HIV Service Organizations Go Clubbing
Written by Megan Barnes
Testing vans are becoming a part of the gay nightlife scene.
It’s becoming more convenient than ever to get an HIV test. OraSure is now offering OraQuick, a home testing kit available in pharmacies. Like a routine flu shot, rapid tests are getting easier to find and are being offered in some unlikely places. Health agencies have taken to thrift stores, hair salons and even local motor vehicle departments to reach people.
In the not-unreasonable belief that testing agencies need to go where people who need to be tested congregate, some people can now get tested when they’re out clubbing.
They used to say that, when the fox wants eggs, he goes to the henhouse. Similarly, to find sexually active men who haven’t been tested, HIV service organizations are putting themselves front and center in places where such men congregate. From New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, HIV testing vans are now routinely parking outside of gay bars and nightclubs in hopes of reaching the one in five Americans the federal Centers for Disease Control estimates are HIV-positive but unaware of their status.
Vans from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation have been regularly setting up shop along West Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard near a number of popular gay clubs. On a typical Saturday night, the organization’s worker bees usually give 30 to 40 tests.
Alexander Goncalvez, who runs the mobile testing units in L.A., notes that not everyone is fond of the idea. The thought of having an HIV scare when you’re out partying might seem like the ultimate buzzkill. “Some people might see it as not the best way to let someone know they’re positive,” Goncalvez admits. “But rapid tests aren’t always available to everyone, depending on where they live or what kind of health insurance they have. Sometimes it takes friends to say, ‘Hey, let’s go get tested together.’”
Mobile Reminders to Get Tested
The mobile units, however, serve as more than just a way to bring tests to the people who need them. They also remind gay men about the availability of HIV tests and encourage routine testing. Most importantly, they are a way of reaching those who might not otherwise have access to testing facilities, are unwilling to visit a testing site or just don’t want to bother taking the time. The on-site test is quick, confidential, free and always paired with counseling and linkage to care should someone test positive. The vans also provide a “safe space” where passersby can drop in with sexual health questions.
There are club promoters who have been working closely with organizations doing the testing. Some even donate entrance passes that the testing teams can give out to clubgoers in exchange for getting tested. As Goncalvez notes, “Sometimes people need an incentive to get tested, or they use that free pass or drink ticket as an excuse to go and do it.” Other promoters are so encouraging that they allow the agencies to set up a table inside the club itself, or they make announcements on stage during drag shows to let patrons know free testing is available just outside.
Not all club owners, however, are so accommodating. Some, fearing it’ll give their businesses a bad rap, have been known to request that the units park a block away. While some of the vans are discreet, others wear loud and clear lettering, which raises the question: Are men worried about being seen getting into an HIV-testing van? Does this automatically mark them as potentially positive? Or does the regular presence of testing in the club scene make it more normal and less stigmatized? In WeHo, at least, it’s the latter, according to Goncalvez: Clubgoers have become so used to seeing the vans that some have made friends with the staff.
London Bar Sets a Testing Record
In Washington, D.C., Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s major AIDS service organization, keeps its vans low-key, painted white with only the nonprofit health center’s logo. “We decided not to put any signs advertising free HIV testing,” says Whitman-Walker Community Health Manager Juan Carlos Loubriel. “It’s more discreet. Some people don’t want to be seen doing it. I think it’s not about the amount of tests you give out, but how many positives you can find. When you find a positive person and link them to care immediately, that’s where you can make a difference.”
In contrast, San Francisco’s joint operation of the Stop AIDS Project and Alliance Health Project parks an out-and-proud 30-foot purple RV in the Castro between popular clubs Q Bar and 440. Testing times are posted on the groups’ websites.
It should be noted that all of the testing organizations take pains not to take advantage of the situation. While Goncalvez points out that “sometimes people need alcohol in their system to work up the courage to get an HIV test,” if anyone appears so intoxicated he doesn’t understand the consent form before signing — or can’t even sign it — the staff will turn him away with information about where to test when sober.
For his part, Goncalvez firmly believes that bringing testing to the gay club scene can only be a good thing: “For us, it’s about making it convenient for clients. Not everyone has access to a free rapid HIV test, and if people want to hop on the unit at 2 o’clock in the morning, then great. If anything, they walk out with condoms, knowing their status.”
Perhaps bars and clubs in the United States could take a page from one of their counterparts in the United Kingdom. In London, this past World AIDS Day (December 1), a gay bar set a new world record for administering the most HIV tests in an eight-hour period: 745, with six positives.