HARLINGEN — It’s a crisis.
That’s what health experts throughout the country say, especially after the release of a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“One in four Latino men in the Valley in 2020 who have sex with men will test positive for HIV in their lifetimes,” said Oscar Lopez, vice president of policy, advocacy, education and communication for the Valley AIDS Council.
Lopez just returned from the 2019 NHPC Hispanic/Latin MSM and Trans Latina Meeting with the CDC in Atlanta. Latino leaders met to discuss a plan of action in response to staggering numbers released in October by the CDC.
In areas like deep South Texas, homophobia and stigma are at their worst and they contribute to people avoiding the issue, Lopez said. The priority is getting tested and also getting on PrEP, a medication which prevents HIV infection.
Lopez and other individuals also collaborated with the O’Neill Institute at Georgetown University to write a policy brief. That states that only 10 percent of the U.S. population eligible to go on PrEP is actually on it and only 3 percent of men who have sex with men are receiving the medication.
Lopez said 10 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ. In the Valley, that translates into 170,000 people out of a population of 1.7 million in the four-county area. About 55 percent of that LGBTQ population is male, or about 68,000 people, Lopez said. He estimated there are about five new HIV infections per week in the Valley.
Homophobia and HIV stigma
Homophobia and HIV stigma in the Latino community has caused many men to avoid getting tested for HIV or seek treatment, Lopez said.
“The homophobia, the religious upbringing that doesn’t allow us to talk about sex at all, and the fact that we’re in a very conservative community that has strong opinions about the LGBT community, all that jumbles together,” Lopez said.
He pointed out how the relationship between a parent and child can change in an instant.
“Mothers love their boys unconditionally but the minute they come out as gay the message to the son is, ‘That’s not healthy, that’s not OK, we didn’t raise you that way, it goes against the church’s belief,’” he said.
The high dropout rate in the Valley, he said, aggravates the problem of homophobia.
“The lack of education that we have amongst parents, their education level is like eighth grade and that’s where they are,” he said.
There’s also a cultural taboo against discussing sex at all, Lopez said.
“That’s why we have the pregnancy that we do,” he said. “When young people get education in the school district, it does not have to be science based. It’s a combination of things that have gotten us to where we are now.”
Addressing the problem
For the past six years, however, the Department of State Health and Human Services has supported VAC’s efforts to address homophobia and the stigma surrounding HIV.
“We discovered in a survey in the community these were the top two issues that were keeping the young men in the Valley both gay and straight from getting tested,” he said. “The gay ones didn’t want people to know they were gay or suspect they were. The straight ones didn’t want to get tested basically for the same reason. Simply because of that, none of the young Latinos were getting tested.”
So, VAC began holding events such as Pride in the Park in McAllen to help people find pride in themselves.
“A representative of the Catholic speaks at our events that ‘God made you exactly as you were meant to be,’” Lopez said. “They made that statement at Pride in front of 9,000 people with the whole room crying. I could have said it, but it’s not the same as a man dressed in black with a white collar. And those things and creating Pride events funded by the state of Texas has really improved people’s morale and self esteem.”
“Now we see people coming in and getting tested that never used to come before,” Lopez said. “So that’s what we’re doing. That effort is directly funded by the CDC through the state.”
Now with the new data released by the CDC, more funds will be available.
“This is something that it had to go national, because when they did that it opened the purse strings,” Lopez said. “Now we can actually apply for money, get grants for the Valley and San Antonio, to do the work. We can only do so much with money raised from fundraisers. It’s huge.”