Can HIV Be Stopped in San Diego Within 10 Years? This Organization Is Betting on It

With bold awareness campaigns, preventive measures, and modern medication, the San Diego LGBT Community Center is changing minds—and saving lives.

Urban Mo's staff member Erica Flores and DOFL ambassador Howard Menzer.

Mar 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah B. Weir is a freelance writer, editor, and television producer. She also contributes to the weekly advice column Ask a Mom (Who's Not Your Mom) for HelloGiggles. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and kids.

Thanks to innovative treatment programs and powerful medication cocktails, HIV is no longer a death sentence. But the San Diego LGBT Community Center wants to stop the transmission of the disease altogether. Its goal? To help stop new transmissions of HIV in the city by 2024—and if its current progress is any measure, that might just happen.

Last year, the organization launched a major social media campaign, #BeTheGeneration, to fight the fear, stigma, and shame that can dissuade people from being tested or seeking treatment.

“It shouldn’t be us versus them,” says Amber Cyphers Stephens, the center’s chief communications officer, referring to those who are HIV negative and those who are positive. “We are one community.” She points out that because a significant number of people don’t know their status, someone who is positive with a zero viral load because of proper medication has a lower risk of transmitting the disease than someone who thinks he or she is negative but hasn’t been tested.

The center, the nation’s second oldest, began in 1971 as a hotline set up by one man, Jess Jessop. His aim was to provide mental health support to gays and lesbians in what was then a conservative military town. Over the decades, the center’s mission has expanded to include HIV testing, counseling, support groups, and education, as well as advocacy for issues such as marriage equality.

It also operates the nation’s first transitional housing facility for LGBT youths, some of whom have been kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality. With the help of dedicated case managers, many have gone on to college. It’s not just young people who get help. In late January, the city council unanimously approved developing a housing complex for LGBT seniors. “A lot of people feel they need to go back into the closet when they move into senior housing,” says Ian Johnson, the center’s director of events. Last year the organization served more than 61,000 people.

To rally the community around its cause, the center participates in Dining Out For Life, an annual event that partners restaurants with HIV/AIDS organizations. “It’s huge for us,” says Johnson. “It brings in about 100 restaurants, and every year more of them increase the percentage they give back from 25 percent to 50 percent.” Three years ago, San Diego declared April 30 its official Dining Out For Life Day, and last year Mayor Kevin Faulconer waited tables at the event.

“It’s an all-day affair,” says Johnson. “People start at breakfast and then go out for lunch, dinner, and cocktails or dessert.” He adds that the national sponsor of Dining Out For Life , Subaru, has provided instrumental support by donating a car to get supplies to all the participating restaurants. Over the last eight years, Dining Out For Life San Diego has raised more than half a million dollars.

The center’s big push for 2015 is expanding #BeTheGeneration—and the campaign is battling HIV on all fronts. The center has renewed its commitment to get people tested. “We’d like to see HIV testing as an ‘opt out’ instead of ‘opt in,’ ” says Stephens. Sebastian Valles, who volunteers at the center, learned he was HIV positive in early 2014 and decided it was crucial to come out about it to help others get over their fear and shame. “I realized to eliminate the stigma, I had to be open about who I am,” he says. “We can talk about the disease, but it makes more of an impact if I say, ‘Hey, I’m HIV positive,’ and people see that with the advances in medication, I just take one pill a day, with no side effects, and I’m healthy.”

The center also wants to ensure that anyone who needs it has access to the newest and most advanced medical treatment available, including PrEP, medication that can be taken daily as a pre-exposure prophylaxis, and PEP, which can prevent HIV after contact if someone thinks he or she may have been exposed to the virus (for instance, when a condom breaks). A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that PrEP decreased the risk of infection by 92 percent.

In addition to using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, the center is spreading the word by staffing info tables at sports events and San Diego’s many festivals. “We’re starting to hear a buzz,” Stephens says.