Give thanks, give help

AIN is a small agency with a small budget — and they need all the volunteers they can get

With just over two weeks left before Thanksgiving, each of us has plenty of time to decide what we are going to give thanks for. And where. And how.
I decided I would give thanks for my health, happiness and longevity by making a modest monthly donation to AIDS Interfaith Network in honor of two very good friends who died in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

One, Barnaby, used to coax me out to one of two or three New York LGBT bars whenever I started feeling sorry for myself for working long hours. After he got a law degree in his 30s, and I got a job here in Dallas, he took me out for pricey lunches and dinners on my trips back to New York. And he called me just to talk the week before he died.

Guest.Phyllis

Phyllis Guest -Taking Notes

The other, Steven, was my boss at one job, my associate at another, and a quiet joy to be around. When we made a corporate move from New York to Dallas, and I could not make up my mind on a condo, he let me sleep in his spare bedroom for most of a month. And when he got sick, we were close until he could no longer speak.

But why did I choose AIN rather than one of the other nonprofits dealing with HIV/AIDS? Three reasons:

First, AIN was one of four organizations that lost money in September 2009, when the city of Dallas cut $325,000 from funding for HIV/AIDS outreach, prevention and education programs. Shortly after, the city received a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, but that went to a new city program, none to AIN.

AIN lost an entire program aimed at preventing infection among young, high-risk males. As you know, infections among this group are still soaring.

Second, on a 9/11 Day of Service, I joined other Stonewall Democrats of Dallas in working at AIN. We did nothing daunting — some cooked; others served the food; still others washed dishes. I just picked up used plates, wiped tables and poured water.

But what an eye-opener! These clients are the poorest of the poor, many of them homeless. AIN serves breakfast and lunch five days a week — a total of 26,000 meals a year. Without AIN, most would have no food, no transportation (bus passes), no water when it’s hot, no bedding when it’s cold.
Third, AIN is smaller and somewhat less well-known than other nonprofits serving the many individuals living with HIV/AIDS or in danger of becoming infected. When it was more fully funded by the city, state and federal governments, it had a staff of more than 30; now a baker’s dozen of staff and variable numbers of volunteers try to pick up the slack. All volunteers get a choice of chores.

Right now, a prime need is for an Internet guru — a person who knows the ins and outs of and enjoys emailing, posting on Facebook, Tweeting the latest news, etc. Some staffers are rather Internet savvy, but they lack the time and the fine-tuned skills to turn social media into a recruiting and fundraising tool.

Another need is for a community activist who can set up a monthly “Saturday Night Live @ Daire Center” for 2012. Each SNL evening involves providing an early dinner for 30 or so clients, plus light entertainment such as music or board games. Church, mosque and synagogue social action groups know how to do this, as do many political, professional and community clubs.

A third need is for a different kind of community activist, one who can represent AIN at city events, shows, fundraisers and the like. This is perfect for someone who has a varied wardrobe and a love of nightlife. Anytime there is a chance to mention good works, the AIN rep should be on hand to reach out and speak up.

A host of other volunteer jobs are available. Because I lack the above special talents and am neither a cook nor a carpenter, I will probably end up turning handwritten notes into computer files or sorting donated items into manageable piles. That will be my way of giving thanks for the two dear friends who died and the many who remain.

To outdo me — you know you can — call Travis Gasper at 214-943-4444 or email him at tgasper@aidsinterfaithnetwork.org.
Phyllis Guest is a longtime activist on political and LGBT issues and is a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

The right time

Coming out is a personal decision, and each person has to find the right time and the right way for themselves. And while it can still be tough, it doesn’t have to be as tough as it used to be

DAVID WEBB  |  The Rare Reporter

Coming out is still so very hard to do, especially if someone delays doing it for a very long time.

That’s what I learned recently when the 40-something-year-old son of a friend of mine confided to me that he had finally accepted his sexual orientation and now had a boyfriend. He broke the news to me by saying, “I’m involved in a new relationship with someone, and his name is … .”

The ironic part of all this is that my friend, his mother, told me when her son was about 13 years old that she was pretty sure he would be gay. She was an interior decorator, had lived in liberal cities prior to moving to Texas and had quite a few gay and lesbian friends.

I thought that she might be correct in her assessment.

Despite my friend’s worldliness and acceptance of her friends’ homosexuality, she expressed a concern that her son’s life would be much tougher if he indeed turned out to be gay.

We had this conversation about 20 years ago, so her assessment seemed reasonable enough at the time. I had to agree that being gay certainly hadn’t made my life any easier up to that point, especially in light of the raging AIDS epidemic that was killing many of my friends and scaring me to death.

As it turned out, her fears about him being gay seemed to be unfounded. He went off to college, met a girl, lived with her, left her and wound up marrying another girl.

Two of his best friends from high school with whom he grew up went on to come out and live as openly gay. One died of AIDS in the early 1990s.

My friend and I remarked on our surprise about how things had turned out, but we both generally acknowledged that we apparently had been incorrect in our assumptions that he would be gay.

Still, I had this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I wondered if he was bisexual.

My friend’s son and his wife had a child, and they moved away from Texas to the West Coast and a much more liberal environment. They seemed happy for a long time, but then my friend began to confide that her son was having emotional problems. In fact, he had become estranged from other members of his family after a conflict with them before he left Texas.

Finally, I heard that he and his wife had separated, then gotten divorced.

At the same time, my friend and I began drifting apart, even though we had been friends for a quarter-century. I noticed her politics were becoming more conservative. She told me that she didn’t think the country was ready for same-sex couples enjoying the right to become married.

I began to realize that her liberal attitudes were only skin deep, and I was disappointed by that.

When my friend’s son told me that he was gay, I promised not to say anything about it to anyone until he had charted his course of action. I did advise him that if he planned to tell his teenage son that I thought he should first tell his ex-wife, who had become his best friend after their divorce.

He also confided to me that when he was a teenager he had fooled around with one of his male friends, and that he had felt guilt and shame afterwards. He told me that after he accepted his homosexuality and began dating other men, it felt natural for him.

After a couple of months, he told his ex-wife. She took the news excellently, telling him that she wanted him to be happy. His son seemed to take it in stride while posing a lot of questions.

The funniest question he got from his son was, “Are you going to start wearing dresses now?”

Then he called his mother and told her, and she admitted that she had known it all of his life. She also began weeping and told him she was concerned that it would make his life much harder.

In an email to me, she said that she was not shocked by his revelation, but it did make her sad. She also expressed surprise that he had told his son.

I’ve always been of the opinion that people come out when it is the best time for them to do so. His personal time table required him to wait about 20 years longer than I did, but that was right for him. He adores his son, enjoys his close friendship with his ex-wife and hopefully will have a good relationship with another man to round out his life.

In short, I’m hoping he proves his mother wrong. It doesn’t have to make life tougher in this day and age.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has covered LGBT issues for the mainstream and alternative media for three decades. Email him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

—  John Wright

Anything was possible

From DIFFA to the stage, John Ahrens has witnessed the evolving art of HIV

YA GOTTA HAVE ‘HEART’ | Ahrens, above, was moved to tears by the revival of ‘The Normal Heart,’ which captured the panic of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s; below left, designs from two decades of DIFFA auctions, which improved greatly from the days of ‘ugly fabrics.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

John Ahrens ended up in Dallas accidentally, but it’s an accident that may have saved his life. In the late 1960s, he was enrolled at Yale

University’s drama department, studying theater alongside classmates like Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver, Wendy Wasserstein and Meryl Streep. It was a magical time.

“I lived in New York until the late 1970s,” he recalls. “Back then, in 1976 in New York, anything was possible — you had Paul [the gay character] onstage in A Chorus Line, it was post-Stonewall.” The Continental Baths had acts like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow before anyone knew who they were. “Later you had La Cage aux Folles with Georges singing ‘I Am What I Am.’”

In other words, it was a great time to be gay.

Or so it seemed. Ahrens moved to Dallas in 1978, putting him 1,300 miles away when the AIDS epidemic hit New York hard. Ahrens first realized how serious the situation was when he called a friend to inquire about a former roommate; the roommate had died.

All those emotions came flooding back to him last month, when he made a pilgrimage to New York specifically to see the revival of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the AIDS crisis. Ahrens caught a Sunday matinee; four hours later, it walked away with three Tony Awards including best revival of a play.

“It was amazing,” Ahrens says, choking up slightly. “It so accurately describes the panic everyone was living through, especially those still in the closet. It has gotten better” over the years.

That seems to be the consensus. The Normal Heart arrived in New York about the same time as another play about AIDS, As Is, but met with a very different reception. As Is made it to Broadway, where it was rewarded with three Tony Award nominations and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play. The Normal Heart remained off-Broadway, underground. And its angry political tone was eventually eclipsed by Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America.

But when’s the last time you heard someone talk about As Is? Meanwhile, Kramer’s play has earned cult status. (For years, Barbra Streisand tried to direct a film version.)

“The Normal Heart was so much of its time,”Ahrens opines, “but seeing it brought it all back. It captured the horrors of it all. The visualization of John Benjamin Hickey’s performance was so authentic — back then, you could look at someone and know they had HIV.”

It was a horrific time, but also one that spurred great achievement and sacrifice. “It changed a lot of people and made them get their shit together,” he says.

Ahrens, a respected costume designer, was present for the first auction of clothes from DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS. He still remembers the first piece he designed: A red leather number with a hoop skirt meant to evoke Christian Lacroix…“worn by a 6-foot-tall redhead.” (He’s referring to Dallas supermodel Jan Strimple, a long-time supporter of DIFFA and an AIDS activist, one of Ahrens’ oldest friends.)

It probably wasn’t his best work — back then, it was hard to do your best work.

“We all got our fabric from the same fashion line, and that line was really ugly,” he says. “Some of us were getting our fabric the night before the show.”

Things have changed. The designs became more fabulous, the designers more high-profile, the fabrics of better quality. But what Ahrens remembers most are the people — in particular, the lesbian community.

“They were the soldiers,” he says frankly. “Lory Masters and her generation? Hell, they took on so much,” caring for the mostly gay men who suffered.

Back then, even being associated with AIDS took heroics; today, gay and straight, HIV-positive and –negative men and women readily lend their names and faces to campaigns such as Faces of Life, Dallas-based photographer Jorge Rivas’ campaign for AIDS awareness. The stigma has diminished — but it is not gone.

Ahrens didn’t see The Normal Heart when it first ran in New York more than 25 years ago, but seeing it in 2011 truly made him see how far things have come — and how far they still have to go.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 1, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Premature aging an issue for AIDS survivors

30 years after 1st diagnoses, scientists work to pin down cause of complications, while doctors develop treatment guidelines

LISA LEFF | Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Having survived the first and worst years of the AIDS epidemic, when he was losing three friends to the disease in a day and undergoing every primitive, toxic treatment that then existed, Peter Greene is grateful to be alive.

But a quarter-century after his own diagnosis, the former Mr. Gay Colorado, now 56, wrestles with vision impairment, bone density loss and other debilitating health problems he once assumed he wouldn’t grow old enough to see.

“I survived all the big things, but now there is a new host of things. Liver problems. Kidney disease. It’s like you are a 50-year-old in an 80-year-old body,” Greene, a San Francisco travel agent, said. “I’m just afraid that this is not, regardless of what my non-HIV positive friends say, the typical aging process.”

Even when AIDS still was almost always fatal, researchers predicted that people infected with HIV would be more prone to the cancers, neurological disorders and heart conditions that typically afflict the elderly. Thirty years after the first diagnoses, doctors are seeing these and other unanticipated signs of premature or “accelerated” aging in some long-term survivors.

Government-funded scientists are working to tease apart whether the memory loss, arthritis, renal failure and high blood pressure showing up in patients in their 40s and 50s are consequences of HIV, the drugs used to treat it or a cruel combination of both. With people over 50 expected to make up a majority of U.S. residents infected with the virus by 2015, there’s some urgency to unraveling the “complex treatment challenges” HIV poses to older Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“In those with long-term HIV infection, the persistent activation of immune cells by the virus likely increases the susceptibility of these individuals to inflammation-induced diseases and diminishes their capacity to fight certain diseases,” the federal health agency’s chiefs of infectious diseases, aging and AIDS research wrote, summing up the current state of knowledge on last September’s National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day. “Coupled with the aging process, the extended exposure of these adults to both HIV and antiretroviral drugs appears to increase their risk of illness and death from cardiovascular, bone, kidney, liver and lung disease, as well as many cancers not associated directly with HIV infection.”

In San Francisco, where already more than half of the 9,734 AIDS cases are in people 50 and over, University of California, San Francisco AIDS specialists are collaborating with geriatricians, pharmacists and nutritionists to develop treatment guidelines designed to help veterans of the disease cope with getting frail a decade or two ahead of schedule and to remain independent for as long as possible.

“Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to say, are you at high risk, low risk or moderate risk for progressing to dependency in the next five, the next 10 years, being less mobile, less able to be functional in the workplace. Are you going to be safe in your home, are you going to remember to take all those medications? How are they going to interact?” explained Dr. Malcolm John, who directs UCSF’s HIV clinic. “All those questions need to be brought into the HIV field at a younger age.”

Research so far suggests that HIV is not directly causing conditions that mimic old age, but hastens patients toward ailments to which they may have been genetically or environmentally predisposed. Plus, their immune systems are being weakened over time even when they are being successfully treated for AIDS, John said.

“That’s probably true for a lot of these things. We aren’t saying HIV’s starting the problem, but it’s added fuel on top,” he said.

Stokes, a patient of John’s who goes by only his last name, is a prime example. At 53, HIV-positive since 1985 and in substance abuse recovery for the last 11 years, he says he is happier than he ever has been. Yet the number of ailments for which he is being treated would be more commonly found in someone 30 years his senior: a condition called Ramsay Hunt syndrome that causes facial paralysis, a rare cartilage disorder for which he has undergone four ear surgeries, bone death in the hip and shoulder, deterioration of his heart muscle, osteoporosis and memory loss.

A specialist recently diagnosed a Kaposi’s sarcoma spot on Stokes’ ankle. Although the cancer is not life-threatening, the sight of young men disfigured by KS lesions was a harbinger of the early AIDS crisis, and its presence on his own body is unsettling.

At his therapy group for men with HIV, aging “comes up frequently,” he said. “I say, ‘Just think what we have come through to have a life today.”’ At the same time, he acknowledges sometimes feeling self-conscious about his physical appearance and worries if “people are not attracted to me and unwilling to go the length of what it means to be with me, no matter how brilliant my mind or my zest for life.”

Loneliness, financial worries and concerns about who will care for them and where can weigh on long-term AIDS survivors in the same way as all adults living in a society that values youth, Charles Emlet, a social work professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma, said.

As they get older and sicker, many feel “doubly stigmatized,” he said. Some people who have lived with the virus for a long time have been getting by on private disability benefits that will run out when they turn 65, forcing them to move to less expensive locations or to consider turning to estranged family members. Like soldiers from a distant war, many lost partners and their closest friends to AIDS.

Such emotional side effects, combined with the physical toll of managing chronic health problems, put older AIDS patients at risk for depression. At the same time, Emlet has uncovered evidence that a majority of long-term survivors also share another trait that typically comes with advanced age: that is, the ability to draw strength from their difficult experiences.

“The older adults I’ve interviewed, many of them talk about how much it means to them to give back, to do something positive with the years they never expected to have,” he said.

Peter Greene can relate to that. At times, like the days he is so exhausted he can’t get out of bed or the pain from his multiple maladies is too intense, he asks himself “the Carrie Bradshaw question — are we really lucky to still be alive?” Carrie Bradshaw was the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the Sex and the City TV shows and films.

As frightening and uncertain as this phase of AIDS is, he thinks he knows the answer.

“I’ve tried to make the time I have count, and really, now that I have the body of an 80-year-old, I probably have the wisdom of an 80-year-old as well, which counts for a lot,” Greene said. “Everything becomes clear at the end of your life and in some ways, thinking you’ve been dying all these years, you get moments of clarity that I don’t think everyone gets.”

—  John Wright

Tony Award wrap-up: Totally gay (again)

It was an untenable situation for the gay Dallasite: Watch the Tony Awards or game 6 of the Mavs? Thank god I had two DVRs. Best of both worlds.

Of course, the Tony Awards are always the gayest of award shows, and they did nothing to disguise that Sunday night starting with the opening number by the telecast’s gay host, Neil Patrick Harris, “‘[Theater] is not Just for Gays Anymore.” He then did a medley duet with Hugh Jackman that was damn funny. (It got even gayer when Martha Wash performed “It’s Raining Men” with cast of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.)

Then the first award of the evening went to Ellen Barkin for her Broadway debut in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, giving a shout out to the 30th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic. She was immediately followed by gay actor and Plano native John Benjamin Hickey for his role in The Normal Heart. (He even chastised his family: “You’d better not be watching the Mavericks game.” Sorry, John, I for one kept flipping between them.) The play also won the award for best revival — a controversial choice, since The Normal Heart never opened on Broadway until this year, usually a requirement for a revival nominations (some thought it should be eligible for best play). Kramer accepted the award. “To gay people everywhere whom I love so, The Normal Heart is our history. I could not have written it had not so many of us so needlessly died. Learn from it and carry on the fight.”

The very gay-friendly Book of Mormon from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone won several off-camera awards, including score of a musical (the composers thanking gay producer Scott Rudin), orchestrations, scenic design, lighting design and sound design, before taking their first onscreen trophy for best direction of a musical to Parker and gay director Casey Nicholaw (The Drowsy Chaperone), on its way to winning nine total awards, including best musical, best featured actress (newcomer Nikki M. James, defeating prior winners Laura Benanti, Patti LuPone and Victoria Clark and prior nominee Tammy Blanchard) and book of a musical.

“This is such a waste of time — it’s like taking a hooker to dinner,” said best musical presenter Chris Rock before announcing The Book of Mormon for the night’s last prize, best musical.

Other winners in the musical category include John Larroquette for best featured actor (How to Succeed…, apparently the only straight nominee in his category), choreographer Kathleen Marshall for Anything Goes, which also beat How to Succeed for best revival of a musical and won best actress for Sutton Foster. Norbert Leo Butz was the surprise winner for best actor in a musical for Catch Me If You Can. One more really gay winner: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert took best costumes, natch.

The big winner in the play category (other than The Normal Heart) was the brilliant War Horse, which won 5: best play, direction, lighting design, sound design, scenic design, as well as a special Tony for the puppet designs of the horses.

Other play winners include The Importance of Being Earnest (costumes), Good People (best actress Frances McDormand) and Jerusalem, a surprise winner for best actor Mark Rylance.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Black Pride announces guests

Rock Rockafella, left, and Uriah Bell will participate in Dallas Black Pride 2011 this fall.

Although Dallas Black Pride 2011 is still some four months away, organizers have already announced two of the special guests who will be participating in this year’s event: author  Uriah Bell and adult film star and CEO Rock Rockafella.

Dallas/Fort Worth Pride Movement, a newly created nonprofit, will present the 2011 Dallas Black Pride event — HisStory and HerStory, Sept. 1-Oct. 2, with the Marriott City Center in downtown Dallas as the host hotel. Those who want to book their rooms early can call 1-800-228-9290 and ask for the Dallas Black Pride special rate of only $99 per room per night.

The DFW Pride Movement is a member of the International Federation of Black Prides. According to its website, The DFW Movement’s mission “is to promote social awareness, unity, self-empowerment, mentorship and positive visibility throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth LGBT and affirming community of color through education, health promotion, advocacy and coalition building.” This year’s Pride event will include a schedule of parties and educational panels.

—  admin

Remembering Liz Taylor

The actress with the violet eyes captured LGBTs first with her grace and beauty and then with her unstoppable AIDS activism

DAVID WEBB  |  The Rare Reporter

Old queens worldwide will likely be watching Cleopatra, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf this weekend as they drink cocktails and weep.

Elizabeth Taylor, the greatest superstar of all time — and a world-renowned friend of the LGBT community and loving godmother to people who suffered and died from HIV infections — has passed away from congestive heart failure at the age of 79 in a Los Angeles hospital.

Her children issued a statement saying that the world had been a better place as a result of her living in it. And that is an understatement.

Her Oscar-winning contributions to entertainment and charity were phenomenal.

At the age of 10, I would go to the grocery store with my parents and immediately rush to the magazine rack to grab copies of the latest Hollywood gossip rags featuring Elizabeth Taylor, the reigning queen of Hollywood. I loved reading about the triumphs, tragedies, scandals and excesses of her life, and I adored and supported her throughout them.

At the time I had no way of knowing that I was gay, and that as such, I was one of those people she often embraced and befriended, long before it became fashionable to do so.

But I did know there was something different about me that made me sympathetic to her love affairs and life in general that shocked conservative people.

When the AIDS epidemic struck in the early 1980s and Elizabeth Taylor’s good friend Rock Hudson later became one of the early victims of it, she proved how brave and loyal a friend and humanitarian she could be.

The most beautiful and glamorous movie star of all time commanded the kind of clout that drew international attention, inspired others to follow suit and revolutionized public opinion. Without her help, I can’t imagine that we would be where we are today in terms of education, research and treatment of HIV infections.

While others reacted with fear and hatred as the epidemic raged, she spoke out on behalf of HIV patients and urged compassion.

Elizabeth Taylor’s reach was phenomenal. About five years ago I intended a charity benefit for the Disciples of Trinity in Dallas that provides help to terminally ill people. She had sent an autographed photograph to the charity for it to sell in a silent auction.

I was determined to leave the party with the photograph that night and I did — about a hundred dollars later.

Her generosity extended to many charities, and because of that and her work promoting HIV research, she received France’s Legion of Honor in 1987 and Queen Elizabeth made her a dame in 2000.

She also received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars in 1993 and the President’s Citizens Medal from President Clinton in 2001.

The Elizabeth Taylor Foundation for AIDS that she underwrote evidently will live on, as her children have asked for anyone wanting to send flowers to instead make a donation to the charity that bears her name.

I had always hoped I would get to meet Elizabeth Taylor one day. The closest I ever got was to seeing her at a public appearance to promote her perfume “Passion” at NorthPark Centre in 1987. I also saw her footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, her star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and the gates of her estate in Bel Air, and I’ve toured her former villa in Puerto Vallarta.

I console myself with the knowledge that everyone has a final curtain call to make, and it was time for hers. It was a brilliant performance.

And although she is gone she will live on in my memory and millions of other fans. I’ll be one of those old queens watching her movies this weekend.

David Webb is a veteran journalist who has written about LGBT issues for more than two decades. He is a former Dallas Voice staff writer. E-mail him at davidwaynewebb@yahoo.com.

—  John Wright

Larry Kramer’s ‘Normal Heart’ to debut on Broadway with Emmy winner Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons, the gay star of The Big Bang Theory who won an Emmy as best actor in a comedy series last year, will make his Broadway debut in The Normal Heart later this spring. He’ll headline with Lee Pace, who has his own gay cred playing the drag-queen boyfriend Calpurnia Addams to  murdered soldier Pfc. Barry Winchell in Soldier’s Girl. It’s significant not only for the debuts of these actors, but the play itself.

Larry Kramer’s Normal Heart was first produced early in the great panic of the AIDS epidemic, though it stayed off-Broadway as as a regionally produced play. (A similar play to tackle AIDS, As Is, was a Tony contender in 1985; Angels in America opened in 1993.) Even with its delayed opening by more than 25 years, that means Kramer, one of the most vocal advocates for PWA, will be eligible for a Tony himself.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Debbie Friedman, lesbian who composed prayer of healing used in service for Giffords, dies

Monday evening, as I drove home from work, I was listening to All Things Considered on KERA 90.1 radio. They were, as you would expect, talking about the shootings Saturday in Tucson. The announcer segued from one segment to another by noting that Congregation Chaverim, the reform synagogue of which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is a member, had held a service in which they prayed for healing for the congresswoman injured in the assassination attempt.

Debbie Friedman

One of the prayers the congregation sang, the announcer said, was the Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing by Debbie Friedman, who translated the words and wrote the music. There was a particular line that really caught my attention: “May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing. And let us say Amen.”

That was, to me, such a beautiful piece of poetry that I posted it as my status on Facebook.

What made it even more poignant was the fact that Friedman died Sunday, Jan. 9, of complications from pneumonia. She was, according to The New York Times (free subscription), “credited with helping give ancient liturgy broad appeal to late-20th-century worshippers.”

That’s when my co-worker, David Taffet, stepped in to explain to me that Friedman was a lesbian, and that her music is very popular not only in Reform Judaism congregations, but also in some Conservative and Modern Orthodox congregations — and even, according to The New York Times, in some Christian congregations.

David also told me that Mi Shebeirach (though not necessarily Friedman’s version) started to become popular as a prayer of healing in Reform congregations with large LGBT memberships in the 1980s in response to the AIDS epidemic. (He also acknowledged that mainstream congregations might argue with that, but insisted he is right — as usual.) Not being Jewish nor ever having attended a Jewish service, I had never heard the prayer. And so it’s simple beauty really touched me when I heard Friedman singing it on the radio last night, especially since it was sung for Congresswoman Giffords and that Friedman had died the day after the congresswoman was shot.

So now, I have learned something new about my LGBT community. It’s just too bad, I think, that I learned it so late.

—  admin

AIDS breakthrough: Gel helps prevent infection

MARILYNN MARCHIONE  |  AP Medical Writer

MILWAUKEE — For the first time, a vaginal gel has proved capable of blocking the AIDS virus: It cut in half a woman’s chances of getting HIV from an infected partner in a study in South Africa. Scientists called it a breakthrough in the long quest for a tool to help women whose partners won’t use condoms.

The results need to be confirmed in another study, and that level of protection is probably not enough to win approval of the microbicide gel in countries like the United States, researchers say. But they are optimistic it can be improved.

“We are giving hope to women,” who account for most new HIV infections, said Michel Sidibe in a statement. He is executive director of the World Health Organization’s UNAIDS program. A gel could “help us break the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic,” he said.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health said, “It’s the first time we’ve ever seen any microbicide give a positive result” that scientists agree is true evidence of protection.

The gel, spiked with the AIDS drug tenofovir, cut the risk of HIV infection by 50 percent after one year of use and 39 percent after 2 1/2 years, compared to a gel that contained no medicine.

To be licensed in the U.S., a gel or cream to prevent HIV infection may need to be at least 80 percent effective, Fauci said. That might be achieved by adding more tenofovir or getting women to use it more consistently. In the study, women used the gel only 60 percent of the time; those who used it more often had higher rates of protection.

The gel also cut in half the chances of getting HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes. That’s important because other sexually spread diseases raise the risk of catching HIV.

Even partial protection is a huge victory that could be a boon not just in poor countries but for couples anywhere when one partner has HIV and the other does not, said Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, the South African researcher who led the study. In the U.S., nearly a third of new infections each year are among heterosexuals, he noted.

Countries may come to different decisions about whether a gel that offers this amount of protection should be licensed. In South Africa, where one in three girls is infected with HIV by age 20, this gel could prevent 1.3 million infections and 826,000 deaths over the next two decades, he calculated.

He will present results of the study Tuesday at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna. The research was published online Monday by the journal Science.

“We now have a product that potentially can alter the epidemic trends … and save millions of lives,” said Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, the lead researcher’s wife and associate director of the South African program that led the testing.

It’s the second big advance in less than a year on the prevention front. Last fall, scientists reported that an experimental vaccine cut the risk of HIV infection by about 30 percent. Research is under way to try to improve it.

If further study shows the gel to be safe and effective, WHO will work to speed access to it, said its director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan.

The gel is in limited supply; it’s not a commercial product, and was made for this and another ongoing study from drug donated by California-based Gilead Sciences Inc., which sells tenofovir in pill form as Viread. If further study proves the gel effective, a full-scale production system would need to be geared up to make it.

The study tested the gel in 889 heterosexual women in and near Durban, South Africa. Researchers had no information on the women’s partners, but the women were heterosexual and, in general, not in a high-risk group, such as prostitutes.

Half of the women were given the microbicide and the others, a dummy gel. Women were told to use it 12 hours before sex and as soon as possible within 12 hours afterward.

At the study’s end, there were 38 HIV infections among the microbicide group versus 60 in the others.

The gel seemed safe — only mild diarrhea was slightly more common among those using it. Surveys showed that the vast majority of women found it easy to use and said their partners didn’t mind it. And 99 percent of the women said they would use the gel if they knew for sure that it prevented HIV.

This shows that new studies testing the gel’s effectiveness without a placebo group should immediately be launched, said Salim Abdool Karim. The only other study testing the gel now compares it to placebo and will take a couple more years to complete.

The study was sponsored by the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, or CAPRISA; Family Health International; CONRAD, an AIDS research effort based at Eastern Virginia Medical School; and the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

Gilead has licensed the rights to produce the gel, royalty-free, to CONRAD and the International Partnership on Microbicides for the 95 poorest countries in the world, said Dr. Howard Jaffe, president of the Gilead Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm.

The biggest cost of the gel is the plastic applicator — about 32 cents, which hopefully would be lower when mass-produced, researchers said.

Mitchell Warren, head of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit group that works on HIV prevention tools, said the study shows a preventive gel is possible.

“We can now say with great certainty that the concept has been proved. And that in itself is a day for celebration,” he said.

—  John Wright