Igniting the Conversation

By Art Martori, September 2017 Issue.

Today, Brad Speck is a 42-years-old successful Phoenix realtor. He’s outgoing, articulate, and when he wraps you in a bear hug, you feel a real connection. In most conversations, he exudes a sense of joy and optimism about the world, and occasionally a hint of sly humor.

But when our talk turns to the death of his oldest half-brother, Mark, he at first struggles to get his thoughts out, and then he begins to cry.

Mark died in 2003, at 33 years old, due to complications occurring in advanced stages of AIDS. Mark had never come out about his HIV status, and it’d been some time since the two brothers spent time together face to face.

“He was living in Brooklyn when he passed. It was a really rough winter,” Speck remembers. “I hadn’t seen him in a while. The last time I got to see him was at the morgue, IDing his body. There’s a part of me that doesn’t forgive myself for that.”

Perhaps, sometimes, his gift for reaching out to people and forming human connections can be a search for redemption. Speck is as an energetic and generous volunteer for IGNITE, an HIV-awareness program sponsored by the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS. IGNITE gets some limited funding from its parent organization, but it wouldn’t exist in the capacity that it does without the support of a community that includes Speck.

“You ask yourself, ‘What can I do to show I’m an ally?’” Speck explains. “I think that’s one of big reasons have such a passion about this. We’re normalizing the conversations.

“Part of what I do feels like therapy. If I can keep people aware and be the reason one less person gets sick or someone doesn’t have to lose a brother, I’m going to do that forever. Nothing is going to stop me.”

Brad Speck and Noah Altman. Courtesy photo.

Overcoming The Stigma

Normalizing the conversation about HIV status means creating an environment free of stigma or judgement. Each month, IGNITE hosts mixers that are better characterized as chill nights hanging out with a cool crowd at some of Phoenix’s more popular venues. I first met Speck (and got my bear hug) one evening downtown at Bliss/ReBAR.

With the hip atmosphere and free-flowing cocktails, it’s a far cry from how you might picture an HIV support group. The only hint is one table on the patio discretely advertising IGNITE and offering educational material. Otherwise, the 20 or so individuals gathered there seem just to be having a good time with friends.

While the IGNITE crew does have a space under the same roof as the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, Jeremy Bright, IGNITE’s marketing and community outreach director, explains that the whole point of the program is venturing out where you’d already find potentially affected individuals, and then engaging them on their turf.

“We take the harder road of trying to find space out in the community to host them,” Bright says. “We do everything outside this building. We go out to the people instead of trying to bring them here.”

The monthly mixers are an example of the success IGNITE has experienced, growing from a small group of volunteers with a limited mission to becoming one of the most repeated names in the Phoenix LGBTQ community.

In 2014, Bright was hired to create a community outreach program that received funding to distribute condoms. There were four volunteers, tasked with approaching people in bars. That year, and they handed out about 40,000 condoms. The group also administered 18 HIV tests.

Last year, IGNITE’s 50 volunteers handed out some 185,000 condoms. They created a condom bar, where people could go to shop for protection that made safe sex more personal. They’ve also been a visible participant in National HIV Testing Day, and, Bright says, in 2016 did more than 100 tests in a single night. They also employ a specialist who helps people find ways to get in interested and qualified individuals on a regimen of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.

“We accomplished our mission, by far,” Bright adds. “I think it’s our approach. Everything we do is from the community, for the community.

Jeremy Bright and Emma Randazzo. Courtesy photo.

Mission: Possible

IGNITE’s mission still addresses an epidemic. It’s particularly challenging, Bright explains, because so many younger people weren’t around during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was no effective treatment and, in most cases, a diagnosis was a death sentence.

“When the HIV outbreak happened in the ’80s, it was really a lot of funerals, a lot of chaos and panic,” Bright says. “A lot of fear. Even into the ’90s, people were still dying of AIDS-related illnesses. Today people should not die.”

Rocko Cook, The PrEP Guy. Courtesy photo.

According to the latest epidemiology report from the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of 2015 there were 17,349 people living with HIV/AIDS in the state. That year, nearly 200 Arizonans died from HIV/AIDS. It’s sobering to know, but perhaps understandable that it doesn’t strike fear into hearts of younger generations.

Two hundred deaths might still seem like a lot to someone who lived through the terror of some three decades ago, but in 2015 more than 10,000 people in Arizona died from heart disease, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“We still have an increase,” Bright says. “And I think it’s the generation who doesn’t have a connection to the AIDS crisis that sees it as a treatable illness, so they aren’t as motivated to protect themselves.”

People ages 25 to 29 had the highest HIV/AIDS diagnosis rate in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, at 28.1 per 100,000. But that’s compared with 14.8 among those ages 40 to 44 — the generation who grew up amid the earlier HIV/AIDS crisis.

Putting Lessons Into Action

Jonatan Armenta is a 23-year-old quality assurance auditor at Uber, and in January 2013 he was diagnosed with HIV. Looking back at that time, Armenta remembers being dazzled by life in Los Angeles, where he’d recently moved. Armenta recalls going out a lot, knowing the risk was out there, but that wasn’t enough to take precautions.

Goutham Adelli. Courtesy photo.

“LA is very fast paced. I wasn’t very careful,” he admits. “I was very knowledgeable, but not careful. I wasn’t proactive at the time.”

After Armenta received his diagnosis, he remembers isolating himself, especially from his family who’d moved here from Mexico only a generation earlier.

“I come from an immigrant family,” Armenta explains. “I know what it is when it’s hard to put food on the table. I know what it is having parents with no health insurance.”

After adhering to a three-pill cocktail, Armenta became HIV undetectable in 2014. For the past two years, he’s volunteered for IGNITE.

“I was lucky. I was honestly blessed,” he says. “That’s why I do what I do now.”

Armenta’s story underscores the fact that new infections are more likely to arise among a younger demographic, within the LGBTQ community and among some ethnic minorities. It’s certainly much harder to reach a 20-something with your message about HIV/AIDS awareness, Bright confirms, and that only becomes more challenging when there are also cultural differences to overcome.

“To tell a 20-year-old who’s never taken a pill a day that now he has to take a pill a day to avoid the things that happened in the ’80s, it’s tough,” Bright explains. “He didn’t see what happened. He didn’t live through the AIDS crisis.”

Members of the IGNITE Crew. Courtesy photo.

Knowing The Demographics

Bright adds that IGNITE volunteers have learned to take a new approach with members of the Hispanic community, where an implied machismo adds to the stigma they’re working to combat. For example, Bright says, they’ve learned to take a more subtle approach when offering tests to the predominantly Hispanic crowd that Karamba Nightclub, located just east of 16th Street and McDowell Road, draws.

“What’s interesting is that for every one guy who walks in, there’s usually two women with him,” he says. “There’s a cultural thing there. There’s a lot of down-low people who aren’t as out. Our approach has to be different.”

Benjamin Palmer, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Health Services, confirmed in a request for more specific demographic data that new infections are more likely to occur among gay men and some minorities.

“African Americans are approximately 5 percent of Arizona’s population, but account for about 19 percent of our new HIV/AIDS cases in 2015,” Palmer says. “This disparity has increased over time. Men who have sex with men (MSM) represent 58 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases in 2015. MSM have historically been the most at-risk group to acquire HIV, and this trend continues.”

For Armenta, it’s simply an opportunity to make a greater impact. He might be challenging the deep-seated cultural norms that exist in some places, but that’s OK. He’s up for it.

“It all starts with awareness. What is HIV/AIDS? It’s also being conscious and safe in every action you take,” Armenta says. “I’m a very outspoken person. I’m a person who stands his ground. We have to be safer now and fight harder.”

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