People who identify as transgender are more at risk of contracting HIV-AIDS than any other demographic group. Transgender men and women say the biggest reason is a lack of specific information for their sexual behaviors. As KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert reports, a unique event in a very public place in Eugene is designed to change that.
Cass Averill is concerned about the confusion around sexual identity and HIV risks. That’s why he suggested starting the We/Us/Our event at Eugene’s premier gay bar, The Wayward Lamb. (hear music)
He’s here in this accepting public space with a mission to reduce the number of HIV infections in the transgender community. Averill says part of the risk for transgender people is a sense of disconnect with the body parts they were born with.
Averill: “When you’re dealing with bodies and identities that don’t necessarily fit the norm for a lot of folks, it can get really confusing on what actually applies to you. It comes down to what parts do you have? What parts are you interacting with?”
Averill was born a female but identifies as male. At 27, he began a physical transition which included surgery. Today and for the rest of his life—he will take hormones, as most transgender people do. And most inject them.
A unique part of this transgender event is the opportunity to receive clean needles and dispose of used ones. Over the steady beat of techno sounds, Averill points out, a lot of people associate syringe exchange with illicit drug use.
Averill: “But a large majority of us use needles for our medications that we have to take. And that could be that you’re going through two-plus needles a week.”
And over a lifetime, that can be a big out of pocket expense. Averill says even with insurance it can be difficult to get clean needles. A free needle exchange like this reduces the chance of needle sharing in the high-risk transgender community.
Amanda McCluskey is a program director with HIV Alliance. She stands near the dance floor, behind a table piled high with condoms and information. McCluskey says they already consider the needle exchange a success. (They brought in 500 and gave out 30 at the last event.)
On outward appearances, McCluskey is masculine but she says she’s comfortable with her female identity too. She identifies herself as “gender queer.” McCluskey is here to help demystify the risks of HIV infection in the trans community. The written materials she hands out contain very frank information.
McCluskey: “We have some materials specific to trans men who have sex with men. That is a group that can be at particularly high risk for HIV and not realize it. We also have some material that really just breaks it down to sex and body parts.”
In a private room at the back of the bar, Anthony Fischetti is ready to provide a rapid HIV test to anyone who asks for it.
Fischetti: “We do the oral swab, they just swab their gums. We put that in the solution and it takes 20 minutes to give us test results.”
Reporter: “This is a free test.”
Fischetti: “Free, yes, it’s free. We don’t check ID. We don’t charge insurance here.”
HIV Alliance uses grant funding to pay for the $50 test kits for events like these. As a trained HIV counselor, Fischetti is the person responsible for giving people their test results.
Fischetti: “I personally have not had somebody come up positive yet but when that time comes, you know, I am completely prepared for it.”
That means immediate council. Fischetti will ask if the person has someone for support right now. And then, he'll make sure they know that HIV Alliance is open at 9 am to help with everything from food to access to medicines.
Cass Averill moves from the bar to high-top tables, mingling with friends old and new. He's become a well known advocate, starting a support group called Transponder that now includes 200 transgender and gender diverse folks. He’s proud of what events like this do for his community.
Averill: “It’s an opportunity to just get out of your head.”
[“…and sit down and get to know somebody new. And it’s a lot of just sharing personal stories about the struggles and the successes that they’ve had in their lives. And it allows a group of people to sit in a room and feel like they are really seen and heard. Sometimes for the first time.]
The We/Us/Our social event and HIV testing/syringe exchange will happen every last Wednesday of the month from 5 to 8 pm right here at the Wayward Lamb in downtown Eugene.