National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day, annually celebrated on October 15, reminds us that it’s important to highlight and uplift the work of Latinx and Afro-Latinx-led organizations on the ground combatting HIV and LGBTQ-related stigma and discrimination.
This month, I was able to chat with Manuel J. Diaz-Ramirez, Director of Community Health Action at La Clínica del Pueblo. La Clínica is a clinic that serves the Latinx population of the Washington, DC, metropolitan area by providing medical services, mental health and substance abuse counseling, language access services, and community health action programs. La Clínica was founded as a project of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), providing free medical services in a volunteer-run clinic.
La Clínica also serves sexual minority groups through its LGBTQ health centers known as ¡Empodérate! (Empower Yourself!). There are currently two ¡Empodérate! Centers, one based in Washington, DC, while the other is located in Hyattsville, MD. The DC-based ¡Empodérate! Center is the only bilingual HIV program that targets young Latinx men who have sex with men and young Latinx transgender women between the ages of 18 and 29 in Washington, DC.
My conversation with Manuel focused on health disparities faced by LGBTQ Latinx youth and ways that ¡Empodérate! works to combat stigma and discrimination.
AB: What barriers do LGBTQ Latinx youth face when accessing sexual health services?
MDR: There are a few barriers such as:
- The school system often avoids opening their spaces for sexual health services, particularly in Maryland.
- Many religious organizations have conservative views of sexuality and therefore are hesitant to allow any sexual health service in their premises or for their members.
- Gender-based stereotypes regarding sexuality and practices.
- Language and cultural barriers.
- Lack of trained and well-informed trusted-adults
AB: How does the Empodérate Center work to combat stigma and discrimination around access to sexual health services?
MDR: ¡Empodérate! Centers aim to reduce stigma and discrimination by:
- Developing and normalizing conversations on sexual health.
- Maintaining a safe space for peers.
- Training peer community health educators.
- Developing partnerships and networking efforts.
The ¡Empodérate! Centers, as a program of La Clinica Del Pueblo under its Community Health Action Strategy, has direct access to medical, mental, substance use care services as needed.
AB: How do the ¡Empodérate! Centers ensure that Latinx youth have access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)?
MDR: [Our] staff works on ensuring clients who are ready for PrEP to have access to the local financial resources and strategies to afford the costs. The staff also ensure conversations with clients on their readiness to use PrEP, exploring if PrEP is for them from a health education approach. Incorporating PrEP within conversations on other sexual health related topics [avoids] isolating it.
AB: What are the methods of outreach?
MDR: The ¡Empodérate! Centers uses word of mouth as its most important method to reach the populations needing its services. The program also trains peer health promoters to conduct the conversations on sexual health, but also to build trust among the populations being served. [We also use] street-based outreach in alternative venues, non-clinical settings.
AB: How did you become a part of this work?
MDR: I am a social psychologist and since college I have been involved in the community health field. I have always worked for community-based organizations providing health services. I wanted to contribute to provide the necessary safe spaces to have these conversations, spaces that I didn’t have when I was a teenager or youth.
AB: What keeps you going?
MDR: Seeing participants grow and living a healthier life, and knowing that I’m contributing to my Latinx communities, making a difference. The ongoing challenges our communities face also helps keep me going.
AB: Thank you!
Studies have shown that the development of Latinx-centered HIV and LGBTQ programs such as ¡Empodérate! Centers achieve a few goals such as:
- The creation of safe spaces in which Latinx LGBTQ folks can critically explore and discuss the impact of social discrimination on their physical and mental health
- The enhancement of feelings of belonging and social support, particularly from family, friends, caseworkers, and healthcare providers;
- The access to culturally competent and linguistically appropriate sexual health services, including HIV prevention information and education, care, and treatment;
- The ability to learn about opportunities for social action, including volunteerism and activism.
This NLAAD remember that it’s everyone’s role to ensure that Latinx folks, include Afro-Latinx individuals, have access to comprehensive sexual health services, rights, and justice.
This post features “My Culture, Mi Gente,” a mural developed in 2009 by muralist Joel Bergner in Columbia Heights. The mural was demoed in November of 2018 and is a reminder to all of us to continue to embrace the diverse communities that make DC what it is today.