Monday, June 29, 2015

One gay couple divorced when we won marriage equality. The reason keep you fighting.

Thursday’s Supreme Court decision allowed millions of US citizens to stay insured, strengthening the fight against the HIV epidemic. Friday’s Supreme Court decision for marriage equality gave many of us a jubilant reason to celebrate.

I woke up Saturday morning, still on a high from the gay marriage decision the day before, to images of Brittany “Bree” Newsome climbing the flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina that displayed the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state capitol. This act of civil disobedience was brave, and a stark image of the forces that continue to oppress black lives in our country.

Our movement still has a lot to do to create a world where all citizens, regardless of race, sexuality, or status, can live with equality and dignity.

On Sunday, I attended a social group for HIV+ men hosted by one of our nonprofit partners. Members of the group shared their reaction to the gay marriage court case. 

While the response was positive and spirited, one couple shared a more nuanced view of gay marriage legalization. Both men were HIV+, and were married out of state several years ago. When gay marriage was legalized in North Carolina in October last year, they at first celebrated, but quickly realized the decision had unintended consequences for them. Both men were enrolled in the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, and as a married couple, their combined income level would make them ineligible for ADAP coverage.

Shortly after marriage equality became legal in North Carolina, the couple legally divorced so they could maintain access to their HIV medication.

I’ve heard many personal stories about the challenges members of our community have faced since joining the team at the North Carolina AIDS Action Network. Theirs is one that will stay with me.

This couple’s story is a stark a reminder that marriage equality and the affirmation of the Affordable Care Act are not enough. We must continue to support our partners in the fight for social justice for all citizens. We must continue to work to make sure ALL citizens have access to comprehensive health insurance, regardless of status or income.

Let’s celebrate our victories from last week. Let’s let them serve as fuel for the fights ahead.

Lee Storrow is Executive Director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Women's Empowerment Team of the East takes Raleigh by storm

Guest post by Esther Ross

A phenomenal event took place Wednesday, April 29, 2015 in Raleigh NC for North Carolina HIV Advocacy Day.

The Women's Empowerment Team of the East - aka Girls on Fire, ready for their first meeting with legislators.
The WE Team of the EAST (Women Empowered aka Girls on Fire) advocated on issues that directly impact people living with HIV in North Carolina. They did an outstanding job communicating the importance in achieving viral load suppression, increasing positive health outcomes to improve quality of life is for the state of North Carolina.

The WE Team of the EAST met with two senators who serve our Region 10 area; Senator Don Davis and Senator Louis Pate. We did so well that Senator Don Davis gave up his seat for Miss Juliette Sharpless and agreed to attend our Life Skill Support Group at ECU Physicians in Greenville September 2015 as a pledge of his continued support and commitment of HIV programs in our state.

Miss Juliette Sharpless at Senator Davis's desk for the discussion
Smiles all around: The WE Team of the East after talking with Senator Davis
 In regards to Senator Louis Pate, WE Team of the East did and an excellent job in expounding on the cost effectiveness in promoting programs that increase access to HIV medications to achieve and maintain viral load suppression versus utilizing the emergency room to treat opportunistic infections that occurs as viral load increases.

One of the arguments posed was “Imagine the cost of 1400 clients utilizing the emergency room to treat infections opposed to 1400 clients in which 82% are viral load suppressed in care at ECU Physicians in Greenville, NC." It is important that advocacy efforts continue at all levels in North Carolina to ensure our elected officials recognized the importance of these programs that contribute to the management of HIV in our communities to reducing the spread of HIV and linking those diagnosed with HIV are linked to care.
The recommendations on the agenda were:

  1.  ADAP: To fully fund the AIDS Drug Assistance Program and oppose recurring funding cuts to accommodate for future changes in federal appropriations or voluntary corporate rebates especially when Medicaid has not been expanded for this state. 
  2.  Youth Access to Healthcare Services: Protect the ability of young people to access mental and sexual healthcare, including HIV prevention, testing and treatment.
  3. Harm Reduction: Support House Bill 712, which will authorize the State Bureau of Investigations in collaboration with North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, to establish pilot programs to collect and properly dispose of used syringes in two NC counties; and amend the existing Needle-stick Prevention law (HB 850) passed in 2013 so that a person who declares a syringe to a law enforcement officer prior to being searched will not be charged for possession of the syringe or for trace residue inside the syringe.

Felicia Brock talks to Senator Don Davis about HIV policy in Eastern NC
Thank you WE Team of the East for being ‘Women on Fire’ in HIV advocacy: Felicia Osborne; Juliette Sharpless; Mary (Cathy) Taft; and others.

Always ‘On Fire’ - Esther Ross

Esther Ross is the Region 10 Network Coordinator, a Social Work Practitioner and Medical Care Coordinator in the Department of Internal Medicine at the East Carolina University-Brody School of Medicine, and an advocate for those living with HIV in Greenville, NC. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Truth, power, and the dog in your own backyard: Reflections on North Carolina HIV Advocacy Day

Guest post by Kevin Varner

There was a sense of being "okay" that day in Raleigh.

Underneath what the other advocates and I were doing, there permeated this notion that we were advocating on behalf of those who, for a myriad of reasons, were unable to travel and speak for themselves. Of course that was there. It's "advocacy's" definition.

It was also fantastic and a little intoxicating to speak with representatives from my district who seemed to "get it"--the importance of access to medical care, medicaid, and other basic services for those living with and affected by HIV. The importance of having more powerful allies, regardless of party affiliation, who took time out of the busy day to spend just ten minutes hearing us, and understanding the importance of our place as North Carolinians. It was great. It puffed me up, and my ego was going, "YEAH! This is GREAT! You spoke the TRUTH!"

Kevin in the Legislative Building in Raleigh
Now for the other piece--the piece where the ego meets the awareness--or, the place where the ego meets an obstacle. Not to be a Debbie Downer at all, but just aware...I thought, "That was easy. That was a little too easy." I was preaching to the choir.

In my district, I was lucky to have buy in and face time before I even opened my mouth. I mentioned the agency, Triad Health Project, where I work, and while I was blessed and grateful that the representatives with whom I spoke knew of us and the valuable work we do, and agreed with what we were pitching, I thought--"I wonder how this would go down if I had to fight harder? How would I deal with closed ears, polite nods, and rejection?"

What about those people in our state government who don't feel they have a dog in the fight for HIV funding, stigma reduction, HIV decriminalization, Harm Reduction Bills, and the advocacy the North Carolina AIDS Action Network and the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition do? I want to say to those state legislators the following:

Okay, sure. You may not think you have a dog in this fight. You may think "No way--not my issue, and definitely NOT in my backyard."

But, you DO have a dog, and I bet that dog can fight. And you DO have a backyard, and I bet it's just a matter of time before HIV and Harm Reduction issues show up in it. So, rather than becoming reactionary, and making a party line decision based on what your party is doing, or making a decision based on fear, on stigma, on belief, even...why not dig a little deeper for facts, statistics, and have conversations with those of us in the state who are living with HIV, with addiction, and with those who are working so hard to insure access to services that provide medicine, dignity, support, and empowerment to those with HIV and addictions...don't you think that by doing so, you'd strengthen your own "dog" and also make your own backyard a safer, better place to be?

That's what I didn't get to say at North Carolina HIV Advocacy Day. And that's what I think ought to be said, and heard in our state.

Kevin Varner is a North Carolina AIDS Action Network Speaking Positively Advocate and Director of Prevention Services at Triad Health Project in Greensboro, N.C. He blogs at

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Press Release: New report shows inequalities in North Carolina HIV rates

PRESS RELEASE: March 4, 2015
CONTACT: Lee Storrow
(919) 914-0311

HIV and AIDS have a serious and unequal impact on certain communities in North Carolina, according to a report released today by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Approximately 36,300 people were living with HIV in the state in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. North Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for new HIV diagnoses.
Communities of color and gay and bisexual communities are hardest hit. More than 65 percent of North Carolinians living with HIV are African American. Gay and bisexual men make up roughly 60 percent of newly diagnosed cases.
Young men between the ages of 13 and 24 made up one in five people diagnosed with HIV in 2013. Most of these are young men of color.
“Like many public health issues, HIV tends to affect communities without access to comprehensive healthcare, economic security, housing, and other basic human needs,” says Lee Storrow, executive director at the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.
 “Segregated social networks and pervasive stigma exacerbate the issue,” Storrow says. “The good news is, we know what North Carolina needs to do to address this epidemic.”
The state’s report highlights the success of North Carolina’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which serves roughly twenty percent of people living with HIV in the state.
Three-fourths of the clients enrolled in the program qualify as virally suppressed, meaning they are at least 96 percent less likely to transmit the virus to a partner and the levels of the virus in their blood are so low as to be undetectable.
The rate of new diagnosis is also holding relatively steady from past years.
With treatment, people diagnosed with HIV can expect to live long and active lives.
Yet more than one quarter of individuals living with HIV in North Carolina did not see a doctor in the last year. Only 36 percent of the overall population living with HIV in the state is virally suppressed.
 “Everyone living with HIV or any other chronic illness should be able to see a doctor when they need to. Our elected leaders must expand Medicaid. That one simple step will extend health insurance to thousands of people living with and at high risk for HIV,” Storrow said.
“Most importantly, this new report is a call to all of us to work for the interests of the communities most affected by this epidemic, to raise HIV as a critical issue in our state, and to stand up for the dignity and rights of North Carolinians living with HIV and AIDS.”
The full report is available online at
The North Carolina AIDS Action Network improves the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS and affected communities through outreach and public education, policy advocacy, and community-building to increase visibility and mutual support of people living with HIV/AIDS throughout our state. Read more at

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thank you, Matt Bomer

On Sunday night, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association passed out their 2014 awards for the best in film and television. The Golden Globes are one of the most watched award shows on TV, and Sunday's broadcast was recognized by many for its culturally progressive message, from acceptance speeches that recognized single mothers and the diversity of roles for women this year to Jeffrey Tambor receiving an award for playing a transgender individual on the TV show Transparent.

A highlight of the evening was Matt Bomer’s acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the TV film The Normal Heart. Bomer played a  New York Times reporter who died of AIDS during the 1980’s. (Bomer's speech starts at 2:00.)

During Bomer’s acceptance speech, he thanked his husband and three children for their support during the filming, offering that he knew he was really grumpy at times due to his weight loss needed to depict the character. He recognized his fellow actors and the team that brought The Normal Heart to the screen. And he closed with these words, “To the generation that we lost, and the people we continue to lose to this disease, I just want to say, we love you. And we remember you.”

Too often we fall in a trap of assuming that death from HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past, that the epidemic is something we can put behind us. While we are so lucky to have made the advancements we have, there are still too many people dying from this disease. HIV rates are increasing among gay and bisexual men, and young men and men of color are seeing disproportionate increases.

Thank you, Matt Bomer, for recognizing the people we continue to lose from this disease. We need more leaders, from pop culture to politics, to do the same thing.

Lee Storrow is Executive Director of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Love saves lives: Why marriage equality is an HIV issue

“Marriage equality is legal recognition that you exist. That you can assert your rights, your personhood. It’s a message not only that others respect you but that you are allowed to respect yourself.”

That’s how Quinton, our community organizer, explained what Friday’s court decision meant to him. That decision was a main topic of conversation at our staff meeting last week.

HIV has always been a civil rights issue. The communities most affected by HIV and AIDS in North Carolina face legal and medical systems rooted in classism, racism, homophobia, and sexism, from Jim Crow and the Tuskegee experiments to Amendment One and the failure to expand Medicaid.

Marriage equality is a civil rights victory. It asserts the human dignity of LGBTQ North Carolinians and the right to visibility and love.

In 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to recognize marriage equality, that state’s Supreme Court acknowledged that dignity, love, and celebration were important aspects of legal marriage. They also said this:
For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. It is undoubtedly for these concrete reasons, as well as for its intimately personal significance, that marriage has long been termed a civil right.
For many North Carolinians living with HIV and AIDS, their loved ones, and those at high risk, marriage equality brings many of those concrete benefits. Just a few:
  • Access to health insurance through a spouse’s employer, which helps reduce the disparity in insurance coverage between same-sex and opposite-sex couples
  • The ability to make health decisions for an incapacitated partner without needing to make special legal arrangements
  • The right to take 12 weeks of leave to care for a family member, including a spouse if needed, through the Family Medical Leave Act
Marriage equality in other states has also been shown to have non-legal medical benefits:
  • Couples with legally recognized marriages experience lower rates of depression, a mental illness that is at least two times more prevalent among people living with HIV.
  • Individuals - even unmarried LGBTQ people - living in states with marriage equality experience fewer mood disorders and less anxiety. 
And then there’s this: Marriage equality has been shown to lower the rate of new HIV infections. Emory University researchers have found that when states instituted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, there were four additional HIV infections for every 100,000 people. To put that in perspective, the rate of new HIV diagnoses in North Carolina is 16.4 per 100,0000 people.

HIV stigma is one of the strongest factors influencing whether people get tested, get treatment, and stay in care. Because of the history of the AIDS epidemic and the continuing high rates of HIV among the LGBTQ community, homophobia and HIV stigma are closely linked. They can form a feedback loop of fear, ignorance, and hatred. That loop has a very real cost.

Friday’s marriage equality victory is a huge step forward for the right to visibility, dignity, love, and partnership for all LGBTQ North Carolinas - and it’s a step forward in the fight for the right to visibility, dignity, love, and health for the tens of thousands of North Carolinians living with HIV, their families, and their communities.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Advocate to Governor McCrory: Do the right thing!

If Governor McCrory and the North Carolina General Assembly had expanded Medicaid, Glen Cameron - and hundreds of thousands of his fellow North Carolinians - would have health insurance today. But that didn't happen. 

Our elected officials' decision not to expand Medicaid costs more than 1,000 lives in our state each year. It denies a healthy future to thousands of North Carolinians living with HIV and countless others living with the pain and uncertainty of untreated illness.

Glen, a North Carolina AIDS Action Network Speaking Postively Advocate, told his story at Moral Monday in Raleigh on June 2, 2014. Here's what he had to say:

Hello everyone, my name is Glen Cameron and I live in Newton.

I have been HIV Positive for 27 years now, and I am here speaking to you today to put a face on Governor McCrory's refusal to expand Medicaid. I can no longer remain silent.

Since I lost my health insurance three years ago, my simple life has become a complicated maze of asking for charity care and going without care in some situations.

Not having a doctor is scary enough when you have HIV, and just this week I have learned that I have a growth on one of my kidneys that very well may be cancer.

If our Governor and General Assembly had not refused Medicaid expansion I would have insurance today.

So now I stand here to call on the governor of our beloved state to put politics aside and help the people of North Carolina. I ask you, Mr. Governor, and members of the General Assembly, why have you refused Federal funds offered to help our citizens?

 Is it politics?
 Is it spite?
 Is it a lack of basic human compassion?
 What is it?

Please tell us why people of our state, in the richest country on the planet, are denied the health care, the basic dignity, of citizens of any place else in the industrialized world...

Playing politics as usual is playing fast and loose with people's lives. I say Mr. Governor, General Assembly, help your citizens.

Do the right thing!
Do the just thing!


Thank you.