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Syphilis rates higher for gay men in South

North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana have highest rates

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Treponema pallidum, syphilis, gay news, Washington Blade
Treponema pallidum, syphilis, STI, gay news, Washington Blade

Electron micrograph of Treponema pallidum. Treponema pallidum is the causative agent of syphilis. (Public domain image by the CDC)

A new U.S. report shows the spread of syphilis is far worse in gay men in southern states, the Associated Press reports.

North Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest rates. In North Carolina, as many as one in 134 gay and bisexual men were diagnosed with the most contagious forms of syphilis in 2015.

The South has long had higher rates of diseases spread through sex. The April 6 report is the first breakdown for syphilis by sexual orientation for 44 states, the AP article notes.

In all states, the rates for straight men are far lower. The disease is also much more common in men than women, the AP reports.

Syphilis is a dangerous bacterial disease that surfaces as genital sores. The arrival of antibiotics in the 1940s reduced syphilis dramatically, but U.S. cases have been rising for about 15 years.

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The Gift of Life: Sam’s Story

Sam is a passionate organ donation advocate who is determined to give back to the transplantation community

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After her untimely death, 15-year-old Sammie (pictured left) donated her organs to save other lives, including the life of Sam (pictured right).

Life for Samantha, or “Sam” as she is affectionately known, was fairly ordinary until 2013. That’s when she first started experiencing symptoms such as a low appetite and abdominal distension. Sam tried to not overthink it until her condition worsened. “I was routinely curled up in a ball sobbing due to the intense stabbing feeling in my abdomen.” 

One day the pain was so agonizing, Sam went to the Emergency Room and learned that her intestine had somehow rotated 360 degrees. She was rushed into surgery, but unfortunately, the procedure was a Band-Aid and did not resolve her medical woes. 

After many hospitalizations, Sam was referred to specialists at MedStar Georgetown Transplant Institute and ultimately was diagnosed with a severe case of intestinal dysmotility, where the intestine doesn’t properly move food or waste products. Unable to eat or drink, Sam’s only source of nutrition came through an IV. 

While the IV kept Sam alive, it was in no way a long-term solution. So, in March 2019, she received a lifesaving bowel transplant from a deceased organ donor. “My life has completely changed. I now eat anything I can get my hands on, and I’m not in pain. I can do anything I want without worrying that my health will inhibit me. People who meet me now have no idea that I was ever sick unless I tell them.”

Post-transplant Sam has accomplished several milestones including returning to work, beginning graduate school and eating again. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are mundane parts of the day that are often taken for granted. But not for Sam. One recent memory dear to her heart was celebrating her one-year anniversary with her girlfriend Ali over a meal together, at a restaurant, for the very first time. 

Sam continues to make memories that are only possible because of her organ donor who coincidentally was also named Samantha or “Sammie.” Sammie, who loved aerial acrobatics and dreamed of being part of the Cirque du Soleil, died unexpectedly at the young age of 15.

According to her mother, Sammie was proud to be pansexual and loved Pride. “I’m so proud of my daughter. Even one life saved by donation is a miracle. Knowing that several people were saved by Sammie makes her loss so much easier to bear. Sammie loved helping people and is still doing that after her death,” said Kitty Ellis. 

“I am so thankful to Sammie for her amazing gift. I can’t put into words how grateful I am that in the midst of terrible pain, her family made the decision to save others’ lives. Sammie not only saved my life, but she gave me a life worth living. I will do everything I can to honor her gift.”

Sam is a passionate organ donation advocate who is determined to give back to the transplantation community. Her hope is that everyone registers to be an organ donor so that one day all those waiting for a transplant will receive their lifesaving gift in time.

Everyone can register to be an organ donor. To learn more about donation, visit BeADonor.org

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Queer youth found creative approaches to self-care during pandemic

From taking a bath to developing new workout routines

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The pandemic forced millions to ditch their gyms and create new workout routines as a means of self care.

Isolation, whether because of the pandemic, physical or mental health issues, or a combination of those, has affected everyone this year. For LGBTQ youth, already marginalized by society and often lacking support in their own families, it has been especially difficult.

A Trevor Project survey conducted at the end of 2020 found “more than half of transgender and non-binary youth seriously considered suicide.”

In July of 2020, a group of Irish doctors and a representative from a student group called for immediate research and dissemination of self-help resources for young people, stating that “youth, whilst less susceptible to severe COVID-19 infection, is more at risk of the negative psychosocial effects of the pandemic.”

Urban Health Media Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that helps train high school students in health journalism, surveyed youth about the mental health impacts of the pandemic in April. They wanted to know how LGBTQ youth had been taking care of themselves and about the importance of Pride as society emerged from isolation.

Pandemic life changed the way most people socialize, forcing people to learn how to cope with their own struggles. The concept of “self-care”— practices and methods for maintaining mental and physical health without the aid of the medical community — has become even more important when COVID-19 forced people into lockdown.

But pandemic-era self-care doesn’t look the same for everyone. For some, it’s about taking a bath, taking extra care of their physical health, or developing a new workout routine that doesn’t require a gym.

For many, therapy offers an opportunity to discuss emotions and get feedback and help from a trained professional. Many young people don’t have this option, unfortunately, and COVID has made some reluctant to seek out that type of care.

When therapy or friends are not enough or when they are inaccessible, people have found other ways to release their emotions.

Jada Johnson, a Baltimore writer and social justice advocate who graduated from high school last year, said on the Urban Health Media Project’s “Therapy Thursday” Instagram Live on May 6 that she is considering making more frequent appointments with a therapist. When things get too overwhelming for her, Johnson said she often just does “nothing.” She detaches until she feels strong enough to keep going.

Hot showers also help, she said.

“Hot water, it just relaxes me,” said Johnson. “Like, it just refreshes me, keeps me on the go.”

Radiah Jamil, a rising high school senior at Brooklyn Latin School, who is an LGBTQ ally, uses daily journaling and creative writing: “Writing in general is something I love to do and the activity enhances my quality of life so I like to do all types of writing from creative writing to journalism about any issues and topics on my mind.”

Young Elder, 19, a rap artist and activist from Baltimore, uses music and poetry to cope with the feelings of depression that she has experienced. “It really helped clear my mind and helped me find a different way to put how I was feeling,” she said on UHMP’s May 20 Instagram Live. “Music is how I heal, so it’s a process. So it’s kind of like I’m writing a diary and I’m choosing to share it.”

Teens and young adults surveyed by Urban Health Media Project about self-care also mentioned that favorite songs and movies help them to relax.

Dangers of social media

Turning to social media, however, when feeling anxious or depressed can sometimes add to stress. Social media is not nearly as transparent as some may think; a personal feed can often be just a collection of the best moments of a person’s life, and can sometimes be exaggerated or even fabricated.

Lexi Shepard, 18, of Kokomo, Ind., attested to the impact of social media on her mental health on a May 13 Instagram livestream: “Social media does impact how you view your own accomplishments because it’s very easy to fall into the niche of comparing yourself and what you’ve achieved to what other people are achieving.”

Having just graduated from high school, the college acceptance experience was fresh in her mind. “It’s very easy to sit there and compare and say, ‘wow, I could have done better and I could have done more,’ and have a very negative outlook on it,” she said. “I realized that I needed to be proud of my own accomplishments and realize what’s best for me. I’m making these decisions for myself, not to please people around me.”

Not everyone has that level of perspective and emotional self-awareness, though.

In situations of anxiety or stress, or feeling overwhelmed, the most important thing to do is to acknowledge your emotions and take a moment to yourself, said Calix Vu-Bui, a queer Vietnamese-American licensed therapist for Amwell.

“One of the things I think is so simple is to just tell yourself, or tell someone who’s asking something from you in an anxious moment, ‘I need a moment,’” Vu-Bui said in a May 13 Instagram Livestream organized by UHMP. “How are you going to regulate anything, [or] be able to think and respond to people if you’re not like, ‘wait a second, I’ve gotta breathe.’ And then you actually have to do it!”

Vu-Bui uses a metaphor of a balloon to explain the need to vent and release emotions.

”We’re full of all these emotions and all these things that happen to us… and so all the things [that were] mentioned, from journaling, music, exercise, all these different ways and outlets that we have to just kind of release some tension from that balloon. We’ve got to let some of that air out or we are going to pop.”

Resources for LGBTQ youth

You are not alone. Numerous resources exist for LGBTQ youth. National organizations that provide a full range of support from information and education to individualized care include:

The Trevor Project

You can call the Trevor Lifeline 24/7/365: 866-488-7386.

They also offer a round-the-clock online confidential chat and a text messaging withTrevor counselors for youth in need. Their website includes resources such as “Protect your space and well-being on Instagram” and “A Coming Out Handbook.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness also operates a Helpline 800-950-NAMI, or in a crisis text “NAMI” to 741741. They have state affiliates so you can find help wherever you are. You can find your local NAMI by scrolling to the bottom of their “about” page and putting your state into the designated search box. And their “Support and Education” page has information on support groups and even online discussion groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled a list of resources for LGBTQ youth, and their educators and school administrators, and their parents and families.

For more localized resources, contact a comprehensive care hospital or a children’s hospital in your region.

The Youth Pride Clinic, for example, provides primary and specialty care services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) young adults between the ages of 12-22 throughout the greater Washington, D.C., region. OR CALL 202-476-5744

Adrian Gibbons graduated from Boston University in May 2021 with a film degree. A trans male, he is an intern with the Urban Health Media Project.

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One non-binary person’s perspective on how to transition thoughtfully and safely

Q and A: Transitioning and its long-term impact

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Photo Courtesy of Arin Jayes.

Miami and Baltimore– Urban Health Media Project reporter Vanessa Falcon, a high school student in Miami, interviewed Arin Jayes, 30, of Baltimore, about his gender identity journey and experience transitioning to a non-binary trans man. Jayes, a behavioral health therapist, is also an urban farmer and embroidery artist.

Q:  How was your transitioning process? Was it overall very difficult? Why? How long did it last?

A: As a non binary person, I have a flexible view of how individuals develop their gender identity. It’s something that may evolve throughout a person’s lifetime, based on experiences; changes in personal values and relationships; bodily changes; and other factors. Gender identity also intersects and interacts with many other identities, such as race, ethnicity, physical ability or disability, sexual orientation and class. 

For many trans folks, the gender transition process is lifelong and never-ending! Pronouns can change multiple times (hence the “pronoun check” posts we see on Facebook). Similarly, physical changes or adjustments may happen over years, instead of all at once. I mention this before bringing up my own story because it is important to normalize the idea of flexible, changing genders. After all, gender is a social construct designed to categorize people. When we view gender on a continuum, we can recognize a galaxy of gender journeys that a person can take.

My own transition is a prime example. I came out as genderqueer in 2012, and used “they/them” pronouns exclusively. In 2015, after further introspection, I realized that I wanted to live in a more masculine body. I came out to my family and friends as a non-binary trans man, using “he” pronouns and physically transitioning. I made this decision with the understanding that I wasn’t transitioning because I identified as a “man” per se, but that I felt more comfortable in a body that had more masculine characteristics. Since physically transitioning seven years ago, I’ve passed as male about 90% of the time. (Masks can sometimes make passing complicated for trans folks!) When people ask me nowadays what my gender is, I just say “non-binary,” and that my pronouns are “he or they — either as fine.” I am leaning into presenting as femme or as masc as I want on any given day, and being as gay as I want. It can be tempting to present in a way that is more conventionally masculine or feminine, because sometimes it is just easier (fewer questions, comments, or worse). But if COVID-19 has taught me anything, it is that time is not guaranteed, and we must consider what makes life worth living, and embrace it. Every time Pride Month rolls around, I recommit to my true self. But this year it feels all the more important.

Q: Throughout the transitioning journey, many clients are informed of possible negative side effects. Despite hearing about them, you still decided to transition. Why?

A: Deciding to transition was one of the most important and difficult decisions I have ever made. Like many trans people, I didn’t initially know what being transgender meant. I had to do a lot of research, introspection and support group work before I realized that being transgender described how I felt. When deciding whether to physically transition, a person can do research about the changes that they may experience, talk to other people that have gone through similar changes, and seek individual or group therapy for support. I decided to physically transition after weighing my options based on the information that I gathered, the changes that I wanted, and my financial budget.

Luckily, there is a lot of information and help available. Trans folks are resourceful, and do a lot to support and inform our communities.  For example, there are numerous databases developed by trans people for trans people that allow you to review different surgeons or healthcare providers; compare photos or results of surgeries; and share resources and educational information about physically transitioning. Many community mental health centers have legal clinics that help people navigate the name and gender marker change process.

One side effect that I didn’t entirely understand until after I transitioned was the significant impact that being transgender has on how we navigate the world. It affects where we go to school and receive healthcare, even which streets we choose to walk down late at night. On a job interview, we often feel the need to consider, “Will people here be accepting of me? Will there be a restroom that I can safely use?” As a white and masculine-adjacent person, my navigation of the world is privileged based on systems of white supremacy. I will not for a second forget the trans women of color who paved the way for us to demand justice; their leadership — and that of their successors in our movements — must be recognized.

Q: Did you have, or do you currently have, any regrets about transitioning?

A: What I think this question is getting at is, “How do you know you’re sure?” This was a question that I asked myself many times as I considered making irreversible (or at least, not easily reversible) changes to my body. My answer to that is: I didn’t truly know it was right until after I did it. That may seem radical or scary. One may ask, “Why on earth would you do something so permanent if you weren’t sure?” But It took a leap of faith. And, as someone who has been there, I can say that if it doesn’t feel right, you know. It is important to trust yourself and your bodily autonomy. Also, if you decide to stop your physical transition, you don’t need to think of it as “de-transitioning.” The path of your gender journey is unique to you. You call the shots.

Q: How has transitioning helped you and your image of yourself? How has it affected your self-esteem and mental health?

A: Much of what is written about trans people focuses on the challenges of being trans. While I said that deciding to transition was one of the most important and difficult decisions I ever made, it was also one of the best ones I ever made. I love being trans! Trans people are unique, creative, and resilient. Trans culture is rooted in grassroots community organizing. It is humbling to think of all the amazing thinkers, writers, and artists who walked this journey. I have had the privilege to meet a lot of amazing trans people who remind me of the power of our community.

Q: What advice would you give to other people who want to follow the path you did?

A: Despite what society tells you about bodies and gender, there are no rules! You don’t have to justify or explain to anyone your decision to transition. You’re in the driver’s seat. Your body belongs to you and no one else. You will live in your body for the rest of your life. Therefore, you get to decide on what terms you will occupy it.

This article is part of our 2021 Youth Pride Issue in partnership with Urban Health Media.

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