Meeting NoVa Health Needs

Northern Virginia's Gay Men's Health Collaborative building a brand that's part health resource, part social club

Due in part to the state’s historically conservative tilt and anti-gay policies that have been enacted in state law, Virginia is often viewed as having a dearth of resources for LGBT people, particularly gay, bisexual or transgender men.

It’s that reputation that James Leslie hopes to counter through his work with the Gay Men’s Health Collaborative (GMHC), an initiative intended to provide HIV-prevention services and resources to at-risk LGBT residents of Northern Virginia.

Leslie, an HIV-health educator and gay men’s health coordinator at Inova Fairfax Hospital, which houses the offices of GMHC, says he wants GMHC to provide the kinds of services for Northern Virginia’s LGBT community that nonprofit community health center Whitman-Walker Health does for residents of the District.

Leslie says the need for intervention and prevention services has become increasingly apparent following the late-June closure of the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry (NOVAM), an organization that provided HIV/AIDS-related prevention and educational services. NOVAM’s closure essentially left Northern Virginia without a primary health resource focused on gay men. Leslie also points out that there are very few social opportunities for LGBT people, particularly GBT men, whose rates of infection are higher, to socialize or find support outside of gay bars, most of which are located in the District.

To address those needs, GMHC has adopted a two-pronged approach, facilitating programs geared not only toward HIV-prevention and overall physical health, but building individuals’ self-esteem and bolstering their mental and emotional well-being.

On the testing end, GMHC holds its Rainbow Tuesdays Clinic, which provides free, confidential HIV testing and STI screenings on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, in conjunction with the Alexandria Health Department. GMHC has also held HIV testing at various locations in Northern Virginia, such as Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, and Lotus Blooms, an adult boutique in Old Town Alexandria, which will host a testing session from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21. STI screenings may be offered in addition to HIV testing, if space at those alternative locations permits.

On the social side, Leslie has organized several events for Virginia residents to make new acquaintances through activities in alcohol-free environments. Some “GBT Men’s Meetups” or other outings planned for the future include bowling, movie nights, game nights, and visiting a waterpark in Manassas, Va. The social events are intended to provide GBT men the chance to make new friends and build their own social networks and support systems.

“We want to have a space for people outside the city that’s not a bar,” says Leslie.

GMHC’s activities are funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Health and private donations, and Leslie says he is meticulous about providing regular reports and updates about how he is spending the grant money to carry out GMHC’s various programs. He says he hopes the Department of Health will renew the grant as long as he can show the need for such prevention and support services.

GMHC is currently putting together a special project called “Chosen Families,” a photo exhibit where LGBT people take pictures of themselves, their partners, their adoptive or biological families, and – in some cases – their friends who act as a “substitute” family, as part of an effort to showcase the diversity of loving, supportive relationships within the LGBT community and reduce the social stigma sometimes placed on LGBT individuals, their families and those on whom they rely for emotional support.

The project is going to be displayed at a Sept. 30 reception at Alexandria’s Charles E. Beatley Library in Alexandria. Leslie is in discussions with other libraries to see if they would be interested in housing the photo exhibit on a rotating basis.

“The idea is that the family you’re born with isn’t always the one that supports you, that’s there for you when you need them to be,” says Leslie.

GMHC’s “Chosen Families” project will debut at a reception at the Charles E. Beatley Library, at 5005 Duke St., Alexandria, Monday, Sept. 30. The reception runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, contact James Leslie at 703-321-2511 or James.leslie@inova.org.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com