empowered to feel that it’s OK,” Brown said. “And that nothing is wrong with you.”

And there are events in the locally and nationally to recognize World AIDS Day, many of them aimed at abolishing the stigma that comes with talking about HIV.

Icon Janet Jackson headlines the World AIDS Day Concert on Dec. 1 in Houston.

At a national level, Janet Jackson is set to headline the World AIDS Day concert on Dec. 1 — an annual fundraiser sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The concert will be at the NRG Arena in Houston, and will also honor actor and activist Blair Underwood with its lifetime achievement award. 

“[The concert] really is a way to commemorate World AIDS Day in a way that is both remembrance of those that we’ve lost, recognizing where we’re at, but also really celebrating and connecting the work that’s yet to be done. And having folks still leaving uplifted and elevated about what the future could hold,” said Imara Canady, AHF’s national director for communications and community engagement. 

Jackson has long been an outspoken advocate for people living with HIV. Her song, “Together Again,” is a tribute to a friend she lost to AIDS, as well as a dedication to patients around the world. 

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest nonprofit HIV/AIDS service organization and advocacy group, has several health care centers in the region and many across the nation and world. AHF also has a free HIV test locater online at freehivtest.net

AIDSWatch, the electronic memorial to people lost to HIV and AIDS, will be viewable on www.AIDSWatch.org and on the City of West Hollywood’s WeHoTV broadcast and streaming channels, including Spectrum Channel 10 within West Hollywood, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 1, for 24 hours.

The City of West Hollywood will join STORIES: The AIDS Monument and APLA Health in a World AIDS Day event on Friday, Dec. 1. The evening will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a reception at the West Hollywood Park Aquatic and Recreation Center (ARC) Respite Deck, located at 8750 El Tovar Place.

After a short program with refreshments, attendees will descend the grand staircase of the ARC at 6:30 p.m. in a candlelight procession through West Hollywood Park and along N. Robertson, Santa Monica, and N. San Vicente Boulevards to the City’s Council Chambers/Public Meeting Room, located at 625 N. San Vicente Boulevard. There, the evening will continue with a screening of the award-winning 2023 documentary “Commitment to Life.” Doors will open at 7 p.m. and the screening will begin promptly at 7:15 p.m. 

Events are free to attend and open to the public. Limited validated parking will be available at the West Hollywood Park 5-Story structure. 

Advance RSVP is requested by reserving a spot on Eventbrite.

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Commentary

New silent opioid epidemic: Secure LGBTQ+ spaces is the answer

There is an urgent need for more LGBTQ+ safe spaces and events that do not have access to drugs and alcohol

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Paramedics from Los Angeles County Fire-Rescue Dept. Squad 8 West Hollywood respond to an overdose. (Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles)

By Darwin Rodriguez | WEST HOLLYWOOD – In the shadows of the ongoing opioid crisis that continues to grip our nation, a new silent epidemic has emerged that has gone virtually unnoticed.

While the opioid epidemic has commanded national headlines and sparked urgent conversations about substance use disorders and treatment, the LGBTQ+ community continues to remain shrouded in silence – left in a battle to combat this crisis alone. Homophobia today contributes to more overdoses than ever before and our divisive politics stand in the way of saving the lives of our LGBTQ+ neighbors.

The tragic reality is that homophobia in our country continues to persist on a regular basis. The stigmatization and discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals often leads them to adopt unhealthy behaviors to cope – many of which predisposes them to a long-term struggle with substance use disorders.

In 2020, LGBTQ+ individuals were found to use substances at nearly double the rate of the overall population. Consequently, LGBTQ+ individuals often enter treatment with more severe substance use disorders when compared to their heterosexual counterparts. While schools and community organizations have attempted to foster safe spaces to curb this pattern, our challenging and divisive political climate has hindered progress.

Over these past few years, nationwide anti-gay policies and legislation have threatened the safety of LGBTQ+ individuals. In 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis introduced the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston closed its campus’ only LGBTQ+ resource center in response to the passing of Senate Bill 17, which banned diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in higher education institutions.

LGBTQ+ books across the US have been banned from libraries and schools with many believing that the art of drag poses a greater threat to our nation than deadly firearms.

With the unprecedented amount of vitriol the LGBTQ+ community is facing, now is the time to mobilize and unify efforts toward a positive paradigm shift. If our goal is to eliminate this new silent epidemic, we need to coalesce and diversify safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community. While creating safe spaces is an arduous feat, history has also shown that unified efforts can achieve remarkable progress.

When HIV/AIDS was dubbed a silent epidemic during the 80s, The ACT UP coalition was formed to end misinformation, re-invigorate political action, and shift the public narrative surrounding the deadly disease.

Founded by members of the LGBTQ+ community, they mobilized public awareness campaigns, staged demonstrations and most importantly, gathered members together to discuss the problems in an inclusive manner.

ACT UP was instrumental to the change in public perception of HIV/AIDS, paving the way for advancements in the social and scientific aspects of the silent epidemic. If we want to tackle this new silent opioid epidemic head-on, we must commit to mobilizing in a manner similar to ACT UP to end LGBTQ+ overdoses. One of our first steps should be creating more community spaces for LGBTQ+ people that are affirming and sober.

There is an urgent need for more LGBTQ+ spaces and events that do not have access to drugs and alcohol. Coffee shops, bookstores, and community centers should take initiative to host LGBTQ+ activities and become cornerstones for inclusive community building.

Cuties, a Los Angeles coffee shop that opened in 2017, was founded with the intention of providing a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community that was not focused around alcohol and substance use. They would host a variety of events at the cafe quickly becoming a hotspot for many of its patrons. Unfortunately, the brick and mortar coffee shop closed its doors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The untimely closing of Cuties has contributed to the dwindling presence of LGBTQ+ safe and sober spaces in the greater Los Angeles region.

It is essential to support local LGBTQ+ meeting spaces. To be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, reaching out to local school districts, chambers of commerce, and business owners to host LGBTQ+ nights is a first step in the right direction.

For people who identify as LGBTQ+, the time is now to connect with our fellow LGBTQ+ neighbors and mobilize movements for safe and sober areas, which will pave the way for healthier,  and safer substance use practices.

Even if these actions feel out of reach, simply talking to your families and neighbors about LGBTQ+ acceptance and sharing your own story of acceptance can move us toward a future where sexual identity does not put one at risk for an overdose.

******************************************************************************************

Darwin Rodriguez

Darwin Rodriguez is a program manager at the Institute for Public Strategies and oversees the Safer WeHo Coalition in West Hollywood, which meets once a month.

To learn more about IPS, visit https://publicstrategies.org/.

To follow the Safer WeHo Coalition on Instagram search for: @saferwehocoalition

The preceding commentary was previously published at the WeHo Times and is republished with permission.

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AIDS and HIV

Maxine Waters criticizes House GOP over proposed cuts to HIV/AIDS programs

Calif. Democrat spoke at U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS in D.C.

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U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) speaks at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS on Sept. 6, 2023, in Washington. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Wednesday sharply criticized House Republicans over their proposed cuts to HIV/AIDS prevention programs.

The California Democrat who represents the state’s 43rd Congressional District in a speech she delivered at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS noted the House Appropriations Committee’s Fiscal Year 2024 Labor, Health, Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill would cut $767 million from domestic HIV/AIDS programs.

Waters said the bill would cut funds to fight HIV/AIDS among underrepresented groups by 53 percent and “completely eliminates” funding for “Minority AIDS Initiative activities within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” Waters also noted the appropriations measure “eliminates funding” for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Ending the HIV Epidemic Initiative, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program and community health centers.

“The cuts to the Minority AIDS Initiative will exacerbate racial disparities and the elimination of the (Ending the) HIV Epidemic Initiative,” said Waters.

Waters also criticized House Republicans for “refusing to authorize” the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.” The California Democrat said ending PEPFAR “would endanger the lives of millions of people around the world who are living with HIV and endanger the lives of millions more who are at risk.” 

“Moreover, it would compromise United States leadership on global health issues,” added Waters. “These programs used to have widespread support. It’s shameful that House Republicans are now trying to eliminate them. We cannot allow these cuts to pass. We cannot compromise. We will not give up.”

U.S. Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) are among those who Waters criticized by name in her speech.

“I will speak truth to power. I want to use words that they will understand. Hell no! We won’t go! We are not going to give up,” said Waters. “That’s the people’s money. You can’t decide who you’re going to spend it on and not who you’re going to spend it on.”

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the National Minority AIDS Council-organized conference that will end on Saturday. This year’s theme is “A Love Letter to Black Women.”

“We need a love letter to Black women,” said Waters. “We need it not only from this conference. We need it from our families often times. We need it from our communities. We need it from the churches that we give so much attention to and give our resources to and don’t really get it back. We need a love letter coming from all over this country for what we have suffered, for what we have endured, for the way that we have been denied and for the way that we have been ostracized.” 

Waters in her speech specifically praised former Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) for their work in support of LGBTQ+ rights and efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Waters also thanked Jewel Thais-Williams, who opened Catch One, a bar and restaurant on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles that became a refuge for people with HIV/AIDS.

“They had nowhere to gather, nowhere to go, nowhere to be recognized as people who needed support,” said Waters.

B. Kaye Hayes, deputy assistant secretary for infectious disease in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health who is also the executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, is among those who are expected to speak at the conference. Mark S. King, an HIV/AIDS activist and blogger who published “My Fabulous Disease: Chronicles of a Gay Survivor” on Sept. 1, is scheduled to talk on Thursday.

Cal Benn contributed to this story.

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Health

Cases of multi-drug resistant “super strain” of gonorrhea multiply

Last February, cases of XDR, or “extensively drug resistant,” gonorrhea, are on the rise in the U.S., the CDC said

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Gonorrhea bacterium (CDC/Los Angeles Blade graphic)

ATLANTA, GA. – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) along with the World Health Organization (WHO) are raising red flags for the second time this year as cases multiply of a “super strain” of drug-resistant gonorrhea globally, but particularly among men who have sex with men.

This strain of gonorrhea has been previously seen in Asia-Pacific countries and in the United Kingdom, but not in the US. A genetic marker common to two Massachusetts residents and previously seen in a case in Nevada, retained sensitivity to at least one class of antibiotics. Overall, these cases are an important reminder that strains of gonorrhea in the U.S. are becoming less responsive to a limited arsenal of antibiotics.

Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) with most people affected at aged 15–49 years, that remains a major public health concern. Antimicrobial resistance in gonorrhea has increased rapidly in recent years and has reduced the options for treatment.

Last February, cases of XDR, or “extensively drug resistant,” gonorrhea, are on the rise in the U.S., the CDC said.

Gonococcal infections have critical implications to reproductive, maternal and newborn health including:

  • a five-fold increase of HIV transmission
  • infertility, with its cultural and social implications
  • inflammation, leading to acute and chronic lower abdominal pain in women
  • ectopic pregnancy and maternal death
  • first trimester abortion
  • severe neonatal eye infections that may lead to blindness.

This past January, Fortune reported the U.S. is experiencing “a rising epidemic of sexually transmitted disease,” Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said with some experts referring to the issue as a “hidden epidemic.” 

Cases of gonorrhea—an STD that often shows no signs, but can lead to genital discharge, burning during urination, sores, and rashes, among other symptoms—rose by 131% nationally between 2009 and 2021, according to public health officials. While rates of STD transmission in the U.S. fell during the early months of the pandemic, they surged later in the year, with cases of gonorrhea and syphilis eventually surpassing 2019 levels, according to the CDC.

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Health

Meet the director of Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender Health

Dr. Fan Liang, is the medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender and Gender Expansive Health in Baltimore, Maryland

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Dr. Fan Liang (Photo courtesy of Fan Liang)

BALTIMORE – The topic of gender affirming healthcare has never attracted more attention or scrutiny, presenting challenges for both patients and providers, including Dr. Fan Liang, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transgender and Gender Expansive Health and assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone last week, Liang shared her perspective on a variety of topics, including her concerns about the ways in which media organizations and others have shaped the discourse about gender affirming care.

Too often, she said, the public is provided incomplete or inaccurate information, framed with politically charged and polarizing language rather than balanced and nuanced reporting for the benefit of audiences who might have little to no familiarity with the topics at hand.

“This is an evolving field that requires input from many different types of specialists,” Liang noted, so one issue comes when providers “start to comment outside of their scope of practice, or extrapolate into everybody’s experience.”

A more intractable and difficult problem, Liang said, is presented by the fact that, “issues with transgender health have really taken center stage with regard to national politics, and as a result of that, the narrative has really been reduced to an unsophisticated representation of what’s going on.”

“I think that is dangerous for patients and for the community that these patients live in and have to work in and survive in because it paints a picture that is really inaccurate,” she said.

Conservative state legislatures across the country have introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills this year, passing dozens, including a slew of anti-trans healthcare restrictions. The Human Rights Campaign reports 35.1 percent of transgender youth now live in states that have passed bans on gender affirming care, many of which carry criminal penalties for providers.

A big part of the Center’s work, Liang told the Blade, involves working closely with trans patients and organizations like Trans Maryland and the Trans Rights Advocacy Coalition “to make sure that the community’s voices are being heard, so that we’re able to represent those interests here.”

She described “a generalized sense of anxiety and fear,” concerns that she said are “pervasive throughout the community,” over “access to surgery and to overall gender healthcare.”

“I get a lot of questions about that,” she said.

While Liang has not yet worked with any patients who traveled to the Center because gender affirming care was banned in the states where they reside, she said, “I do anticipate that will happen in the relatively near future.”

Challenges for clinicians

The political climate “really interferes in physician autonomy and basically using our training and discretion to provide the best therapies that we can,” based on research and evidence-based guidelines from medical organizations on best practices standards of care, Liang said.

“I earnestly believe that people who go into medicine try to do right by their patients and try to provide exceptional care whenever they can,” she said. “When I speak to other providers who are engaged in trans care, the reason they entered the field was because they saw patients that were suffering and had no other providers to go to and they were filling a need that desperately needed to be filled.”

“It is unfortunate that their motives are being misinterpreted, because it is causing significant emotional harm to these providers who are being targeted,” Liang said, noting “there is so much vitriol from the anti-trans side of things,” including “this narrative out there that physicians are providing trans care because of financial reasons or because of some sort of politically motivated, I don’t know, conspiracy.”

The political climate, along with the realities of practicing in this speciality, may threaten to stem the pipeline of new providers whose practice would otherwise include gender affirming care, said Liang, who serves on the interview board for incoming residents who are looking to specialize in plastic surgery.

Many, perhaps even most, she said, are eager to explore transgender care, often because, particularly among young trainees, they are friends with trans and non-binary people. “I don’t know how much of that interest persists as they move through the training pipeline, because — especially if they are at an institution that does provide trans care — they do see a lot of the struggles that physicians encounter in being able to offer these services.”

Liang noted the “significant hurdles from an insurance standpoint” and the “significant prerequisites in order to access surgery,” which require “a tremendous amount of back-end coordination and optimization of the logistics for surgical readiness.”

“And then,” she said, “they see a lot of the backlash in the media against trans providers, and I think that that does discourage residents who otherwise would be interested in the field because physicians, by and large, are a pretty conservative bunch. And having them start their practice where they’re sort of stepping into a political minefield is not ideal.”

Speaking up can be beneficial but risky

“Some physicians feel like they can make the most amount of impact by being advocates for the patient population on a national stage or being more vocal about how anti-trans legislation has been impacting their patients,” Liang said.

“My goal, as the director for the Center for Transgender Health here at Hopkins is really to normalize this care to allow for the open conversation and discussion amongst providers to create a safe space for people to feel comfortable providing this care,” she said.

Destigmatizing gender affirming care and connecting clinicians who practice in this space will help these providers understand they are not “functioning in isolation” and instead are part of “a national effort and a nationally concerted effort toward delivering state-of-the-art health care,” Liang said.

“It’s important,” she said, to “bring the generalized healthcare community to the table in offering these services and have a frank discussion when it comes to education, research and teaching.”

Other providers, however, “do not feel comfortable putting themselves into that place of vulnerability,” Liang said, “and I don’t fault them for it because I personally know people who’ve received death threats and who have been targeted because of what they say to the media,” in many cases because their comments were reported incorrectly or out of context.

In July, Liang participated in an emergency trans rights roundtable on Capitol Hill with representatives from advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Transgender Law Center, as well as members of Congress including U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), and Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.).

She told the Blade it was “a really wonderful experience” to “hear the heartfelt stories” of the panelists advocating on behalf of themselves, their friends, and their families, earning the attention of members of Congress.

“I do think advocacy is important,” Liang told the Blade. “I try to make time for it when I can,” she said, “but I have to balance that with all of my other clinical obligations.”

Finding compassion and lowering the temperature

On Aug. 1, The Baltimore Banner reported that the director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs in Baltimore filed a discrimination complaint with the city’s Office of Equity and Civil Rights against the Hopkins Center for Transgender and Gender Expansive Health.

Asked for comment, Liang said “it was an upsetting article to read,” adding, “I was upset that there wasn’t more due diligence done to investigate a little bit further” because instead the article presents “just this one person’s account of things.”

She noted there is “not much I can say from a physician standpoint because everything is contained within HIPAA,” the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prohibits providers from even acknowledging which patients they may or may not have worked with.

The Banner article underscores the importance of journalists’ obligations to “make sure there is due diligence to confirm sources and make sure things are accurate,” Liang said, including, of course, when covering complicated and politically fraught subjects like gender affirming care.

“On the one hand, it’s really wonderful that there’s a fair amount of press being dedicated to trans issues around the country,” Liang said, but what is “frustrating for me is these conversations always seem to be so loaded and politically charged, and there doesn’t seem to be much space for people to ask earnest and honest questions” without taking heat from either side.

There is “compassion to be offered for patients who are struggling to receive basic health care” as well as for “people who are struggling to understand how this issue is evolving,” those for whom the matter is “uncharted territory” and therefore likely to “cause consternation and fear,” she said.

“Most of the time, the way to overcome” this is to cultivate “relationships with people who do identify as transgender or non-binary” on the grassroots level, she said, while leaving room “for people to ask earnest and honest questions.”

Removing the artificial “us-versus-them” paradigm provides “opportunity for more compassionate interactions,” Liang said.

At the same time, she conceded, amid the heightened polarization and escalation of an anti-trans backlash over the last few years, efforts to fight sensationalization with compassion and understanding have often fallen short, presenting hurdles that have long plagued other areas of science and medicine like abortions and vaccines.

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Health

CDC official talks about new STI prevention drug guidelines

Mena called DoxyPEP an “amazing tool,” noting the need for new ways to combat the increase in rates of STIs

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Dr. Leandro Mena, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Division of STD Prevention (Screenshot/YouTube)

ATLANTA – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to soon issue draft guidelines for the use of doxycycline to help prevent the spread of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis in transgender women and gay and bisexual men who have sex with men.

Doctor Leandro Mena, director of the public health agency’s Division of STD Prevention, talked to the Washington Blade by phone on Thursday about the post-exposure prophylactic intervention — DoxyPEP for short — which he characterized as “the first important innovation that we have had in the field of STIs in almost three decades.”

Studies show a 200 mg dose of the widely available antimicrobial antibiotic, if taken within 72 hours after sex, has shown tremendous efficacy in reducing the risk of transmitting these three diseases, he said.

For now, research is limited to certain LGBTQ populations for whom “we know that network prevalence, the prevalence of STIs in the sexual network of this group, is sufficiently high that the benefits outweigh the potential risks,” Mena said, while “other strategies like the use of condoms, you know, are not really that feasible.”

Research on DoxyPEP conducted and published over the past couple of years has been game-changing, he said, “because it’s an antimicrobial that’s already approved, we know it’s very low-cost, and I think we have the evidence of its effectiveness.”

“Since the development of nucleic acid amplification test — which allows [providers to] diagnose gonorrhea and chlamydia by amplifying nucleic acids, by doing PCR, that really revolutionized access to STI testing — we really haven’t had much,” Mena said.

The CDC expects to work quickly on DoxyPEP, but a few hurdles must be cleared first.

“We have engaged with the communities, right, that are poised to benefit the most from this intervention,” Mena said. “And where we are is that we are finishing our guidance, we anticipate that it will be out for public comment close to the end of this fall, and shortly after we will be able to have the final guidance.”

“Guidelines like these that have important public health consequences goes all the way up to the highest levels of clearance in the CDC,” he added.

“While we know that that benefits are significant, there are some unknowns about the potential risks of taking antimicrobials to prevent infections, as they may perhaps have other effects [like] inducing resistance” in STIs and other types of bacteria, Mena said.

“Those are some of the unknowns that we’re trying to currently understand better, as we try to balance risk and benefits of the use of doxycycline as post exposure prophylaxis,” he said.

Another challenge for the CDC as it develops the guidelines, Mena said: They must be as relevant for folks in San Francisco as for people in Montgomery, Ala., and (the) Navajo Nation, based on each place’s “local epidemiology, local context and population.”

Additionally, the agency warns, doxycycline can carry side effects — namely, “phototoxicity, gastrointestinal symptoms, and more rarely esophageal ulceration.”

So, the CDC is working diligently, Mena said, to “better understand the potential risk that its use – its regular use, in this way, may present to the individual and potentially at the population level.”

Mena called DoxyPEP an “amazing tool,” noting the need for new ways to combat the increase in rates of STIs that has persisted for nearly a decade.

“In 2021, we had more than 2.5 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia reported, and the reasons we’re seeing these increases, it’s really, you know, multifactorial,” he said. “There are subpopulations that are disproportionately affected — among these, racial-ethnic minorities, young people, men who have sex with men.”

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AIDS and HIV

American Red Cross ends ban on blood donations by gay men

Many healthy individuals who previously could not give will now be able to support their community through the gift of blood donation

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Photo Credit: American Red Cross

WASHINGTON – The American Red Cross announced a historic change in the organization’s policies regarding blood donations by gay and bisexual men. Under this new donor screening process, all donors answer the same eligibility questions regardless of gender or sexual orientation and will be assessed for blood donation based on individual risk factors, not on sexual orientation.

This change by the Red Cross falls within the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized guidelines for blood donation issued this past May that will use a uniform individualized risk assessment questionnaire for respondents regardless of their sexual orientation, sex, or gender.

In a statement the Red Cross noted:

“This change means many healthy individuals who previously could not give will now be able to support their community through the gift of blood donation.

Andrew Goldstein, a cancer researcher from Los Angeles, was a regular blood donor in his younger years before the FDA’s previous policies made him ineligible to donate as a gay man. His desire to influence change compelled him to register as a participant in the FDA funded ADVANCE Study in 2021, which sought to gather data to evaluate the possibility of moving to an individual donor assessment. He is proud he was able to be part of the study that led to this change and is excited to finally be able to give blood again.

“There’s so much in the world that you can’t help with, and you sometimes have to see people going through difficult times, but something like giving blood feels like something so small that you can do, and it means a lot to me that I’ll be able to do that again,” said Andrew. Now, Andrew and many others are able to share their good health with patients in need of lifesaving transfusions.”

The FDA’s new protocols issued in May note that prospective donors who have had a new sexual partner, or more than one sexual partner in the past three months, and anal sex in the past three months, would be ineligible.

So would those who are “taking medications to treat or prevent HIV infection (e.g., antiretroviral therapy (ART), pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP),” because these drugs can delay the detection of HIV.

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Health

AMA strengthens gender affirming care policies

The AMA pledged to work with federal regulators to oppose policies criminalizing guideline-directed healthcare interventions

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American Medical Association President Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld (center left) (Photo courtesy AMA)

CHICAG0 – The American Medical Association on Monday voted to strengthen its policies governing access to gender affirming care for trans and gender diverse individuals.

The group committed to opposing the criminalization of patients for seeking gender affirming care, and of families and healthcare providers for facilitating access to or administering that care.

Additionally, the AMA pledged to work with federal and state legislators and regulators to oppose policies criminalizing these guideline-directed healthcare interventions and to educate the Federation of State Medical Boards on their importance.

The resolution was introduced by the Endocrine Society, which issued a press release Monday celebrating the move: “As political attacks on gender-affirming care escalate, it is the responsibility of the medical community to speak out in support of evidence-based care.”

“Medical decisions should be made by patients, their relatives and health care providers, not politicians,” the Endocrine Society wrote.

The resolution was cosponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Urological Association, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the American College of Physicians, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinology, GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ+ Equality and AMA’s Medical Student Section.

The Endocrine Society explained the legislative bans on gender affirming care – passed in states in which 30 percent of the nation’s transgender and gender-diverse youth now live – are misguided.

“Pediatric gender-affirming care is designed to take a conservative approach,” the group wrote.

“When young children experience feelings that their gender identity does not match the sex recorded at birth, the first course of action is to support the child in exploring their gender identity and to provide mental health support, as needed.”

“Medical intervention is reserved for older adolescents and adults, with treatment plans tailored to the individual and designed to maximize the time teenagers and their families have to make decisions about their transitions.

“Major medical organizations also agree on waiting until an individual has turned 18 or reached the age of majority in their country to undergo gender-affirming genital surgery.”

Additionally, the Endocrine Society noted research that shows gender affirming care can be lifesaving.

“A 2020 study analyzed survey data from 89 transgender adults who had access to puberty-delaying medication while adolescents and data from more than 3,400 transgender adults who did not. The study found that those who received puberty-delaying hormone treatment had lower likelihood of lifetime suicidal ideation than those who wanted puberty-delaying treatment but did not receive it, even after adjusting for demographic variables and level of family support.”

“Approximately nine in ten transgender adults who wanted puberty-delaying treatment, but did not receive it, reported lifetime suicidal ideation.”

AMA inaugurates first gay president

The AMA’s first openly gay President Jesse Ehrenfeld was inaugurated during the 2023 Annual Meeting of House of Delegates on Tuesday.

An anesthesiologist who formerly served as the Joseph A. Johnson Jr. Distinguished Leadership Professor of anesthesiology, surgery, biomedical informatics & health policy at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine, Ehrenfeld spoke to the Washington Blade for an exclusive interview last month.

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld with his sons and husband.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. Ehrenfeld)

During his inaugural speech on Tuesday, Ehrenfeld relayed a personal story about how his now four-year-old son, born early and severely underweight, needed a blood transfusion. “At this moment,” he said, “watching my son cling to life, I was struck by the painful reality that, even though I was a physician and now, a father … neither I, nor my husband, could donate blood – simply because we are gay.”

“Just recently, the FDA, thanks in large part to a decade of advocacy by our AMA and others, rescinded some of these discriminatory practices, making it possible for my husband and I to give someone else’s child a much-needed blood transfusion,” Ehrenfeld said. “This kind of advocacy is why I am so proud to lead our AMA at this moment.”

“Today there is an unconscionable effort to interfere in medicine,” Ehrenfeld said. “An assault on patient and physician autonomy. Legislative over-reach. Attacks on maternal health … on LGBTQ patients.”

“We have a duty to push back against legislative interference in the practice of medicine that is leading to the criminalization of care.”

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