New health center for gay South LA

Kevin Tsukii

The new Gleicher / Chen Health Center is located at 3743 S. La Brea Ave. and officially opened on Oct. 1. | Kevin Tsukii

Vallerie Wagner swears she’s not the sex police.

“Sex should be fun,” Wagner said in a new office still smelling of fresh paint.

She’s sex-positive, but fighting a battle to keep the citizens of South L.A. HIV-negative. Wagner runs the Gleicher/Chen Health Center which is part of APLA Health & Wellness, the first Federally Qualified Health Center in South L.A. aimed at serving both HIV-negative and -positive people of color. According to the Federal HIV/AIDS Web Council, this is the population most affected by AIDS.

The health center resides at the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road in the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center and aims to serve the predominantly Black gay community of South L.A.

The 6,700-square-foot building is outfitted with five exam rooms, a blood lab, a state-of-the-art dental clinic and three counseling rooms. The modern furniture and vibrant colors make the space feel like a welcoming lounge.

For Wagner, leading the health center is the next step in her atypical career in HIV activism. Wagner was the first woman to receive a Master’s degree in engineering from the Tuskegee Institute and went on to work for Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. After 15 years as an engineer, she left JPL in 1998 to give back to the LGBT community of color and to work for AIDS nonprofits, including the Gay and Lesbian Center and the Black AIDS Institute.

“It was a combination of really being engaged in my community as a Black lesbian and having lots of friends who were Black gay men who died of AIDS,” Wagner said of her move into AIDS work.

Kevin Tsukii

The Chief Operating Officer of the Gleicher / Chen Health Center, Vallerie Wagner. | Kevin Tsukii

The present state of AIDS is a stark contrast to when AIDS Project Los Angeles, the original name of the organization that created APLA Health & Wellness, was founded in 1982 to help HIV-positive people to die with dignity.

“If you missed a couple Sundays and you came back [the patients] either were in a wheelchair or they weren’t there anymore,” Wagner said of when she was involved with Unity Fellowship Church, a church founded in South LA to serve the LGBT community.

In 1997, antiretroviral therapy transformed what it meant to live with HIV, extending life expectancies dramatically. But it still was not a cure.

“AIDS is no longer on the front pages anymore” Wagner said.  “It has almost been normalized to just a chronic disease where if you get it all you do is take a pill.”

An article by LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron in May 2013 shined a light on the dire need for LGBT-focused health care in South L.A. “The face of HIV in Los Angeles and the United States is that of the young, black gay man,” wrote Hillel. Black men who have sex with other men accounted for 11,800 infections in 2011 and one in 16 black men will test positive for HIV if current trends continue, according to the CDC.

The 2010 Affordable Care Act created new funding opportunities for health centers, called Federally Qualified Health Centers, to serve chronically uninsured populations. APLA Health & Wellness’ new center was created as such a location, while AIDS Project Los Angeles remained a 501(c)(3) non-profit. As the organizations separated, APLA Health & Wellness decided to emphasize its focus on comprehensive health rather than just sexual well-being.

For example, the “APLA” in APLA Health & Wellness no longer stands for “AIDS Project Los Angeles” — in fact, the acronym no longer means anything. The rebranding effort, Wagner said, represents a modern, holistic take on health care services and community outreach for HIV/AIDS issues that goes beyond sexual health.

The center has served more than 300 patients since late September with medical, dental, mental health and HIV counseling.

On Nov. 17, the center launched an innovative Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis Counseling program aimed at supplying  the HIV suppression drug Truvada to gay, bisexual and transgender women. The program is the latest tool in HIV prevention and can reduce the risk of HIV infection by up to 92 percent.

Kevin Tsukii

One of five examination rooms at the Gleicher / Chen Health Center. | Kevin Tsukii

Reaching out to the Grindr generation

In addition to targeting the Black community, the center is also trying to find new ways to connect with the younger generation. According to the CDC, youth aged 13 to 24 account for more than one in four infections in 2010, a 22 percent increase from 2008 to 2010. Black youth were disproportionately represented: they accounted for 57 percent of those youths infected.

“The younger population see themselves as invincible,” Wagner said. “They don’t think it can happen to them because several of them have never seen a person die of AIDS.”

One way that the health center is reaching the younger generation of gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender individuals is finding them on the apps many of them use to find sexual partners.

The health center is using geo-location, hook-up apps like Grindr and Scruff to deliver advertising and banner messages about the resources offers. The apps can deliver specific advertisements to users based on where they are, allowing the health center to target those nearby.

The goal is that the younger gays in South L.A. know that there’s a place in their neighborhood where they can learn about safe sex and get tested — and avoid the possibility of unknowingly passing on HIV. The youngest person Vallerie Wagner has seen test positive for HIV in her clinic was 17 and did not grasp the grim legacy that preceded his generation.

“They don’t know the HIV and AIDS that those of us have been around — they don’t see the people walking around with purple blotches,” Wagner said. For that reason, she sees her mission today as all the more vital.

Like Intersections on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and sign up for the Newsletter to stay in the loop on news and views from South L.A. Email the author at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kevintsukii.

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