Connect with us

homepage news

Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS vulnerable 3 years after Hurricane Maria

Coronavirus has hindered slow recovery



Hurricane Maria damaged the door of AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s clinic that had been under construction in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS remain vulnerable three years after the hurricane devastated the U.S. commonwealth. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Ricky Martin a few days ago shared on his official Instagram account an image with former Vice President Joe Biden where he promoted the Democratic presidential candidate’s plan for Puerto Rico. The message coincided with the third anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall in the U.S. commonwealth. 

“Biden will ensure that Puerto Rico will receive urgently needed federal disaster reconstruction funds to support Puerto Rico’s long-term recovery and increase its ability to withstand future storms,” ​​Martin wrote.

The ravages of Maria continue to be felt among the Puerto Rican people, and remain visible in the island’s infrastructure.

The New England Journal of Medicine estimates Maria killed 4,645 people in Puerto Rico. The hurricane also left the entire island in darkness and 60 percent of the population without water. Maria caused an estimated $100 billion in economic losses that set Puerto Rico back 40 years.

A study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus and Columbia University notes Puerto Ricans living with HIV/AIDS were one of the groups that Maria impacted the most. 

The study notes viral suppression decreased from 71 percent to 65 percent in the entire sample as a result of Maria’s impact. Access to medical assistance and health services for these patients fell by more than 2 percent.

Puerto Rico has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the U.S. 

A total of 48,506 people have been diagnosed with HIV in Puerto Rico from Jan. 1, 1981, to June 30, 2017. The coronavirus pandemic has raised the figure to 50,163 cases, according to data from the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus’ Integrated Clinical Trials Unit.

Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS, however, were vulnerable before Maria due to a combination of factors that include a lack of resources to combat the epidemic and the island’s debt crisis. The slow pace of recovery from Maria, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, has left the outlook for this population much more complex. 

‘Still a long way to go’

Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, will never forget the family he visited a few days after Maria. The strong winds had blown the roof of their home and ripped it to pieces while they took refuge on the first floor.

He went there to provide food, water and basic necessities, which he distributed in 28 municipalities. 

“People living with HIV/AIDS did not have their necessary medicines or meals,” recalled Labiosa. “The municipality of San Juan and the VIDA Clinic (a clinic the municipality of San Juan operates) helped a lot in this need.”

Several other NGOs extended a helping hand to help those who lost everything to nature’s impetuous force. One of them, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, sent a cargo plane from Miami with 50 electric generators to help restore power to the Puerto Rico Department of Health’s facilities.

Silvana Erbstein, regional director of AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Miami-Dade County and Puerto Rico, says local agencies in Puerto Rico were not prepared to face an event of this magnitude.

“A large part of the patients with HIV/AIDS were affected by the interruption of their treatment, the limited availability of clinical care, lack of access to essential services, and the difficulty to receive medicines due to the lack of electricity, water, reduced hours or inaccessibility,” Erbstein explained. “Despite the emergency, the AHF Clinic in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, continued with its operations providing medical services and medicines thanks to its Crisis Management Plan.”

Labiosa described the Island of Enchantment’s recovery three years later as slow, costly and traumatic. 

“[It has been] costly because members of the central government and in some cases municipalities have stolen the financial aid we have received for their personal purposes; they have divided the money between friends, giving multimillion dollar contracts without experience or results; traumatic because people have had to ‘look for it’ and as soon as they think they are afloat another situation comes,” Labiosa told the Washington Blade. “We have been able to survive so many things and now COVID-19.”

Waves Ahead has been able to rebuild 21 homes thorough its ReconstruyeQ project. 

Labiosa says his organizations are now helping Puerto Ricans weather the pandemic. They have been able to provide gloves, soap, masks and meals to 1,045 people. 

“Non-profit organizations like us and private entities make a difference and help more than the government itself,” says Labiosa.

Anselmo Fonseca, president and founder of Pacientes de SIDA Pro Política Sana, a Puerto Rican HIV/AIDS service organization, agrees.

“Most, if not all, of the work is left to NGOs to provide it from the heart, without pay,” he said. “The government is so full of corruption cases in practically all the agencies, since this administration.”

Workers install a roof onto a Hurricane Maria-damaged house in the Candelero Arriba neighborhood of Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Waves Ahead has helped rebuild this home and 20 others that Maria damaged. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Trump administration on Sept. 19 announced $13 billion in aid to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid and other infrastructure that Maria damaged or destroyed. This announcement comes after the White House faced scathing criticism over its response to the hurricane.

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jennifer González Colón, who is a Republican, in an email interview with the Blade acknowledged Congress has authorized funds for Puerto Rico in response to Maria and Hurricane Irma that brushed the island in early September 2017.

“Although the disbursement of these funds has not occurred with the haste that the seriousness of the situation required, the truth is that the recovery of Puerto Rico is under way,” said González.

González noted to the Blade she continues to support the LGBTQ community.

She pointed out she has co-sponsored the Equality Act and several other LGBTQ rights bills in Congress. González is also the co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus.

Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón (Photo by Spaijen via Wikimedia Commons)

González noted Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was already quite fragile before the hurricanes hit it in 2017, so “there is still a long way to go, but Puerto Rico’s recovery is undoubtedly on track.”

Fonseca said many Puerto Ricans continue to suffer from severe post-traumatic stress disorder three years after Maria. He said his organization continues to provide them with emotional support, apart from access to a housing program and health clinics.

With the arrival of the coronavirus a few months ago, the situation has heightened concerns among patients with HIV/AIDS because the pandemic has once again caused interruptions in medical and pharmaceutical services.

“Most HIV patients are served by government agencies or small local non-profit agencies, many of them unprepared and without sufficient protective material and equipment available,” said Erbstein.

She added that AIDS Healthcare Foundation has kept its doors open during this pandemic, ensuring any person with HIV can access medical services and can receive their medicines on time.

González told the Blade she was able to secure an additional allocation of almost $2 million in federal funds through the Ryan White Program under the federal CARES Act in April. These funds will benefit the San Juan Department of Health, public and private organizations and other programs and institutions. 

“These last few months have been tough for many living with HIV/AIDS,” added Labiosa. “Jobs have been lost, clinics closed … We are also entering another hurricane season and now with COVID doing the most difficult preparation and recovery tasks.”

Labiosa said shelters open with less capacity due to physical distancing. He added organizations and families have to spend more on basic items to face the global health epidemic.

“Since there is no money, people are more exposed by visiting pharmacies and supermarkets daily, since they go dollar for dollar every day,” said Labiosa. “The recovery of houses is much slower in these months of the hurricane season, since the rains prevent construction. It is sad what is happening in Puerto Rico, but we are resilient and we are going to overcome this.”

Continue Reading

homepage news

Biden names civil rights veteran to U.S. Education Dept.

Catherine Lhamon’s portfolio will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct, racial discrimination



Nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education Catherine Lhamon. (Photo public domain))

The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden has nominated Catherine Lhamon to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lhamon currently serves as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity at the White House, where she manages the President’s equity policy portfolio. She is a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) and served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2017 to 2021.

She has also served as Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Her portfolio at Education, where she previously served in the same position under former President Barack Obama, will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct and racial discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools, universities and colleges. Lhamon was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, to which President Obama nominated her and the Senate confirmed her in 2013.

“I am thrilled that President Biden is nominating Catherine Lhamon to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Catherine has devoted her career to ensuring equity is at the core of all her work,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

“She has a strong record of fighting for communities of color and underserved communities, whether as the current Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or as a civil rights educator at Georgetown University. We are thrilled to have Catherine serving as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and know she will continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students.”

Lhamon has also litigated civil rights cases at National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel Law Center, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.  Lhamon taught federal civil rights appeals at Georgetown University Law Center in the Appellate Litigation Program and clerked for the Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Catherine Lhamon is the right choice to lead the Department of Education’s civil rights division at such a critical time for the country and the agency. There is much work to do in order to roll back the harmful policies and legacies of Betsy DeVos, from her attacks on transgender students to her unconscionable revocation of discriminatory discipline guidance and rewrite of Title IX rules,” Adele Kimmel, Director of the Students’ Civil Rights Project at Public Justice told the Blade in an email.

“During her previous tenure in the same job, Catherine embraced equality, enforced Title IX and ensured students had an ally inside the federal government. She will do so again, and the Senate should move to quickly confirm her so she can begin the work of restoring the Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights and dignity of students and implementing the Biden Administration’s pledge to undo the damage that DeVos has done,” Kimmel added.

Born in Virginia and raised in California, Lhamon graduated from Amherst College and Yale Law School. Lhamon and her husband and two daughters are transitioning between California and Maryland.

Continue Reading

homepage news

IDAHOBiT events to promote intersectionality, resilience, allyship

HRC president to participate in virtual panel in Canada



(Photo courtesy of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia committee)


Intersectionality, resilience and allyship are among the themes that this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia events will highlight.

Dignity Network Canada and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention on May 17 will hold a virtual panel that will feature Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, Canadian Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity Executive Director Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, Kaleidoscope Trust Executive Director Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, COC Nederland Executive Director Marie Ricardo and Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell. The British High Commission and the Dutch Embassy in Canada have co-sponsored the event.

“We hope that this will be a really interesting and important conversation on intersectionality and transnational solidarity — and what it means for these leaders and their organizations during these times,” reads a description of the event.

The U.N. LGBTI Core Group on May 17 will host a virtual IDAHOBiT event that will focus on ways to develop an “inclusive and diverse post-pandemic world.” The World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Inter-American and Asian Development Banks host a similar IDAHOBiT commemoration.

“In order to heal from the economic, social, and public health dire impact the pandemic has had and still has, every plan of recovery must take into account a human-rights based, intersectional and gender responsive approach that addresses the specific needs of LGBTI persons in order not to leave them further behind,” reads a description of the U.N. LGBTI Core Group event.

Several Russian LGBTQ rights groups on May 17 will hold a “Vaccine for Acceptance” event that seeks to bolster allyship in the country.

Retired South Africa Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron on May 16 will moderate a virtual panel that will focus on religion and anti-LGBTQ violence.

Workplace Pride and the Dutch Embassy in Budapest on May 17 will host a symposium on LGBTQ-inclusive workplaces in Hungary. M.V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, on the same day will participate in a webinar the U.S. Embassy in Singapore is hosting with Oogachaga, a local LGBTQ advocacy group.

Haver Srbija, a Serbian NGO, on May 15-16 will hold Falafel, a film festival that seeks to build “bridges and promotes Israeli, Jewish and LGBTQI culture and communities” and highlight “various social issues in the context of the fight against prejudice, discrimination, anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia and encourages the audience to develop critical thinking on the issue of these topics.” Proud Lebanon is slated to hold a series of six webinars between May 17-22 that will focus on feminism, LGBTQ rights and other topics.

The National Center for Sexual Education in Cuba will hold a series of virtual forums and other events through the month to commemorate IDAHOBiT.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro, whose father is former Cuban President Raúl Castro, during a May 4 press conference in Havana said the IDAHOBiT events are part of the process of amending the country’s family code to make it more equitable for LGBTQ Cubans. Mariela Castro said a bill to amend it will be introduced in the Cuban Parliament in July.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference, according to Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba.

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s 1990 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

This year’s events will take place against the backdrop of a pandemic that continues to exacerbate existing inequalities for LGBTQ people and other vulnerable groups around the world.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of countries. Violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation remains rampant in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Continue Reading

homepage news

Mixed reviews from transgender Republicans on Caitlyn Jenner’s run

Remarks on kids in sport a sore point among LGBTQ advocacy groups



Caitlyn Jenner was quickly repudiated by LGBTQ advocates after she entered California’s recall election as a gubernatorial candidate — and her fellow transgender Republicans are mixed over whether or not to back her up.

Transgender Republicans are few in number, but some are in high-profile positions and have been working with their party to change its approach and drop its attacks on transgender people, whether it be in the military, public bathrooms, or school sports.

Jordan Evans, a Charlton, Mass.-based transgender Republican who unsuccessfully last year ran to become a Massachusetts Republican State Committee Woman, told the Washington Blade she had high hopes for Jenner as a fellow transgender candidate, but they were quickly dashed after her campaign launched.

“My feelings changed quickly after Caitlyn made it clear that she was less interested in using this opportunity to present the Republican Party and conservative movements with an accessible and high-profile introduction to the trans community and simply wanted to be a trans woman who espoused the same destructive approaches that we just so happen to be seeing all over the country,” Evans said.

Evans said the high hopes she had were based on the transgender advocacy she said Jenner was doing behind the scenes and the potential for two prominent LGBTQ Republicans to run for governor in California. After all, Jenner may soon be joined in the race by Richard Grenell, who was U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence before becoming the face of LGBTQ outreach for Trump’s failed re-election.

But Jenner’s approach to the gubernatorial recall in California, Evans said, is “putting trans youth at risk for a campaign that isn’t even transformative for Republicans during this volatile time.”

“Even her current messaging is superficial and does nothing to help dispel claims that she’s unqualified,” Evans said. “The only positive thing that I’ve seen come from this is conservative mainstream media using her correct pronouns, but that is not worth the damage that she’s inflicting.”

Much of the disappointment over Jenner’s campaign is the result of her essentially throwing transgender kids under the bus as part of her campaign at a time when state legislatures are advancing legislation against them, including the bills that would essentially bar transgender girls from participating in school sports.

Jenner, declining to push back on these measures and assert transgender kids have a place in sports, instead essentially endorsed the bills shortly after she announced her candidacy.

“If you’re born as a biological boy, you shouldn’t be allowed to compete in girls’ sports,” Jenner told TMZ, which asked her about the hot-button issue during a Sunday morning coffee run.

Jenner dug deeper into MAGA-world at the expense of solidarity with the transgender community. Last week, Jenner retweeted Jenna Ellis, who has a notoriously anti-LGBTQ background and was criticized just last year for refusing to use the personal pronouns of Rachel Levine, who’s now assistant secretary of health and the first openly transgender presidential appointee to win Senate confirmation.

Jennifer Williams, a New Jersey-based transgender Republican who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly last year, said via email Jenner “did much good for several years by educating millions of people around the world about transgender folks,” but won’t countenance the candidate’s remarks on transgender kids in sports.

“In regard to her current run for California governor, her recent comments regarding transgender youth playing sports are confusing,” Williams said. “Just last year, she said that she supported transgender female athletes. Caitlyn should consult with tennis great Billie Jean King, soccer star Megan Rapinoe or WNBA legend Candace Parker on the subject of transgender athletes in women’s sports, as they are very well versed on the matter.”

At a time when state legislatures are pushing through legislation targeting transgender youth, restricting their access to sports and transition-related care, Jenner’s refusal to repudiate those measures has become a focal point for opposition to her candidacy from LGBTQ advocacy groups, who say she’s “out of touch” (although none were supporting her even before she made those comments).

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ political candidates and public officials, has signaled it wants nothing to do with Jenner.

Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for LGBTQ Victory Fund, said Jenner hasn’t applied for an endorsement from the Victory Fund “and she shouldn’t bother to.”

“Her opposition to full trans inclusion – particularly for trans kids in sports – makes her ineligible for the endorsement,” Meloy said. “There are many great trans candidates running this cycle who are champions for equality.”

To be sure, Jenner used her celebrity status as a former reality TV star and Olympic champion on behalf of transgender lobbyists, urging donations to groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality and going to Capitol Hill to lobby Republicans on transgender issues. Jenner has also given money for transgender kids to attend college, giving transgender advocate Blossom Brown a check for $20,000 on “The Ellen Show” in 2015.

Blaire White, a transgender conservative and YouTube personality, drew on these examples of Jenner helping transgender youth in a video earlier this month and said the two once had dinner together, but wasn’t yet ready to make a endorsement.

“I will say that until she lays out all of her policy positions and until she’s more on record in long form really talking about what she wants to do for the state of California, I can’t say for sure I would vote for her and would not vote for her,” White concluded in the video. “What I can say is: I’m interested. And also, being under Gavin Newson’s governorship, I would literally vote for a triple-amputee frog over Gavin Newsom, so she already has that going for her.”

Jenner’s campaign couldn’t be reached for comment for this article on the repudiation of her campaign from LGBTQ advocacy groups.

Gina Roberts, who’s the first transgender Republican elected to public office in California and a member of the San Diego GOP Central Committee, said she’s neutral for the time being as an elected Republican Party leader, but nonetheless had good things to say about Jenner’s candidacy.

“I think it’s awesome,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of indicative of how cool the Republican Party in California is because nobody really cares or it makes any difference. I mean, I was the first elected GOP transgender person in California and I think we’re ready for No. 2.”

Asked whether Jenner’s comments about allowing transgender kids in sports was troubling, Roberts said that wasn’t the case because she has her own reservations.

“I have pretty much the same opinion because … there’s so many nuances in that,” Roberts said. “If somebody transitions after they’ve gone through puberty, there is a big difference, especially in high school. If they transition beforehand, it’s not a big deal.”

A gun enthusiast and supporter of gun owner’s rights, Roberts said she competes in women’s events in shooting sports, but there’s a difference because she doesn’t “really have any advantages all those young, small ladies can pull a lot faster than I do and shoot faster than I do.”

Roberts concluded she’ll personally make a decision about whom she’ll support in the California recall election after Grenell announces whether or not he’ll enter the race, but can’t say anything until the San Diego GOP Central Committee issues an endorsement.

“He’s a good friend of mine, too,” Roberts said. “I know both of them. I think they’d both be certainly better than Gavin Newsom, I have to stay neutral until the county party decides who they’re going to endorse. I will support somebody or another in the endorsement process, but I can’t publicly announce it.”

Although LGBTQ groups want nothing to do with her campaign, Jenner’s approach has garnered the attention of prominent conservatives, who are taking her seriously as a candidate. One of Jenner’s first interviews was on Fox News’ Sean Hannity, a Trump ally with considerable sway among his viewers. Hannity was able to find common ground with Jenner, including agreement on seeing California wildfires as a problem with forest management as opposed to climate change.

Kayleigh McEnany, who served as White House press secretary in Trump’s final year in the White House and defended in the media his efforts to challenge his 2020 election loss in court, signaled her openness to Jenner’s candidacy after the Hannity interview.

“I really enjoyed watching @Caitlyn_Jenner’s interview with @seanhannity,” McEnany tweeted. “I found Caitlyn to be well-informed, sincere, and laser-focused on undoing the socialist, radical, a-scientific policies of Biden & the left. Very good.”

In theory, that support combined with Jenner’s visibility might be enough to propel Jenner to victory. In the recall election, California will answer two questions, whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom should be recalled, and if so, which candidate should replace him. The contender with the plurality of votes would win the election, even if that’s less than a majority vote, and become the next governor. There isn’t a run-off if no candidate fails to obtain a majority.

With Jenner’s name recognition as a celebrity, that achievement could be in her reach. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger won the 2004 recall election in California as a Republican based on his celebrity status, and ended up becoming a popular governor.

But the modest inroads Jenner has made with the acceptance of conservatives and potential to win isn’t enough for other transgender Republicans.

Evans, for example, said Jenner’s candidacy is not only a disappointment, but threatening the potential candidacies of transgender hopefuls in the future.

“It’s difficult to be in electoral politics, and that’s even more true when you’re a member of a marginalized community,” Evans said. “Caitlyn’s behavior is making it even more challenging for the trans community to be visible in a field where we desperately need to be seen. She’s casting a tall shadow on our ability to have a voice and is giving credibility to lawmakers and local leaders simply unwilling to view us with decency and respect.”

Williams said Jenner should avoid talking about transgender issues over the course of her gubernatorial run “and instead focus on the hard, critical policy issues facing California.”

“It is a state in crisis and she has to run a very serious campaign and not rely on her celebrity or LGBTQ status to win over voters’ hearts and minds — just like all other LGBTQ candidates around the country need to do when they run for public office,” Williams said.

Continue Reading

Follow Us @washblade

Sign Up for Blade eBlasts