RCD receives Elton John grant

Money targeted at reaching Latino community is believed to be the first grant from the foundation to a Dallas organization

Ruben-Ramirez

STEPPING UP PREVENTION EFFORTS | Community Health Programs Manager Ruben Ramirez will target the Latino community for HIV prevention funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

The Elton John AIDS Foundation has given Resource Center Dallas a $38,000 grant to be used in targeting HIV prevention efforts within the gay Latino community.
Community Health Programs Manager Ruben Ramirez said this week that the money will allow RCD to expand its outreach and testing program to a population that has seen a dramatic rise in infections.

“The grant will be used to expand the activities we do now and give it more visibility, and then to provide a social support group on a monthly basis,” Ramirez said.

When the organization had city funding, the center provided more testing and social support to the Latino community than is currently available, Ramirez said. The increased programming begins next month.

The Elton John AIDS Foundation generally funds innovative programs that are already successful in reducing the spread of HIV. So rather than create something new, Ramirez said the center will use the money to enhance the outreach that’s already working.

In other target groups, RCD has followed up testing with support groups and social networking that has reinforced the safer-sex and prevention message.

Ramirez said that within the Latino community, he has heard quite a bit of misinformation.

“We’re still seeing the old myths from way back when about how people get HIV,” Ramirez said, adding that he had recently spoken to someone who thought he could get HIV from sipping from the same glass as someone who was positive.

“I was astounded,” he said.

Ramirez said that although information is readily available, language and immigration barriers stand in the way of some people learning about HIV.

“And some folks just bypass the sea of information of HIV information that is out there,” he added.

In addition, those with information don’t necessarily access testing. Ramirez said RCD will collaborate with area bars to provide testing as well as with other groups.

“We’ve worked very well with AIDS Interfaith Network in the past, and the gay LULAC group,” he said.

Ramirez said plans for implementing the grant, which appears to be the first the Elton John AIDS Foundation has made to a Dallas organization and is the largest the foundation has given to an agency in Texas, are still under way.

In 2010, EJAF gave OutYouth Austin $25,000 for its HIV prevention program that included testing that targets those ages 14 to 20.
Metropolitan Community Church of Abilene received $25,000 in 2008 for its drug intervention program for people who are HIV-positive.

EJAF was established in 1992 by the singer and is based in London. John’s husband, David Furnish, is chairman of the foundation.

EJAF supports programs that aim to reduce the incidence of HIV as well as end the discrimination and stigma associated with the disease. Other grants fund direct care for people living with HIV.

Ramirez said that RCD was particularly honored to receive this grant because it was competing with other organizations around the world to get the funds.
The EJAF has raised more than $225 million and funded projects in 55 countries since its founding.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

COVER STORY: A Sister Act

FRESH FACES | Novice Sisters Amanda DeFlower, left, and Bertha Sinn say the DFW sisters have a calling to educate the public. (Courtesy DFW Sisters)

DFW Sisters bring the outrageous fun and dedicated activism of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to North Texas

RELATED ARTICLE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE SISTERHOOD

M. M. ADJARIAN   |  Contributing Writer
editor@dallasvoice.com

In their whiteface makeup, gaudy jewels, spangles and nun habits gone gloriously wild, the DFW Sisters are hard to miss — and equally hard to ignore. “[Our appearance] brings people to us,” says Novice Sister Tasha myFUPA. “The public wants to know: What’s this all about?”

A branch of the San Francisco-based Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the DFW Sisters have been doing fundraising, charity and service work in the DFW area for more than a year.
Originally founded as the Sisters of the Yellow Rose in February 2010, the DFW Sisters formed when the STYR regrouped the following September. In January, the main — or “mother” — SPI house in San Francisco recognized the Sisters as an SPI mission.

“We [now] have to do six fundraisers [to] prove ourselves to San Francisco and the United Nuns Privy Council,” Novice Sister Bertha Sinn explains. “Then we become a fully professed house.”

The United Nuns Privy Council is comprised of delegates from all missions and houses around the country. If all goes as planned, the Dallas Sisters will become the Dallas Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in early 2012.

The beginning

The impetus to start a Sisterhood in the DFW area came from members who had contact with other SPI houses. Says Sister Eve Angelica, “We felt that Dallas was lacking an organization … that provides an outlet for us to be out there … sharing [our stories and] teaching people about safer sex and community safety.”

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence itself — now an international organization with 1,200 past and present members — came into existence in 1980. However, the three original founders had begun appearing (or manifesting, as the Sisters would say) in public the previous year.

Their first manifestation occurred on Easter Weekend 1979. The trio donned nun habits from an Iowa convent and went for a stroll through the Castro, home to San Francisco’s gay community.

The men were members of the Radical Faeries, an alternative gay male spirituality group. Part of their intent was to protest the too-slick “Castro Clones” image that they believed inhibited freer expressions of male homosexual identity. But, as Sister Bertha remarks, “[They also just wanted to] go out and have fun.”

Irreverent gender play was not new to either the SPI founders or the Castro District gay community. In fact, the Sisterhood was a direct heir to the legacy of two theater performance groups that emerged in San Francisco in the late 1960s: the Cockettes and the Angels of Light.

These groups became known for the way they would use high camp and drag to satirize all aspects of popular culture: no topic — including religion — was ever deemed too sacred to be mocked.

From the start, however, SPI playfulness was also imbued with a sense of activist purpose. Soon after the Sisters formed in 1980, they began campaigns to stop fundamentalist Christians from preaching anti-gay rhetoric in the Castro. And when the AIDS crisis began to take shape in the early 1980s, the Sisters responded by holding the first-ever AIDS fundraiser and writing a safer sex pamphlet that they distributed to the gay community.

Today’s mission

That sense of community responsibility abides 30 years later. Says Sister Bertha, “One of our main ministries, our bar ministry, is safe sex outreach. [We always have] our bliss kits [on hand], which [include] a condom, a little packet of lube and instructions on how to use it.”

Disseminating this kind of information has become an especially important part of the DFW Sisters’ work in the aftermath of cuts the Dallas City Council made in September 2009 to HIV/AIDS education programs.

The religion-inflected language the Sisters use in referring to themselves and their work belies the non-denominational nature of the Sisterhood.

“We’ve got people of all faiths. And no faiths. It runs the gamut,” Sister Bertha notes.

Diversity also defines the personal backgrounds of individual DFW sister members. The SPI began as a male-only organization; but now “[i]t doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, [male, female], blue, white, black [or] green,” says Sister Tasha. “[What does matter is that] you feel the calling.”

As would be the case in a regular religious order, commitment to the organization and its mission is paramount, as is a strong social and moral conscience. Novice Sister Edina T. Krisis’ decision to join the group arose after the devastating loss of her partner to AIDS. “Dallas was amazing to me,” she said. “I had to give back because [others] gave me back the rest of my life.”

At the same time, the commitment required to be a sister can, as Novice Sister Angelica remarks, “almost make [the whole enterprise] feel like a part-time job.” Moreover, sister-status is not for the faint-hearted. Only after one year of rising through three levels of membership — aspirant, postulant and novice — can an individual have the chance to become a fully professed Sister. After that, the person is a member for life.

Since the Dallas Sisters are an SPI mission rather than an SPI house, those designated as Sisters are still at novice level. Only after they are approved as an autonomous house will those who have been novices for at least six months be considered for elevation to full Sisterhood.

While the Dallas Sisters now work primarily in the Metroplex’s LGBT communities, with such groups as Resource Center Dallas and the Texas Gay Rodeo Association, long-term the Sisters see themselves as also working in the mainstream, too.

“So long as the mission [of a group] is in keeping with our mission and goals,” says Sister Bertha, “then [we’ll help anyone].”

For all their good works in the community, the Dallas Sisters have not been without their critics, not all of whom have been affiliated with conservative religious organizations.

Novice Sister Polly von Acocker recalls an incident when a gay man from Dallas posted pictures of the Sisters on his Facebook account along with derogatory comments about the Sisterhood itself.

“We ruffled his feathers,” Sister Polly recalls. “He didn’t like the way the Sisters portrayed the gay community.”

Undaunted, Sister Polly used this incident to educate this detractor about the SPI: “[After] opening up a dialogue with him, [the man] became one of my biggest supporters. I know now that if I need a donation, I can go straight to him.”

The ability to attract attention, stir up controversy and change minds is part of what Sister Tasha calls “the power of whiteface.” But behind the makeup are just ordinary — and in many cases, surprisingly shy — people just trying to make a difference in the community. Their Sister alter-egos, with the outsized personalities, are what make the group successful.

Having an organizational strategy that works also helps. The DFW Sisters run primarily on consensus, Sister Polly explains. Any voting that takes place is done to lend an official stamp to any agreements reached among group members.

Where the real challenge lies, says Sister Polly, “is in making sure everyone has a role in running the [group].”

The Sisters run their organization a bit like a family, but with Roberts Rules of Order in hand. Their “kinship” ties run much deeper, however: their shared vision has become a kind of “blood bond” that unites them beyond structure.

“We bicker like family,” says Sister Bertha. “But there’s a lot of love there, too.”

HELPING HANDS | The DFW Sisters help welcome participants in the Texas Bear Round Up to Dallas. (Courtesy DFW Sisters)

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

—  John Wright

Dallas vigil for gay suicide victims

It’s about time someone organized something locally to honor the many recent gay suicide victims, and we can’t think of anyone better to do it than The DFW Sisters. According to their Facebook page, the Sisters will host a candlelight vigil and silent march on Sunday night on Cedar Springs Road. More info on the Facebook page. The Sisters, whom you’ve probably run into if you’ve been to any gay event in Dallas recently, “are a modern, communal order of 21st century nuns dedicated to community service, fund raising, outreach, advocacy, education for safer sex awareness, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment.” The first such group was the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco.

—  John Wright

AIDS Arms gets CDC grant to expand prison outreach

Program includes HIV education efforts in Texas prisons, peer counseling efforts and safer sex packets for those just leaving prison

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

PREVENTION BEHIND BARS
PREVENTION BEHIND BARS | HIV educators with AIDS Arms have trained more than 800 peer counselors who have worked with more than 65,000 other inmates in Texas prisons.

The Centers for Disease Control has awarded AIDS Arms a $1.6 million five-year grant to expand its outreach to the Texas prison population.

AIDS Arms’ Free World Bound Program has worked with the Texas prison system for eight years. According to the agency’s executive director, Raeline Nobles, AIDS Arms has 10 staff members who work with 116 prisons across the state.

“The grant expands the prison and prison reentry program,” said Nobles.

The program begins in the state’s prisons with risk reduction education and helps HIV-positive prisoners with reentry into the community.

She said that wardens identify good candidates for the program. Then AIDS Arms staff provides a 40-hour training program on how to avoid HIV, TB, STDs and other diseases rampant in the prison populations.

Those prisoners become certified peer educators and are sent back to work with other prisoners to teach risk reduction. The peer counselors have two re-trainings a year.

Over the years, AIDS Arms has trained 800 people who have worked with 65,000 other prisoners, Nobles said.

The agency also does prerelease planning up to six months before an HIV-positive prisoner leaves prison. Counselors make sure prisoners, who are released with just 10 days worth of medications, know where to get their meds. They arrange housing, medical appointments at Peabody Clinic, counseling, family reunification planning and further risk-reduction training.

“And when they’re released and land at the Greyhound station downtown, we meet them with a bag of stuff — condoms, HIV wellness info, toiletries — to get them through the next few days,” Nobles said.

Nobles said her staff members are not the only ones meeting these people at the bus station. Dealers selling drugs and prostitutes offering sex, among others, are there to meet the prisoners. She said about half of the former prisoners they meet downtown welcome the help from the AIDS Arms caseworkers.

“We’ve got to get to them first,” she said.

The CDC grant specifically targets HIV intervention for both negative, at-risk populations and HIV-positive prisoners. With it, AIDS Arms will be able to increase its Free World Bound staff by two, Nobles said.

Nobles said the program began when AIDS Arm staffers noticed people recently released from prison who were coming to AIDS Arms and were extremely sick.

“There was no treatment in prison for years,” she said.

Getting them back to any health baseline was extremely difficult, she said.

“To change that, we had to get to these folks years before they were released,” Nobles said.

Three of the employees of the agency are former prisoners who began as peer educators in prison before their release. Nobles said they hired them for a number of reasons.

“We wanted to show our clients solid role models,” she said. “We will never fully understand, but these three have fully integrated into the community. They take their meds, go to doctors’ appointments, and have cars, homes. They’re extremely effective.”

Nobles said the prison intervention should help with risk reduction in the gay community as well.

Without intervention, she said, “Within 48 hours of release, those prisoners will have unprotected sex with two people.”
Nobles said her agency’s own anecdotal evidence backs up the statistics from CDC.

“We’ve got to get to them first,” she said, stressing the importance of handing them the bag that includes the condoms. She said that many did get the message about prevention, but buying condoms right after getting off the bus from prison wasn’t a priority.

Nobles said a final portion of the prison program was getting people into job training and getting them to work.

She said AIDS Arms partners with a number of other organizations that specialize in finding employment for recently released felons.

While the unemployment rate among released prisoners is much higher, the rate for AIDS Arms clients hovers between 15 and 17 percent, Nobles said.

Texas has the second largest HIV positive prison population in the United States. Each month about 30 HIV-positive prisoners are released to the Dallas County.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 13, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas