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Queer, Ill + Okay hosts 'HIV/AIDS in the Age of PrEP'
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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QUEER, ILL + OKAY ( QIO ), in partnership with Howard Brown Health, hosted a panel discussion focusing on HIV/AIDS in the Age of PrEP August 8 at Center on Halsted ( the Center ).

Panelists included Howard Brown Health's Associate Director of Community Engagement Serette B. King; trans advocate and #PrEP4Love model and Community Ambassador Bevy Ross; rapper and recording artist KC Ortiz; Act Against AIDS ambassador and digital influencer Phillip Lambert, who is also a rapper/writer; and, via video message, retired porn star Joseph Rough. Prior to the discussion, artist and educator Justus Harris spoke about the letters he wrote to his uncle, who died from AIDS-related complications, about taking PrEP.

"There is a huge assumption that we all know what PrEP is and how it works, and that is not true," said Rough.

Moderator Johnny Perez, a Chicago-based PrEP advocate and Northwestern University clinical research nurse, asked what PrEP means to them.

Ross said PrEP gives her piece of mind, while Ortiz explained that it gives her a sense of security, but added that she still likes to use other forms of protection. Lambert called it a game-changer.

The analogy that King used was seatbelts equal condoms and airbags equal PrEP. He said that if the condom breaks, then PrEP takes over, just like when a seatbelt does not help during a car accident, the airbags take over.

Everyone stressed the importance of deciding when to take the PrEP pill each day and sticking to that schedule no matter what.

As for the panelists' biggest concerns, Ross said that she is troubled by the many cisgender people who still believe they will never become HIV-positive, while Ortiz said the marketing around PrEP needs to be better, because it is not reaching everyone in Chicago.

Ross mentioned that working on the #PrEP4Love campaign was the best thing that has happened in her life and praised the campaign for raising awareness about HIV prevention. But a contentious conversation broke out between King and Lambert over the #PrEP4Love campaign's objectives and effectiveness after Ross spoke.

Lambert said the #PrEP4Love campaign did a disservice to Black and Brown people on the West and South Sides because it was not targeted to them. They questioned whether the posters were the best way to convey the campaign's message.

King countered that he had seen the posters on the South and West sides of Chicago. He also said he was Facetiming that day's event, so people who could not attend would be able to participate virtually.

As for how to change the messaging about PrEP, so it is available to everyone, Ross said, "If you are not at the table you are on the menu," so it is important to get involved. She explained that the disconnect between the Black and LGBTQ communities also needs to be addressed.

"When Howard Brown and I started planning for the Let's Talk About PrEP song and music video, we wanted it to reach people that would not normally have access to PrEP, and that is what we did," said Ortiz.

Ross said social media and radio/TV commercials are also effective ways to get the message across. She explained that many places in Chicago facilitate access to PrEP, including Howard Brown, Chicago House and Planned Parenthood locations, among others.

King spoke about the Atlanta Ballroom scene and the category they have at the Icon Ball, I Am PrEP, that asks people to come up with a new ad campaign. He said this idea could be brought to the Chicago Ballroom scene.

Perez mentioned that there are now research trials around PrEP injectables and implantables that a person at risk for infection could conceivably utilize instead of taking a pill a day.

Audience member and HIV and LGBTQ activist Don Bell shared his decades-long history in the community and cautioned everyone to be gentle with each other; adding that he is worried about the divisions he is seeing amongst LGBTQ members.

QIO Program Director Joseph Varisco spoke about identifying priorities for the ongoing mission of QIO so as to motivate and inspire dialogue and raise a sense of community responsibility amongst privileged populations in Boystown.

"If we have learned anything here tonight, it is that there continues to be a deep need for these conversations to be taking place," said Varisco.

The event also featured free HIV testing; members of the Center's PrEP navigation team to schedule appointments and answer questions; and a Get-a-Card information booth from QIO sponsor MOCA-Modern Cannabis.

The program was the second of six QIO programs set to take place in 2018. QIO's next events are a week-long workshop, "Anti-Workshop," featuring NEA Four member and renowned artist Karen Finley, that will culminate with a public presentation Sept. 30; Visual AIDS short film screenings Oct. 20-21; and the simultaneously translated bilingual Los Frikis Interview at the MCA Nov. 30.

See and for more information.

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