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Mautner Project celebrates 20th year

Health group credited with advancing lesbian care, visibility

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Leslie Calman, the Mautner Project’s executive director, said the organization ‘introduced the rest of the country, including health care providers and government policy makers, to the vision of a lesbian health agenda.’ (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

The Mautner Project, the D.C.-based national lesbian health organization, is celebrating its 20th anniversary Saturday with 800 people gathered for a gala fundraising dinner and dance party at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

The group’s founder, Susan Hester, and its executive director, Leslie Calman, say the festive occasion marks the success of an organization that bears the name of a woman whose forward-thinking ideas and untimely death in 1989 became the inspiration for its mission and programs.

“Before she died of cancer at the age of 44, Mary-Helen Mautner asked her partner Susan Hester to create an organization to help other lesbians and their loved ones meet the challenges of life-threatening illnesses,” says the group’s web site. “Susan promised to make Mary-Helen’s dream a reality — and the Mautner Project is a result of that promise.”

With Hester serving as executive director for the first six years, Mautner Project embarked on a mission to fulfill a vision that Hester says her partner sketched out on a single piece of paper while in the hospital shortly before her death.

“She told me that during a bone scan she realized how many lesbians in her situation would not have someone with them,” Hester recalled in a 2008 essay. “They would be going through this all alone. And she had an idea of how to deal with that.”

Before becoming ill, Mautner was an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and a keen observer of the LGBT rights and AIDS advocacy movements, including programs by AIDS groups to assign volunteer “buddies” to assist gay men with AIDS-related illnesses, Hester said.

“She wanted an organization that would provide support for lesbians who didn’t have the support she had,” Hester said.

Calman, who began her tenure as executive director two years ago, said the early vision of both Mary-Helen Mautner and Hester evolved into a nationally acclaimed health services and advocacy organization that, among other things, educates health care professionals on the needs of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women.

The organization’s programs include providing direct services and support for lesbian, bisexual and transgender women with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses; and offering support groups for cancer clients, caregivers and others grieving over a loss. It also educates the lesbian, bi and trans communities about preventive health practices and nutrition and offers smoking cessation programs and programs to address obesity.

“The most remarkable thing to me about the Mautner Project is that lesbians came together — created a vibrant organization — and introduced the rest of the country, including health care providers and government policy makers, to the vision of a lesbian health agenda,” Hester told DC Agenda.

“But 20 years later — despite the remarkable exposure of lesbians and gays — there are still more lesbians and gay men who are not out to their health care providers than the number who live free and open lives,” she said. “There are more health care providers who blush or blanch at the idea of working with lesbians than there are who welcome us.”

Calman said Mautner Project currently has a staff of six full-time and two part-time employees and an annual budget of about $900,000. In keeping with its tradition of volunteer help, the group has 60 volunteers who help carry out its programs.

“We’re still small and scrappy,” she said.

Hester and Calman credited former executive director Kathleen DeBold, who headed the organization from 2000 to 2007, with expanding its budget and programs, transforming it from a local group to a national organization.

Last year, the group weighed in on a controversy over when women should begin undergoing mammogram tests for breast cancer. The controversy was triggered by a U.S. government medical task force, which issued recommendations suggesting that mammograms may not be beneficial for women between the ages of 40 and 50.

Among other things, the task force pointed to data showing there was a statistically insignificant difference in the lives saved of women who underwent mammograms in their 40s and those who did not. The task force concluded that the very small difference in the number of breast cancer cases detected in women taking the test in their 40s did not justify the expense, subsequent biopsies and “anxieties” the tests generated.

In an open letter to the community, Calman and D.C. physician Linda Spooner, chair of the Mautner Project’s board of directors, sided with the American Cancer Society, which urged women between 40 and 50 to ignore the task force recommendation and take yearly mammograms.

“Mammography is a diagnostic tool, not a cure, and we need a cure,” Spooner and Calman said in their letter. “But for the task of early and timely detection, mammograms, in conjunction with clinical breast exams, are our best tool.”

They added that the task force’s suggestion that avoiding mammograms would spare women anxiety “strikes us as patronizing and dangerous.”

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Gilead awards $5 million grant to HRC’s HIV and health equity programs

Money to support efforts to end the epidemic and combat stigma

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Human Rights Campaign headquarters in D.C.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Human Rights Campaign was awarded a $5 million grant from drugmaker Gilead Sciences to expand the organization’s HIV and health equity programs, supporting efforts to end the HIV epidemic by 2030 while combatting stigma in Black and Latino communities.

Funds will be used over the next three years for the HRC Foundation’s HIV and Health Equity Program, its Historically Black Colleges and Universities Program, and its Transgender Justice Initiative, HRC said in a statement Wednesday announcing receipt of the award, which extends Gilead’s $3.2 million grant to the HRC Foundation in 2021.

The organization said its HIV and Health Equity Program plans to develop a “benchmarking tool for institutions that provide HIV services, helping better evaluate the quality of care and measure racially and socially inclusive approaches” while defining “best practices, policies and procedures to optimize HIV service provision for BIPOC LGBTQ+ communities.”

HRC President Kelley Robinson said, “Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic, racism and anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination have created dangerous hurdles for those seeking prevention or treatment.”

“With the generous support of Gilead Sciences, we’ll be able to continue providing critical
resources to help overcome these hurdles, especially focusing on Black and Latine communities in the U.S. South,” Robinson added. “We’ll also be able to expand our efforts, as we seek to remove institutional barriers often unknowingly created by HIV service providers. We must decrease the disparities that place an unnecessary burden on Black and Latine LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV.”

Gilead Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs and General Counsel Deborah Telman said the company “is committed to advancing health equity, particularly in Black communities and other communities of color that are disproportionately affected by HIV.”

“This grant will build on the impactful work HRC has done with community partners and HBCUs to increase awareness of HIV treatment and prevention options and reduce health disparities, combat discrimination and fight stigma,” Telman said.

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New CDC data shows HIV infections dropped, but mostly among whites

Socioeconomic factor into disproportionate rates

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Data published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a significant decline in new HIV infections, but suggests the impact of prevention efforts was far less substantial for Black and Latino populations.

From 2017-2021, as rates of HIV testing, treatment and the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication rose, new cases dropped by 12 percent overall and by as much as 34 percent among gay and bisexual males aged 13-24.

The numbers show a “move in the right direction,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a press release.

However, when broken down by race, the CDC found new infections were down by 27 percent and 36 percent, respectively, among Black and Latino populations, compared with 45 percent of whites.

Similarly, by 2021 about one third of those who are considered eligible were taking PrEP for HIV prevention, but the CDC noted this number includes “relatively few Black people or Hispanic/Latino people” despite the significant increase in prescriptions up from just 13 percent in 2017.

“Longstanding factors, such as systemic inequities, social and economic marginalization and residential segregation,” Walensky noted, continue to act as barriers “between highly effective HIV treatment and prevention and people who could benefit from them.”

She added, “Efforts must be accelerated and strengthened for progress to reach all groups faster and equitably.”

Robyn Neblett Fanfair, acting director of the CDC’s Division of HIV Prevention, said that “At least three people in the U.S. get HIV every hour — at a time when we have more effective prevention and treatment options than ever before.”

“These tools must reach deep into communities and be delivered faster to expand progress from some groups to all groups,” she said.

The HIV+Hepatitis Policy Institute issued a press release following the CDC’s announcement of the new data, noting both the encouraging progress and need for improvement.

“It appears that our investments in HIV prevention are providing some positive results, but the persistent high number of new diagnoses and the low usage of PrEP among the communities most impacted by HIV point to the need for increased resources, particularly for a national PrEP program,” said the group’s executive director, Carl Schmid.

President Joe Biden’s FY24 budget requested $237 million for a national PrEP program along with $850 million to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Ending the HIV Epidemic in the U.S.” initiative.

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Officials eye mpox prevention, vaccination initiatives for this summer’s LGBTQ events

New cluster of cases reported in Chicago

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Drs. Robert Fenton and Demetre Daskalakis, coordinator and deputy coordinator for the White House national mpox response, during a briefing in August 2022 (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

Federal health agencies, in coordination with their state and local counterparts and community partners, are exploring opportunities to offer mpox prevention initiatives and vaccinations at LGBTQ events this summer, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis said on Thursday.

Daskalakis, the deputy coordinator for the White House’s national mpox response, described these deliberations in response to a question from the Washington Blade during a media telebriefing on mpox that was hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC on Monday issued a Health Alert Network Health Update on the potential risk for new mpox cases.

Since the peak of about 460 cases per day in August 2022, new cases have steadily declined, but following the cluster recently reported in the Chicago area, the update warns, “spring and summer season in 2023 could lead to a resurgence of mpox as people gather for festivals and other events.”

“We have the vaccine, and we have organizations that are willing to do it,” Daskalakis said during Thursday’s call, adding that resources are available and can be deployed flexibly because they are built into existing “HIV and STI funding to allow for this work.”

And the Mpox Crisis Response Cooperative Agreement, Daskalakis said, “provides even more resources locally for such efforts.”

Daskalakis and CDC Mpox Response Incident Manager Dr. Christopher R. Braden also briefed reporters on findings from new studies on the efficacy of the JYNNEOS vaccine for the prevention of mpox.

That data, per the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, reveals that “Among gay, bisexual, and other MSM and transgender adults aged 18-49 years, two doses of the JYNNEOS vaccine were 86 percent effective against mpox, indicating substantial protection against mpox.”

Additionally, “All routes of vaccine administration provided similar protection.”

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