This Sexual Health Advocate Opens Up About Working in One of the Gayest Hoods on Earth
Ken Almanza is the newest addition to the Men’s Health Foundation, one of the largest providers of healthcare to gay men in Southern California and West Hollywood, one of the gayest neighborhoods in America. Almanza has been an HIV prevention and health care advocate for many years and has utilized social media to stimulate conversations around sexual health, including for “Start Talking. Stop HIV.” a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) campaign promoting HIV prevention strategies to gay and bisexual men.
We chatted with Almanza to learn more about the work the Men’s Health Foundation is doing to improve the health and wellness of gay men.
Hornet: Tell me about your new role at the Men’s Health Foundation.
Almanza: I serve as the new Biomedical Prevention Program Manager overseeing PrEP and PEP programming at the Men’s Health Foundation. I work alongside two full-time PrEP navigators at the largest men’s health care provider in West Hollywood. At the moment, the foundation is growing and expanding, so it’s an exciting time to be on board
You were a PrEP advocate early on, how have things evolved in regards to our communities reactions to PrEP?
When I first began advocating for PrEP in 2014, there were only a few go-to places for comprehensive PrEP information. There were also many misconceptions about PrEP and some harsh judgement towards those who were using it. However, over the past three years, many diverse PrEP
awareness campaigns have emerged, and more accessible PrEP information has become available online. I believe this information has positively influenced acceptance around PrEP use, helped to increase uptake and created safe, new spaces for PrEP advocates and bloggers online.
We’ve had success among white gay men and PrEP access, why do we continue to have challenges when it comes to gay men of color and PrEP?
Successful linkage to PrEP services is largely dependent on a patient’s ability to access continuous insurance coverage and receive treatment in a medical facility that affirms their cultural and sexual identity. Context is important here. For gay men of color, we can sometimes face language and cultural barriers, racism and bias within healthcare systems and in some cases scarcity of resources. This can all play a factor on whether we access PrEP and continue to have access to it. Fortunately, many health care providers here in Los Angeles are stepping up to the plate to help close this gap.
It will require a shift in culture to get gay men used to the idea of seeing a doctor every three months for STI screening and other monitoring. What will it take to make that cultural shift happen?
I believe primary health care providers and clinical staff serve as the main agents for change. The more they can contribute to normalizing sexual behaviors and engaging in frank, honest conversation, the easier it might become to maintain PrEP patients in routine care. We can also take insight from HIV case management models and apply those same guiding principles to HIV negative patients.
How can we utilize social networks to ensure more queer men of color are engaged around the issue of PrEP?
Dating and hook up apps have been a great tool is creating access points for gay men of color. Living in the age of Instagram stories and Snapchat video, it’s important that we utilize user-made content in order to educate about healthcare and PrEP access and create honest, diverse points of view.
Stigma around gay sex is a pervasive issue in our community. In your experience, what has been the best way to combat the shame many in our community still experience around sex?
I can speak to what works for myself. I start from within and define what health and sex look like for me. I establish my own self-worth and boundaries around sex. In this way, I approach interactions with others from a well-defined vantage point. Taking the time to define these aspects can help
combat external stigma and shame.
Gay men’s lives are not just about HIV. What do you see as the other primary health concerns facing gay men?
Working among gay men of color over the years has allowed me to witness first-hand issues around mental health and addiction. The wonderful thing about PrEP is that is serves as a gateway to health. What may begin as a routine PrEP visit, may result in a patient being referred to other medically necessary services. PrEP navigators who conduct brief risk assessments can also assist in identifying these medical needs sooner and positively influence the overall health outcome of the patient.
Featured image via Fubar