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HIV remains a gay disease

Four facts all gay men need to know about the virus



Monday is National Gay Men’s HIV Awareness Day, a new addition to the growing list of CDC-sponsored efforts to draw attention to the disproportionate toll this disease takes on certain high-risk populations. Sadly, I fear this day will come and go without notice; but I hope I am wrong.

As highlighted in the recent National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the plight of gay and bisexual men has taken a turn for the worse over the past decade. Once again, we have reached a tipping point in the course of this epidemic with an imminent rise of new HIV infections on the horizon — the likes of which we have not seen since the early ’90s.

Nationally, MSM are 44 to 86 times more likely to be infected with HIV than their heterosexual counterparts, for they account for 53 percent of new infections, despite comprising an estimated 2 percent of the total population. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius even noted recently “in some U.S. cities, it is estimated that nearly half of gay African-American men are HIV-positive.”

While many factors are to blame for this new epidemic of HIV among gay men – including a growing complacency around the disease and the threat it still poses to one’s health; the advent of the internet, facilitating quick and often anonymous sex; and, until recently, the lack of a coordinated domestic plan to fight HIV – gone from our memories, it seems, is a time when the gay men rallied together to fight for our survival, galvanized by the death and destruction that HIV/AIDS inflicts on our community. Thus, as our communal urgency around the disease has waxed and waned, so has our perceived need to protect each other and ourselves.

In D.C. the picture is especially grim. For despite the recent National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) study revealing that 14 percent of those sampled tested HIV-positive, only 57.4 percent reported using a condom during the most recent anal intercourse. Considering our community’s history, we should know better. Yet for whatever reason, HIV/AIDS continues to remain an undeniably “gay disease,” begging the question: How have we backslid so terribly in preventing its spread?

Perhaps it’s because so many of those who would have passed on memories of the disease’s devastation have since died, while others may insist it’s because we’ve recently been distracted by so many other LGBT civil rights issues. Or maybe it’s because those who have survived are so exhausted from practicing and preaching safer sex that they have finally given way to HIV “prevention fatigue.”

Regardless, today we find a new generation of gay men that never endured the fear and suffering of those who lived and died only decades before them. They never attended weekly funerals or had their social circles decimated overnight. Today, when just one young gay man dies, it’s a tragedy; but back then it was commonplace.

Yet despite the pressing challenges our community currently faces, we now have a much broader arsenal of information and technology to protect ourselves than ever before. Knowledge is power; but this knowledge does us little good if we’re unwilling to educate ourselves and our fellow gay men. As such, in recognition of NGMHAD, following are four important, and often-overlooked, facts that all gay men should know about this disease and the new epidemic we now face.

• Newly infected individuals who are still within their “window period” (less than three months since being infected) are both most infectious and unlikely to test positive for the virus: In a perverse twist of fortune, until newly infected people seroconvert, they will continue to falsely test negative for HIV while also being at the greatest risk of transmitting the virus to someone else.

In the early stages of HIV infection, the virus expands rapidly, seeding throughout the body, as one’s immune system delays in mounting an appropriate response. Only when this robust response occurs, producing HIV-specific antibodies, will a screening test identify someone as positive. In the meantime, one’s viral load becomes astronomically high, dramatically increasing the chance of transmitting the virus. Thus, at times when people may feel most safe, they may be at most risk of infection. So close those windows!

• The advent of PEP: Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) was initially developed for healthcare workers who were accidentally exposed to HIV. Ultimately, it was found that following a month-long regimen of anti-retroviral therapy, begun within 72 hours of the exposure, dramatically reduced one’s chance of developing an infection. Thus, if you believe you’ve been exposed to HIV (i.e. condom breaks), go to the nearest clinic or department of health to begin PEP within three days.

• The importance of routine testing: Stigma around HIV testing will forever remain a barrier to early diagnosis unless we are adamant about asking for the test and routinely expecting it from our providers. Despite drastic changes to the CDC HIV testing guidelines in 2006, many physicians still refuse to implement such proven cost-effective approaches. As a result, among those gay men who tested newly positive in the recent NHBS study, who had seen a doctor within the past year, approximately two-thirds had NOT been offered an HIV test, often presenting with full-blown AIDS at the time of diagnosis. These cases are missed opportunities for early treatment and care, the most effective way to curb future spread of the disease. This practice has to change; so ask your primary care physician to routinely offer the test.

• Taking action against HIV: For the younger generation of gay men, it’s an accident of history that we are living in 2010, instead of 1980. If that were the case, well over half of us would be dead or dying within the next few years. We’re lucky. Conversely, if you endured those years unscathed, you know what it was like. So please share your story with the next generation of gay men. They need to hear it. And perhaps, you may motivate all of us to take action. One great way to help is by volunteering for a HIV vaccine research study at one of many NIH-sponsored sites throughout the country. They need your help and are now actively recruiting MSM. Go here to get involved.


Blade Blog

Cruising into Pride

Celebrity holds firm as a proud corporate supporter of LGBTQ community



Celebrity APEX (Photo by Peter Rosenstein)

As you know if you have read my columns and blog posts, I love cruising. The kind where you are on a river or the ocean. Today in both the United States and around the world the LGBTQ community is facing difficult times. Attacks are coming fast and furious. There are few places where members of our community can feel totally safe these days. 

One of those places is on a cruise ship that values the community. That is what I have found whenever I travel on a Celebrity ship. Today, they are going even further in letting the world know about their respect for the community. They happily advertise Pride at Sea. Of course, they are doing it to attract LGBTQ passengers and their dollars, but that’s great in this day and age, when a company is willing to step up proudly, wants our business, and will do everything they can to make us feel both wanted and safe. That is what Celebrity Cruise Lines is doing. 

I want Pride to be celebrated not just in June, but every month. But I am excited about the June celebrations whether hosted in D.C. by Capital Pride, or on the high seas. While many of us will be at the D.C. Wharf, on June 10 to help the Washington Blade celebrate Pride on the Pier with spectacular fireworks, those who miss that and are on a Celebrity ship will be part of a Pride celebration as well. Their ships will all celebrate the month in various ways including flying a LGBTQ Pride flag. 

Celebrity has invited my friend, entertainer extraordinaire, Andrew Derbyshire, to lead the celebration on the Edge on June 13, in Ibiza. He recently quoted Celebrity, “In honor of Pride month and our continuing commitment toward fostering positive and authentic partnerships within the LGBTQIA+ community, Celebrity Cruises is raising the Pride flag to celebrate acceptance, unity, and support for the community. Each June, Celebrity Cruises hosts our annual Pride Party at Sea. Every ship takes part in the celebration that brings our crew and guests together to honor and celebrate Pride.” Andrew added, “I am happy to announce I will be flying to Ibiza on the 13th of June for a few nights, to host Pride on the Celebrity Edge, with my friend and captain, Captain Tasos, and the amazing team on board.” Andrew, like many of the entertainers I have seen and met on Celebrity ships, is encouraged to be who he is, ‘out’ and proud. 

The Edge will kick off Celebrity’s fifth annual Pride Party at Sea during its June 10, 2023, sailing. “The party will take place in tandem across the award-winning Celebrity fleet, with each ship ‘handing off the party baton’ to the next, to keep the festivities running across hemispheres and time zones. A variety of multi-generational LGBTQ+ focused programming will take place throughout the month of June. Together, officers, staff and crew around the world will participate in Celebrity’s signature Pride programming.”

You should know one of the things straight couples could always do on a Celebrity cruise is have the captain marry them. Now, since same-sex marriage became legal in Malta, where most Celebrity ships are registered, their captains can legally marry same-sex couples. After this happened the first legal same-sex marriage at sea, on a major cruise line, occurred on board Celebrity Equinox in January 2018 when the captain married Francisco Vargas and Benjamin Gray.  

Celebrity is a Florida-based company, and along with Disney, they are standing up for the LGBTQ community. They have been a Presenting Sponsor of Miami Beach Gay Pride for four years in a row. They continue to advertise their collaborations with gay cruise companies like VACAYA, which has charted the Celebrity Apex for a cruise of the Caribbean in 2024. The ship will be sailing with a lot of happy LGBTQ cruisers on Feb 17-24, 2024 for seven nights from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Rico, St. Croix, and Antigua. For anyone who hasn’t been on the Apex, it is an amazing ship. While not during an official Pride month I will show my Pride along with many other LGBTQ travelers on Celebrity Beyond this October out of Rome, and on Celebrity Ascent in October 2024 out of Barcelona. The Ascent hasn’t even set sail yet. 

Let’s hope other companies will follow Celebrity’s lead and value the LGBTQ community. We are entitled to live our lives safely and to the fullest, as who we were born to be. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Blade Blog

Shawna Hachey of Celebrity APEX on what makes a good cruise director

A love of people is a must



Shawna Hachey (Photo courtesy Hachey)

The position of cruise director on any ship is one of the most important, especially on a transatlantic voyage, like the recent one I took on the Celebrity APEX. So much of what people remember is the entertainment. Shawna Hachey is a great Cruise Director and I had the opportunity to sit and chat with her during the cruise. The job keeps her jumping and she is one of the busiest people on the ship. Shawna has a great bubbly personality. She likes people, which is a requirement for that position. 

Shawna shared she is from New Brunswick, Canada, and has come a long way from there. She has now been with Celebrity for nearly thirteen years. I kidded her that meant she must have begun when she was ten. She is actually a very young looking thirty-five. She graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a degree in fashion design, a passion of hers. Shawna told me when she graduated, she had the options of a job in the fashion industry, or working on a cruise ship.  Her dad was the one who suggested she go see the world and she ended up falling in love with cruise ships.

It is not an easy job. Her schedule is four months on and four off. The recent pandemic had her off the ship for a year and a half, during which time she worked in a government job back in Canada until Celebrity called her back. Her first contract after the pandemic, because of staff shortages, was eight months on and two off. But she loves the job. 

Shawna did the usual for someone in her position and worked her way up the ranks from activity host, to activity manager, to cruise director.  At one point she did something different and had a stint as a school teacher in London for a year, teaching kindergarten, but came back to cruising. I can just see her with those kids and am sure she was great. 

As Cruise Director she is responsible for organizing all the entertainment on the ship. That includes lectures, Zumba, game shows, silent disco’s, evening parties, resort deck parties and other games, as well as the back of house and theater tours. She works to ensure every traveler has something to keep them busy and having fun. As Shawna told me, that is always a little harder on a transatlantic cruise with so many sea days. But judging by the comments on the ship by so many of the people I met, she was doing a great job. 

The Cruise Director doesn’t get to choose all the talent, as Celebrity does the booking, but Shawna can and did request some approved acts. She loves working with those like the incredibly talented, Andrew Derbyshire. Many of us were excited he was going to be on our cruise. I first met Andrew, and wrote about him, last year when I was on APEX. He is an amazing entertainer. Shawna explained to me with the big shows like Crystalize and Tree of Life, Celebrity now produces those themselves and interviews talent for them around the world. One of the cast members in those shows, Nate Promkul, I predict will end up a star on Broadway. With the individual artists, their agents submit them to Celebrity, who then hires them for all their different ships. 

Before working on APEX Shawna has worked on a number of other Celebrity ships including Solstice, Reflection, Equinox and Silhouette. Shawna shared a story with me about Celebrity. They have always had a lot of crew from the Ukraine. Apparently, after the war began any crew members from Ukraine still working, were able to bring their families who could get out of Ukraine on board to live with them. This is a wonderful humanitarian thing to do. 

I enjoyed talking to Shawna and urge any cruiser on the APEX to say hello when you are onboard. She will always have a big smile for you. 

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Meet Captain Nikolaos Christodoulakis of the Celebrity APEX

Reflecting on life aboard a ship during COVID



Peter Rosenstein and Captain Nikolaos Christodoulakis (Photo courtesy of Rosenstein)

It really was a pleasure to chat with Celebrity APEX Captain Nikolaos Christodoulakis who invited me to the bridge for a conversation. I learned he is quite an amazing man.  

Captain Christodoulakis told me Celebrity is the only cruise company he has ever been with and joined them twenty-eight years ago in 1994. While still a young man of 47 he has already been a captain for 12 years. In one of the many interesting lectures during the cruise, we were given a talk on how one can become a captain. How one moves up the ranks at Celebrity. We were told about all the education and testing required. The speaker, who was not yet a captain, kidded he would reach that goal by 2080. He then told us jokingly about the exception for those of Greek extraction. He said they received their captain’s certificate along with their birth certificate. When I mentioned this to the captain during our conversation he laughed and assured me he did have all the needed education and tests.  

Captain Christodoulakis told me proudly he is from the Island of Crete, and still lives there with his wife and eight-year-old daughter. A captain with Celebrity is on a schedule of three months on, and three months off. He said he loves those three months off when he can be with his wife and daughter, and the rest of his family, back on Crete. I told him I had been to Crete many years ago and thought it was beautiful and asked him if he had ever walked down the famous Samariá Gorge and he said he hadn’t.

Over his years with Celebrity, he worked on many ships, including Horizon and Century among others. His most recent ship was the Reflection, which he captained during the COVID pandemic. That was not an easy time for the cruise line. He was with Reflection for three years and during the pandemic spent part of the time with the ship sitting in the Bahamas, with a crew of less than 100. Just enough to keep the ship ready to sail again when he could welcome passengers back. I told him I was on the APEX last year on a transatlantic cruise out of Barcelona with only had 1250 passengers and a crew of about 1,000. He told me on this cruise there were 2340 passengers and a crew of close to 1200. The APEX can accommodate up to 3,400 passengers with a crew of 1,250. The captain agreed staffing back up has been difficult and complimented the Celebrity HR department who he said has been working overtime recruiting crew. 

I asked him about protections for the crew during the pandemic and continuing today. He said Celebrity has been really good about that and all crew on the APEX have been vaccinated and boosted against Covid and during this transatlantic cruise they were all getting flu shots. On this trip the crew was required to wear masks for their safety. During the sea days they were allowed to take them off when outdoors, so we could see their smiles.

I then asked him what he wants to do next after he stops being a Captain. He told me he loves being a Captain and really can’t see another career. He did tell me once he retires, years from now, maybe when his daughter is in college, he wants to get an RV, and drive across Europe with his wife, seeing all the sites at a slow and leisurely pace. Then would like to do the same going across the United States stopping at all the national parks. Sounds like a great retirement.  I asked if he often leaves the ship in the ports where it stops. He says he does if his wife and daughter are on board visiting, and anticipates them joining him for the upcoming holidays. When they aren’t with him, he gets off if he can get to a beach, or a place to swim and dive, which he loves.

I then mentioned there was a party that afternoon my friends and travel agents, Scott and Dustin, with My Lux Cruise, were hosting in the Iconic suite. He said he would enjoy coming to that. I thanked him for taking the time to chat, said I hope to see him at the party, and left the bridge.

I didn’t say anything to Scott or Dustin about inviting him. Not only did he come but brought the Hotel Director, Christophe, with him. They were incredibly open and gracious, taking selfies. Christophe told us he would be on the BEYOND when we do our next transatlantic cruise in October 2023. 

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