Sex Ed 2021: Pandemic Edition. Promoting Safe(r) Sex During COVID-19

“I have a confession: I’ve had sex since social distancing began. With someone I met on Tinder, someone I don’t live with. And I know friends doing the same. 

With the pandemic still a major concern across the United States, people having sex or even just wanting to have sex may feel shame — even more shame than usual in this Puritanical wasteland. We’ve been told to abstain from pleasure and release at a time where we need it most.”

This is the opening to Anna Iovine’s article “The practical guide to mid-pandemic sex, because abstinence isn’t cutting it.”    While the safest approach is to abstain from sex with partners outside of you household, this doesn’t work for many people.  Like early messages about HIV prevention, abstinence may be the ideal but we’ve learned that for most people, negotiating safety when it comes to sex is the most practical strategy.  Sexual harm reduction approaches have long been a staple in the HIV world, but now those approaches are expanding to help guide people during the COVID crisis.

Achieving Together is excited to partner with Kind Clinic to share their strategies and approaches to supporting communities during this time of uncertainty, particularly around sexual health and wellness. Kind Clinic’s approach to education is non-judgmental, sex positive, and playful in order to develop educational but relatable messaging. We’re excited to share their efforts to help inform and shape other work across the state in supporting communities.

From Kind Clinic:

Safer sex practices have been and always will be vital to the community’s sexual health, but having responsible, safe sex is even more important now during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has introduced new challenges to sexual health education and outreach. At Texas Health Action’s Kind Clinic, we are educating the community on how to reduce the risk of contracting HIV, STIs and COVID-19, while STILL enjoying a healthy sex life. The most effective tools for us have been colorful, fun, and easy to read graphics. Our “Safer Sex During COVID-19” infographic is a great example.

Additionally, Kind Clinic has actively used traditional media such as the Austin Chronicle to highlight and share information on negotiating sexual health during the pandemic.  Holly Bullion, a nurse practitioner and director of clinical quality at the clinic, has taken opportunities to share information when possible.  In the Austin Chronicle article Kissing Is Out, Glory Holes Are In for Students During Pandemic, Bullion continues the practice of sharing critical information in a relatable and non-judgmental fashion as can be seen in the excerpt below.

(Holly Bullion, Kind Clinic; photo courtesy of Austin Chronicle)

Holly Bullion, nurse practitioner and director of clinical quality with Texas Health Action, the parent organization of Kind Clinic, says during the pandemic sexual “playtime” should be focused below the waist. COVID is transmitted through respiratory droplets, so kissing and sexual activities that involve the mouth come with increased risk of viral spread.

“It’s really best to keep your mouth out of any kind of in-person sex play,” explained Bullion. “Or really diligently use barrier methods like dental dams or external or internal condoms.”

She emphasized there are many places for people to get tested and treated for STIs without feeling stigmatized. People should not avoid getting tested for fear of judgment for having sex during the pandemic.

“For many of us, sex is a really important outlet,” said Bullion. “Being sex positive and empowering yourself and knowing what your resources are, I think is the most important thing.”

To complete their messaging, the clinic has created and shared numerous fun social media posts that reflect their emphasis on harm reduction and safety.  We are sharing several to highlight the frank and honest approach.

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day – Perspectives on ending the HIV epidemic among Black Texans

February 7th is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.  It is a day to raise awareness and spark conversations on the disproportionate impact that HIV has on Black communities.

There were 35,834 Black Texans living with diagnosed HIV in 2019.  Black Texans are about 13% of the total population of Texas but disproportionately carry roughly a third of Texans living with diagnosed HIV. 

The number of Black Texans acquiring HIV each year has fallen over the last decade, and progress has been made to ensure that Black Texans living with HIV are aware of their status. In 2019, 88% of Black Texans living with HIV were aware of their HIV status, close to reaching the Achieving Together goal of 90%.

More work must be done to address the impact that HIV continues to have on Black communities in Texas.  While significant progress has been made to address and decrease HIV among Black women, they still carry a disproportionate burden among women in Texas.  The number of Black gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men who acquire HIV each year has remained flat for almost a decade and more must be done to support this community in reducing the impact of HIV.

As we approach National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, we asked several partners across the state to share with us their perspectives on what we all need to focus on in order to end the HIV epidemic among Black Texans.

Chris Allen, Health Equity Coordinator

From my perspective, ending the HIV epidemic among Black Texans requires a focus on systems; 

  • Ensuring access to economic, educational, and political opportunities;
  • Transforming organizations and building capacity within Black communities where we are able to make decisions and affect change for ourselves;
  • Ensuring social and environmental safety where we live, learn, work, worship, and play – and working with Black communities to identify what this means (it does not mean increased police presence)
  • Offering culturally competent, appropriate, and affirming health care when the need arises

We have to understand the historical context that has created the inequities we see today and allows them to persist. The first step towards doing this is realizing that a problem exists and making a commitment to be a part of the solution. For some, this may mean stepping back and allowing people with the lived experiences to take the lead.

Michele Durham, Executive Director B.E.A.T. AIDS

From my perspective, in order to end the HIV epidemic among Black Texans, we need to launch a full-on campaign in the churches, schools and in the African American families’ homes.  Some Black Pastors don’t want to talk about HIV or recognize that members of their congregations are affected by HIV.  Also, a lot of black families do not want to acknowledge that they have gay family members or that their children are having sex or that the community needs accurate information and education.  The public campaigns must saturate all of Texas saying “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Black Girl Magic”, “Black Men are Strong Providers,” and “The Black Family is Loving, Caring, Kind and Beautiful.”  In other words, Black Texans need to know that they are important and loved and worth life.  Texans everywhere must speak-out to sisters and brothers everywhere and say “We Love you No Matter What and We are in this Fight with You!”  After all, “Together, We Can Beat AIDS.”  

Marsha Jones, Executive Director, The Afiya Center

We need to change the lens from which we view HIV in Texas and be prepared to do the hard work that will get us to an end. Ending stigma, access to affordable healthcare, housing, and equitable and fair wages are key.  However, if we are going to truly end HIV and its impact on Black people in Texas, we will have to change the lens to one that is informed by anti-Black racism and its direct connection to why in 2021 Black people continue to carry the greatest disproportionate burden of HIV in Texas.  The existence and practice of implicit biases among the folk who write and pass policy, run programs and serve those most marginalized in this state must be rectified if we with intentions want to end HIV. How we see people is how we treat people. I believe we can end HIV among Black people in Texas. In order to do so we must deconstruct these systems of oppression that continue to disenfranchise and deprioritizes the most vulnerable folk in its society.

Tarik Daniels, Executive Director/Founder, Whatsinthemirror?

The biggest question I thought I had for the week at first was: Why would J.Lo shout “Let’s Get Loud” in her America the Beautiful and This Land Is Your Land mashup performance? It was a very bizarre and confusing moment for me. But as the 2021 Inauguration of President Biden and Madam Vice President Harris continued, my attention was drawn closely to President Biden calling out white supremacy in his inaugural speech. After realizing he was the first president to do so, I wonder how many people in public health were actually listening?

As a Black queer health care worker working through COVID-19, I helped many black patients access HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HIV treatment, and most shared their sentiments with mistrust of the medical industrial complex in America. As a black boy born in the eighties, by the time I blossomed into a full queer, HIV had already become a black person’s problem that was disproportionately impacting Black MSM more than any other population. I must admit watching COVID-19 evolve into another health epidemic that began to impact black people at alarming rates became very triggering and I had to reach into my toolbox to cope with the new trauma I was experiencing as a person living with HIV.

“We do know that health inequities at their very core are due to racism,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “There’s no doubt about that.” After that comment came in 2020, medical institutions and doctors were declaring racism as a public health crisis across the nation. I even had to write a statement as a Black health administrator managing several sexual health clinics in response to Dr. Benjamin’s comments. But very little seemed to follow. I soon realized that for many declaring racism as a public health crisis, they were also mistaking representation for actual change.

HIV-related stigma has continued being a factor as to why many black people don’t get tested or want to get into treatment. HIV-related stigma and discrimination continues to negatively impact African Americans living with HIV as well. The focus on ending the HIV epidemic among Black Texans and black folks across the nation should start with the acknowledgment of medical mistrust in public health amongst black people. The medical institutions must move past declaring racism as a public health crisis and take responsibility for why black communities have been impacted by HIV and other chronic illnesses at disproportionate rates. It is proven that black people are treated differently. We have data showing us that Black people get different quality of care. Why not create HIV prevention campaigns with the intention of boosting morale and trust in medicine with Black people? I no longer believe that it is ethical to use Black people as the face of HIV simply because we are mostly impacted without historical truth and justification. Let’s start having the conversations around racism in public health that’s been absent in HIV prevention and care and begin to change policies and attitudes. HIV is not the epidemic it once was thirty years ago but the racial inequities that lead to poor outcomes for black people are thriving more now than ever before.

Cordella Lyon, Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas

Martin Luther King Jr Day, 2021

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr, we share excerpts from “The American Dream” speech given at Drew University in February, 1964. 

In developing this blog, we reflected on the past year of civil rights protests, the groundswell of interconnected social justice movements, and the momentous Black Lives Matter movement.  We reflected on the approaching inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States and the violent terroristic response that saw our nation’s capital gripped by violence. 

We reread many works by Dr. King in considering what to share today.  Finally, excerpts from this speech seemed to carry messages that resonate with today’s struggles to fulfill the American Dream. We encourage you to read the entire speech online at the Drew University archives The American Dream

I would like to use as a subject from which to speak tonight, the American Dream. And I use this subject because America is essentially a dream, a dream yet unfulfilled. The substance of the dream is expressed in some very familiar words found in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is a dream.

Now one of the first things we notice about this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews. And that is something else at the center of the American Dream which is one of the distinguishing points, one of the things that distinguishes it from other forms of government, particularly totalitarian systems. It says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. They are gifts from the hands of the Almighty God. Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profound eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.

28 Aug 1963, Washington, DC, USA — Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to participants in the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. It was from this spot that he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

But ever since the Founding Fathers of our nation dreamed this dream, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy. On the other hand we have sadly practiced the very antithesis of those principles. Indeed, slavery and racial segregation are strange paradoxes in the nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal.

But now, more than ever before, our nation is challenged to realize this dream. For the shape of the world today does not afford us the luxury of an anemic democracy, and the price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the Negro and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction. The hour is late and the clock of destiny is ticking out, and we must act now before it is too late.

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. This is the challenge of the hour. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone.

Somehow we are interdependent.

Achieving Together Honors Human Rights Day

The United Nations (UN) declared December 10 to be Human Rights Day to honor the day in 1948 when the body adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN declared the theme of this year’s Human Rights Day to be “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights.” They developed this theme in light of “the COVID-19 pandemic and…the need to build back better by ensuring Human Rights are central to recovery efforts.”

The UN states in this year’s theme that, “We will reach our common global goals only if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by COVID-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic, and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.”

The UN Recover Better campaign states that:

Human Rights must be at the centre of the post COVID-19 world.

The COVID-19 crisis has been fuelled by deepening poverty, rising inequalities, structural and entrenched discrimination and other gaps in human rights protection. Only measures to close these gaps and advance human rights can ensure we fully recover and build back a world that is better, more resilient, just, and sustainable.

    • End discrimination of any kind: Structural discrimination and racism have fuelled the COVID-19 crisis. Equality and non-discrimination are core requirements for a post-COVID world.
    • Address inequalities: To recover from the crisis, we must also address the inequality pandemic. For that, we need to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights. We need a new social contract for a new era.
    • Encourage participation and solidarity: We are all in this together. From individuals to governments, from civil society and grass-roots communities to the private sector, everyone has a role in building a post-COVID world that is better for present and future generations. We need to ensure the voices of the most affected and vulnerable inform the recovery efforts.
    • Promote sustainable development: We need sustainable development for people and planet. Human rights, the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are the cornerstone of a recovery that leaves no one behind.

In a commentary appearing on the Journal of the American Medical Association website entitled, Racism, Not Race, Drives Inequity Across the COVID-19 Continuum, the authors noted that “significant racial and ethnic inequities have persisted across the continuum of COVID-19 morbidity, hospitalization, and mortality,” and “that fundamental causes of COVID-19 inequity include systemically racist policies, such as historic racial segregation and their inextricable downstream effects on the differential quality and distribution of housing, transportation, economic opportunity, education, food, air quality, health care, and beyond.” Similarly, we know that in Texas Black and Latinx peoplemade up approximately 75% of new HIV diagnoses in 2018 and that in order to reach the goals of the Achieving Together Plan, we must address these systemic barriers to equitable health outcomes.

(Image courtesy of amfAR)

Aligning with the 2020 Human Rights Day theme, the guiding principles of the Achieving Together Plan encourage us to follow the principles of social justice, equity, integration, empowerment, advocacy, and community to combat the HIV epidemic in Texas. It is only through acknowledging and honoring the humanity in each of us and addressing systemic racism and inequities while promoting human rights for all that we can truly end the HIV Epidemic in Texas and beyond.

Learn more about Human Rights Day here.

Achieving Together Honors World AIDS Day

UNAIDS declared the theme of this year’s World AIDS Day (December 1) to be “Global solidarity, shared responsibility,” and we at Achieving Together Texas couldn’t agree more with the theme. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic this year, people living with HIV have faced a number of physical, emotional, psychological challenges. Many people in the HIV community have lost loved ones to COVID-19 this year – and much like HIV – the pandemic has only further exacerbated and shone a light on the inequities that exist in our current systems.

The guiding principles of the Achieving Together Plan implore us to use equity as a lens through which we advance our work and commit ourselves to the principles of social justice, equity, integration, empowerment, advocacy, and community. These guiding principles echo the UNAIDS theme of “Global solidarity, shared responsibility.”

We’d like to share a few excerpts from this year’s UNAIDS World AIDS Day website:

In 2020, the world’s attention has been focused by the COVID-19 pandemic on health and how pandemics affect lives and livelihoods. COVID-19 is showing once again how health is interlinked with other critical issues, such as reducing inequality, human rights, gender equality, social protection and economic growth. With this in mind, this year the theme of World AIDS Day is “Global solidarity, shared responsibility.”

Global solidarity and shared responsibility requires us to view global health responses, including the AIDS response, in a new way. It requires the world to come together to ensure that:

  • Health is fully financed. Governments must come together and find new ways to ensure that health care is fully funded. No one country can do it alone. Domestic and international funding for health must be increased.
  • Health systems are strengthened. Investments in the AIDS response in the past few decades have helped to strengthen health systems and have been supporting the COVID-19 response. But more needs to be done to further strengthen health systems and protect health-care workers.
  • Access is ensured. Life-saving medicines, vaccines and diagnostics must be considered as public goods. There must be global solidarity and shared responsibility to ensure that no individual, community or country is left behind in accessing life-saving health commodities.
  • Human rights are respected. A human rights approach applied everywhere will produce sustainable results for health. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines in society and how key populations have been left behind in many parts of the world.
  • The rights of women and girls, and gender equality, are at the centre. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected women’s livelihoods, which have been disproportionally affected by lockdown measures, and lockdowns have resulted in an increase of violence against women in household settings. Women must be included in decision-making processes that affect their lives. The world cannot afford rollbacks in decades of hard-won gains in gender equality.

Now is the moment for bold leadership for equal societies, the right to health for all and a robust and equitable global recovery. This World AIDS Day join us in calling on countries to step up their efforts to achieve healthier societies. This World AIDS Day let us demand global solidarity and shared responsibility.”

Read more here.