Today, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) is launching their 4th annual World AIDS Day initiative, which will be its most extensive to date.
The augmented HIV/AIDS program will focus on raising awareness and making sure anyone seeking answers regarding their HIV status has access to testing, regardless of their economic situation.
Martin Walker, Director of PPRM’s HIV Prevention Program, says this initiative is especially significant on the heels of a Republican win of the White House and Congress.
He says that during a conservative administration, “what we find is that a lot more people end up living in this place called the down low, where they’re engaging in really risky sexual behaviors, and they’re tying to keep it a secret because of the climate.”
This, according to Walker, results in more people who are at risk for HIV getting tested too late, or not at all, because they don’t feel comfortable acknowledging their sexual orientation.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence in particular has drawn ire for his stance on LGBTQ issues, including his alleged support of gay conversion therapy. He has also been criticized for failing to enact prevention measures during an HIV outbreak in Indiana.
Despite potential setbacks from the incoming administration, Walker says he’s hopeful about the future of HIV prevention.
Today, PPRM is rolling out advanced testing technology that can better identify early cases of HIV, reducing the number of false negative diagnoses given early on that account for a significant portion of the virus’ spread. PPRM also offers the PrEP pill, which is 99 percent effective at blocking HIV infection.
Walker says new medical technologies have been revolutionary and life-changing.
“As a gay man, you kind of develop this sense of, ‘I’m probably going to get [HIV] at some point, because it’s just so prevalent,'” says Walker. “But now we have this pill that you can take that actually makes sure you don’t get HIV.”
Walker believes efforts to destigmatize HIV have been crucial in making sure people get tested, thus reducing the number of cases. He sees the stigma against HIV as similar to the stigma surrounding abortion.
“If we can get more people talking about it, more people who have actually had [an abortion] themselves, to share their experience to where everybody feels like it’s something that could happen to them, we might actually be able to move forward,” says Walker.
Still, he’s aware that there’s much work to be done on both fronts.
Take former Colorado State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, for example, who has been extremely vocal in his opposition to both LGBTQ and abortion rights. In an interview with the Colorado Times Recorder, he called PPRM’s HIV/AIDS program “extremely inappropriate” in that it uses federal tax dollars, and said the LGBTQ community should “take some personal responsibility for the spread of AIDS, which is caused often by immoral behavior.”
Klingenschmitt also believes that because Planned Parenthood offers abortions, it should receive no government funding. “Why is the tax payer even paying their electric bill?” he asked.
Abortions make up just 3% of services provided at Planned Parenthood, but many of its critics, including Klingenschmitt, believe that although federal dollars don’t fund the procedures directly, it allows the organization to free up funds elsewhere to provide abortions.
Despite criticism and the conservative political climate, Walker says PPRM will fight to convince the public that performing abortions is “not some nasty, horrible thing that we should keep in the closet and try and make people think we don’t ever do” and, instead, show they’re “proud of the fact that we provide abortions to women who need it.”
He says he believes having an open dialogue can be very effective in changing hearts and minds.
He’s also been fighting the perception that PPRM is primarily an abortion clinic, which disregards the wide array of services it provides.
“Planned Parenthood is here for sexual and reproductive health for everyone, not just women,” says Walker.
Free HIV testing will be offered at PPRM clinics across the state that typically see higher testing volumes, including in Aurora (1284 S Abilene St), Colorado Springs (3480 Centennial Blvd), central Denver (921 E 14th Ave), and Lakewood (1400 S Wadsworth Blvd).