Updated: June 29, 2016 at 1:19 p.m.
Growing up, Ryan Phillips’s mom used to teach sex ed.
“So I knew about safe sex, well before I even knew what sex was,” said the University Club bartender, Gainesville’s most popular gay nightclub.
But for a lot of people in the community, learning about disease prevention is an uphill battle. Organizations aiming to educate people of all sexual orientations and genders on the dangers of STDs are still combating stereotypes, stigmas and misinformation.
Monday was National HIV Testing Day, and to spread awareness, the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County partnered with Black AIDS Services and Education Inc. to provide free HIV testing at Archer Family Health Care.
“It’s not a game to play with,” said Joe Reaves, president of BASE. “It’s not just a gay disease.”
Reaves has been involved in HIV activism for almost 15 years. He said it’s important that everyone from kids, teachers, parents and preachers to educate themselves on the risk of HIV associated with unprotected sex.
“It’s kind of difficult when you hear young kids saying they’re having sex at 12, 13 years old and below,” Reaves said.
Reaves emphasized the importance of educating a less urban population.
“We have to get out of the city and go into our rural areas,” Reaves said. “Let the people know, ‘Hey, you’re not forgotten. We’ll be here with you.’”
The tests are quick and relatively painless.
Gay Koehler-Sides from the DOH said, “We’re offering rapid testing, so it’s a little finger prick and we get a little drop of blood. We’re able to give you your test results in 20 minutes.”
Despite government funding for free tests, many people still don’t know they’re HIV positive.
Koehler-Sides said about one in eight who test positive are unaware of their status, meaning a sizable chunk of the 104,554 Floridians with HIV or AIDS may still be at risk to infect others.
“As of the past couple of years, HIV testing has become more of a norm, but for some reason it’s still not done with a lot of heterosexuals,” said Ty Harrison of the Gainesville Area AIDS Project.
Harrison doesn’t need any more reminding on just how devastating the disease can become. He said he lived through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
“The older generation, especially LGBT, saw everybody die,” Harrison said. “I saw 80 percent of my friends die in South Florida.”
“I had gotten through all that unscathed, and then in 2004, I find out I have it.”
The 45 year old said he was devastated.
Harrison said with advances in medicine, a diagnosis nowadays doesn’t mean a death sentence like it used to, but life on HIV medication is taxing.
“Especially now with the new pill combinations, they think one pill once a day. But in reality, that pill has five in it, and you’re dealing with the side effects of five pills, which are pretty intense: nausea, vomiting, fatigue, diarrhea, stomach pains.”
Harrison said in some instances people might avoid medication after having trouble adjusting in the first four weeks.
“They experience these side effects, and they think, ‘Wow, I can’t deal with this for the next 60, 55 years of my life.’”
But a developing trend that’s more dangerous than a lack of medication is a lack of precaution.
Despite education efforts, the CDC reports the number of HIV cases among certain demographics are on the rise.
From 2005 to 2014, HIV diagnoses for black and Latino gay and bisexual men age 13 to 24 increased by 87 percent, while diagnoses for white gay and bisexual men increased 56 percent.
In Florida, cases of HIV infection among the general population decreased slightly from 31.2 per 100,000 in 2010 to 26.9 per 100,000 in 2014. The Sunshine State’s numbers outpace the nationwide statistics, however, with the CDC reporting a decrease from 16.3 cases per 100,000 in 2010 to 13.9 per 100,000 in 2014.
“It’s true, the fact medicines are available may lead some folks to be a little less carefully, (but) I’m not aware of anybody personally,” said Terry Fleming, co-president of the Pride Community Center of North Central Florida.
Fleming also said when the AIDS epidemic first came around, the community viewed a diagnosis as a death sentence.
“People took it very, very seriously.”
At University Club, Phillips made it clear that just because there’s been advancements in treatment doesn’t mean the job is done. The 27-year-old bartender born after the AIDS epidemic said he knows 10 people who are HIV positive.
Phillips said University Club takes it upon itself to promote a safe and educated environment. “We do HIV testing here, and they don’t do that in like any other nightclub, and we have a bowl of condoms at our front door.”