Let’s talk about (Sexual) Health, Baby

Did you know that half of all sexually active young people will get a sexually transmitted infection (STI) before their 25? Or if current HIV rates continue, about 1 in 2 black men who have sex with men (MSM) and 1 in 4 Latino MSM in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime? Ohio is absolutely not immune to these statistics. Since 2013, the number of cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis have continuously increased throughout the state.

At the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline, anyone can call or chat (http://ohiv.org/) with us about general sexual health, HIV, STIs, condoms, birth control, etc. As a fairly easy option to better protect against HIV and STIs, we often recommend using condoms in all sexual activity. Unfortunately, we frequently hear that people are uncomfortable buying condoms or taking them from a health center, don’t know where to get them, or don’t know what size they may need. This of course got us here at the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline thinking… how can we reduce as many barriers to this one safer sex tool as possible?

With much excitement, the Free Condom Project was launched in May 2016! A month’s supply of free condoms will be discreetly mailed to anyone in Ohio (aged 16+) who orders from the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline website. We currently have a great variety of condoms, including flavored, sensitive, colored, thin, and XL. Inside each package will also be information about nearby HIV/STI test sites, how to properly use a condom, and information about the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline and other local resources.

Our theory is that reducing barriers and increasing accessibility to safe sex products like condoms and dental dams will assist in decreasing in the incidence of STI, HIV, and unwanted pregnancy rates throughout Ohio. When other programs like this have been done on a much smaller scale, participants have reported that they were more likely to correctly use contraceptives. We feel confident that if people have easy access to condoms, they will use them. The Free Condom Project is the first to attempt this on a state level, and since its launch has distributed over 25,000 condoms across Ohio.

Since incidence data on HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy won’t be available until next year, we have been measuring our success in community feedback. So far, it has been incredibly positive! Community feedback has highlighted a lot of things that we already knew: there still is a stigma surrounding sex especially for women and members of the LGBTQ community, condoms are expensive, people don’t always know where to go to get tested, etc. And a lot of other barriers came to our attention that our team hadn’t initially even thought of, like, the fear of being “outed” just from the act of buying/picking up condoms. Here at the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline, we feel like we have been succeeding in our main mission – to remove barriers that were preventing people from engaging in safer sex. We are looking forward to serving even more Ohioans and ensuring everyone has access to safer sex products.

If you or a friend are interested in ordering condoms, please visit the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline at www.ohiv.org to fill out the simple order form. A completely free variety pack of condoms will then be shipped to your desired address shortly!

FCP Variety Mix

The Ohio HIV/STI Hotline is a program of Equitas Health and is supported by funding from the Ohio Department of Health.


 

Editor’s Note:  Check out the Ohio HIV/STI Hotline’s calendar of events by clicking here.  If you need to talk to someone regarding HIV, STIs, sexual health, and more, call the Hotline at 800-332-2437.  They are here to help!

Event Highlight: Running Water 5K/10K Race

We are gearing up for our next event and we want everyone to know about it!  We have partnered with PackH2O, a Columbus non-profit that provides ergonomic backpacks to water distressed communities.  The backpacks safeguard against contamination, improve access to drinking water, and support families to ensure their basic needs are met, especially for women and children.

To support PackH2O and increase awareness of their mission, we are hosting a 5K/10K at The Ohio State University.  Individuals can complete the 5K/10K; for folks looking for a challenge, teams of four can run the 10K carrying one of the backpacks filled with water to know what it is like to travel miles to provide clean water for families.  Teams of four can challenge another team of four for bragging rights and show off how tough they are.

NPR recently published an excellent piece on what we are talking about, check it out here.

Regardless of which option you choose, you will be supporting a socially conscious with an international non-profit, get some killer exercise, and impact people across the globe.  If you are interested, check out the details below:

WHEN:  Sunday, October 2nd at 8:00 AM

WHERE:  The Ohio State University RPAC (337 Annie & John Glenn Ave Columbus, OH 43210)

REGISTER:  Please go to PremierRaces.com and register today!

FMI:  Please contact Steven Blalock (blalock.33@osu.edu) or Kyle McCray (mccray.44@osu.edu)

Register at premierraces.com

Register at premierraces.com

Reflecting on Pride from the Outside

Admittedly, when I learned I’d been accepted as one of the 1000 delegates selected to participate in the prestigious 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship, I had some mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was quite elated – I recognized my selection as a remarkable achievement, and a significant opportunity, and I was thrilled and delighted. On the other hand, I was a little bit apprehensive; I’d been placed at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Now, before you take offence, let me give you some context. As someone who has never resided in the US, my understanding of American politics and geography is rather limited. The email said “Columbus, Ohio” – what I saw, however was “Ohio. Midwest. Prejudice and social conservatism and probably a bunch of queer- and trans-phobia”.

I quickly did some research and found that Columbus is a rather progressive city, with a vibrant queer community of its own. And although I learned that Ohio itself does not have legislated protections for transgender people, Columbus does.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

The fact of the matter is that I’m pretty open about who I am. I call myself a storyteller; it’s the particular branding I like to use for my work as an activist and human rights defender. The work I do means that I’m really out about my identity. You might not be able to tell that I’m trans just by looking at me – and I enjoy a lot of privilege because of that – but everything I do revolves around living an open life.

I landed in Columbus the day before Pride. Despite 20+ hours of continuous travel time, and the attendant exhaustion that comes with that, I marched in the parade. There’s even a photograph floating around the internet  of a very scantily-clad me smiling broadly with my arm wrapped around Brutus Buckeye.

Pride was a very empowering and affirming experience for me. In my home country of South Africa, we do have Pride. We have several Prides in fact. But they are far smaller in scale, and they tend to be divisive rather than inclusive. Many people are made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, based on the intersectionality of their identities.

So, as you can imagine, Columbus Pride was a breath of fresh air, and the perfect way for me to begin my stay in the US, especially given the apprehensions I’d had prior to travelling.

As you might know, South Africa has a long legacy of oppression and discrimination. Apartheid might have fallen, but as a nation, we still struggle to overcome its lingering effects. When the country introduced a new constitution, after our first free elections more than two decades ago, it was widely billed as one of the most progressive governing legal texts in existence.

Section 9 of the South African constitution, a subsection of the Bill of Rights, lists a variety of legal protections against discrimination on a wide variety of grounds – including sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion and others.

When I came out as trans, a little over a year ago, Section 9 didn’t help me keep my job. I left of my own volition, because the possibility of an acrimonious legal battle was not something I found particularly appealing, especially since I didn’t want to sour the relations with my former employer. It was far simpler just to walk away quietly.

When I approached a variety of academic departments at different Universities, only to be told by the consultants and professors that they weren’t ready to work with a trans colleague – that I wouldn’t be safe in their departments – Section 9 didn’t help me.

When I submitted job application after job application, forced to disclose on my cover letter that I was trans because I was still awaiting a legal name change, and I never got called to an interview, Section 9 didn’t help me.

Legal protections are important, make no mistake. Having the legal provision to change my name and gender marker is something many trans people around the globe lack; it might have taken a year for those changes to be processed, but at least I could have it done. And yes, should I ever be fired, or harassed, or otherwise targeted or discriminated against as a direct result of my gender identity or sexual orientation, then there will be some recourse for me.

But prejudice is smart, and prejudice is adaptive. Those who bear hate in their hearts find ways to act on that hate, without ever being overt about their motivations. Society and culture play a significant role in determining the practical level of comfort and safety for queer folk, wherever they may be. If social attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) minorities are hateful, any legal protections that do exist will be limited in their usefulness.

The fact of the matter is that cultural competency and legislation need to move forward together. Legal protections form a barrier of sorts; a final recourse against abuse or discrimination, and often a difficult one to pursue. Remember that often the burden of proof, especially when it comes to discrimination, lands squarely upon the sufferer of said abuse.

Columbus Pride was important for me – because I felt safe, out in the open. I felt like I wasn’t reliant on legislation for my personal safety. I felt respected and secure, despite my blatant, obvious queerness. As queer folk, we’re often accustomed to having to seek out specific safe spaces. Yet, here I was, standing in the middle of a main road, in a bustling city center, celebrating my identity.

It was with no small quantity of dismay that I learned Ohio had added its name to a list of US states suing the federal government over its directive that transgender school-goers should be allowed to use whichever facilities match their gender identity.

The idea behind South Africa’s constitution is that everyone is deserving of dignity, respect, and safety. Culturally, we may have some catching up to do – there are definitely areas in the country where one might be very much at risk on the basis of one’s identity. But we’ve gone on the record as saying that we believe human rights abuses are unacceptable, even if their targets are SOGI minorities.

And then here, in the US, where I’d felt such a strong sense of community, and solidarity – especially considering that Columbus Pride took place in the wake of the devastating Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub – lawmakers are actively seeking means to dispel or combat legal protections.

Now, again, I’m not an expert in legal matters, especially those that relate to the US. What I do know, as a human rights defender, is that social progress is achieved through a combination of evolving values and concomitant changes in legislation, that result in increased freedom, liberty, dignity and access for human beings across the board.

Of course, I’m no mind-reader, and I don’t know the motivation behind the moves being made by Attorney General Dewine. But it seems, to an outside eye, that it’s an attempt to halt progress in establishing legal protections for human rights and, in so doing, drag societal values back into their regressive past at the same time.images


 

Anastacia Tomson is a storyteller and activist, in the field of queer and trans rights. Trained as a medical doctor in her home country of South Africa, she runs sensitisation and competency workshops for service providers, partners with other NGOs in order to educate and empower queer constituents, and engages with media outlets and mainstream society in an effort to improve understanding of queer issues, and access to services and equal rights for LGBTQIA people. Her memoir, Always Anastacia, in which she details her own experiences of transition, was published in May 2016 and is available worldwide in print and as an eBook. Anastacia maintains an active presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), as well as a regular blog.