Hundreds of the local LGBT community's movers and shakers attended Latinos Salud's annual networking, social and community event, DiversiSAFE, Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Miami Tower.
Attendees enjoyed food, wine, specialty drinks, music by local DJ AJ Reddy and performances by local drag queen TP Lords -- all while learning important information related to HIV/AIDS.
"As a community, we're in trouble. We live in an epicenter of HIV," said Stephen Fallon, executive director of Latinos Salud. "In fact, there are 3,000 counties in the United States. Miami-Dade ranks No. 1 in new HIV cases; neighboring Broward ranks No. 2. We also have more tools than ever before to keep you safe. I grew up on the condom code. But we have other tools, too."
One of those tools is PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, medication approved by the FDA that keeps HIV-negative people from becoming infected. Fallon said there are now 39 studies that followed 11,900 people through multiple years of using PrEP. The studies showed that PrEP protects 90 percent of the time when used correctly.
"It's just like condoms. It doesn't work if you leave a condom in the drawer and don't put it on. It doesn't work if you have a prescription for PrEP but you don't take it," Fallon said. "But if you use condoms, they work. If you use PrEP, it works."
Juan Oves, co-chair for Latinos Salud who emceed the event, said the objective of DiversiSAFE was to "empower the community to continue the conversation" about HIV/AIDS.
"We all play a role in ending this epidemic. It is our empowering approach to reaching the community and sharing with them valuable knowledge that they can share with others to staying healthy," Oves said. "It represents hope, for a bright, healthy future. And most of all, it represents celebration, for equality, health, and life. It is an opportunity for all of us to come together and end stigma in our communities."
Fallon says DiveriSAFE means that, for the very first time, the community has a diverse set of options to stay safe from HIV. "There’s not just one choice anymore." Latinos Salud created the DiversiSAFE model as a one-stop shop of sorts, giving each community member the entire range of options to reduce HIV risk.
"We don’t preach that one is better than the other, or that you 'should' use the option we select," Fallon said.
Instead, Latinos Salud staff members take a client-centered approach, spending the most time explaining the benefits of whichever risk-reduction strategy the client is most motivated to implement in his or her own life.
"My generation grew up seeing firsthand how HIV ravaged our communities. The only defense we had was condoms," Fallon said. "Over the past half dozen years, researchers have described new strategies for reducing the risk of acquiring HIV. Many in our community were fearful that if the next generation adopted any strategy other than condoms, the epidemic would rebound back to what it once was."
Fallon said out of this fear, some in the community have spoken disdainfully about anyone who would rely on PrEP, or on a partner’s undetectable HIV status. He said this fear has driven stigma: "treating people living with HIV as dangerous, as untrustworthy, or frankly, even just as different from any of us."
"Stigma begins with fear. We now have tools that make it possible to stay safe without staying panicked," Fallon said. "Once everyone realizes this, we can finally end the reflexive HIV stigma that has hurt so many community members."
Latinos Salud launched DiversiSAFE in 2016.
For this year's event, "to make sure we brought the message home, we added some beautiful elements, from having a graceful dancer interpret and display the themes of DiversiSAFE, or having our DiversiSAFE models make sure that people noticed and will remember the name of this approach," Fallon said. "We [also] literally took over the iconic Miami Tower, lighting the building in the colors of the rainbow flag."
As a small non-profit, Fallon said "this was a heavy lift for us. But it was all worth it."
"When people started taking photos of the information shown on the screens, and when repeated back in their own words what they’d learned and how they were going to tell others, that told us we’d hit our goal," he said.
Fallon said the event was their biggest and best one yet with 500 attendees.
"Our understanding is that this was the largest community HIV educational event in the nation covering PrEP and treatment as prevention," he said. "We want to thank South Florida for coming out in force and showing that we can fight HIV together."
This year, for the first time, Latinos Salud allowed people to “pick their pledge” and choose to support the nonprofit by covering costs of any unit of their services. That helped to defray the costs of the event.
"Just as we had last year, we offered free entry to anyone who pre-registered," Fallon said. "We extend this option, in hopes that it will be selected primarily by younger guests, those without the means to customarily attend a gala event like this, and those who might not otherwise be exposed to our community’s HIV services."
Oves was happy with the turnout and audience reaction.
"I felt the amazing energy in the room. As a born and raised Miami Hispanic gay man, I could not stop smiling from seeing so many diverse people from different generations coming together for an important cause," Oves said. "I think if we continue this momentum and each of us play a role in the epidemic, we can start creating big changes in South Florida. I’m excited."
Fallon said the takeaway message out of DiversiSAFE is that each of the risk reduction options (condoms, PrEP, PEP, etc.) offers nearly complete protection from HIV, when implemented exactly as intended.
"But each of the options, in the real world, ends up being only mostly protective," he said. "Whichever option you can stick to best is the one that will get you close to 100 percent safe."
Latinos Salud offers free HIV testing, education, support and resources at their locations in Wilton Manors, Miami Beach and Kendall. For more information, visit LatinosSalud.org.