Friday, February 20, 2015

From the Archives: HIV's Achilles Heel

HIV/AIDS Updates: Achilles Heel

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

AIDS is not an immediate death sentence anymore, but rather a manageable disease. In the same time, while the number of AIDS-related deaths is decreasing, HIV infections are on the rise—the most recent CDC statistics show that over 50,000 Americans become infected every year. While today’s HIV/AIDS patients and their physicians can choose from a variety of powerful medications to keep the disease in check, some AIDS experts believe that treatments do not pave the way to a world without AIDS; a cure does.

Horseback riding in Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The Road Ahead. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

While some may believe that an AIDS cure is still out of sight, a group of AIDS experts led by Doctor Sudhur Paul of the University of Texas Medical School of Houston announced that the possibility of discovering an AIDS cure might come sooner than envisioned. The statement is based on the discovery of the HIV’s weak spot, otherwise referred to as “HIV’s Achilles heel.” This discovery would lead to destroy, entirely, the virus in the human body.

From the early AZT mono-therapies to today’s HAART regimens, the medications have had the ability to keep the virus in check, but not to entirely destroy it. That is because HIV has the ability to constantly mutate and adapt to medications by changing its coating. HIV infects the human body by attaching itself to an immune system cell called the T-cell (or CD4 helper cell). Doctor Sudhir Paul and his colleague, Doctor Miguel Escobar, have discovered a section of HIV—a key protein the virus uses to attach itself to the T-cell—that does not mutate. HIV has to keep this key protein constant in order to attach itself to the immune system cells. 

Doctor Paul and his team discovered a way to attack this protein, using a catalytic antibody (antibody with enzymatic activity) called abzyme, which is created naturally by the body and found in people with lupus. When scientists applied abzyme to HIV, the virus was permanently destroyed. This makes the new way of fighting HIV drastically different from the ones known so far. Eventually, this novel procedure could destroy all the HIV in the human body and, in time, lead to an AIDS cure.

Until then there is much work still to be done. Doctor’s Paul procedure has worked so far in lab tests and animal trials. Next phase is human trials for which HIV patients may have to wait for five years. Usually, in creating a new medication or vaccine, problems start with the clinical trials, partly because clinical trials are very costly and partly because that’s where most vaccine trials have had problems in the past. 

Recently, several vaccine trials have failed while India has reported a successful completion of phase two of a potential AIDS vaccine. While Doctor Paul believes that an AIDS vaccine may be available some ten years from now, let’s not forget that it took scientists 42 years to develop a vaccine for whooping cough, 47 years for a polio vaccine and 105 years for a typhoid fever vaccine. How long would it really take to an AIDS cure?

Friday, February 13, 2015

From the Archives: Interview with SAG Artist and Activist, Lovari

From the Archives: Interview with SAG Artist and LGBT Activist, Lovari

Artistic Advocacy—An Interview with Anthony Lovari on His Music, Films, LGBT Youth Advocacy and His Dreams

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

A singer and songwriter, an actor, a screenwriter and director, an advocate for LGBTQ youth, Lovari is a man of many talents. As an actor, the artist has appeared in movies like The New York Strangler (about a NYC Halloween party terrorized by a supernatural force) and, with a small role, in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (2005). Recently, Lovari has begun screenwriting, producing, directing and acting in his own movie, which is inspired by true events of a series of shark attacks in NY waters and scheduled to be released in early summer, 2008. Shore Thing brings together a diverse and talented cast, including actors like Jade Estevan Estrada (or how NBC News calls him, “America’s Prince of Pride), among other well-recognized names.

Lovari. Photo ©Alina Oswald, 2008.
Lovari. Photo ©Alina Oswald, 2008.
Although he loves acting and directing, Lovari is maybe best known for his music. “I’ve always loved music,” he confesses. “I started singing at [the age of] five.” Being introduced to music at such a young age and being inspired and encouraged by both his parents to pursue his talent, it’s no surprise that Lovari decided to study music therapy at Queensborough College in Queens, NY, where he was born. Music therapy, the artist explains, is a medical (psychology) field that uses music to sooth or to create a sense of stability, particularly in the elderly and in people with mental disorders.

And soothing is exactly what Lovari’s music and voice do for his audience. When it comes to music, Lovari’s influences are as many as they are diverse and include artists like Annie Lennox, Tony Braxton, The Eagles, to mention only a few. Like many other songs, Lovari’s are mostly about love. Yet what makes them unique is the reality of love they evoke—from lost love and betrayal to un-returned love and the idea of finding true love. “It’s instinctual to write about love,” the artist says, explaining that his music is inspired by Freud and even more by Jung who believed that the mind thinks of love.

Lovari at the Gay Expo 2014, NYC. ©Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lovari at the Gay Expo 2014, NYC. ©Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
But Lovari’s music conveys not only the reality of love, also the reality of life in all its aspects. An avid reader, the artist has always enjoyed reading books by authors writing about reality. In time, the topic started to reflect in his songs. Therefore, his music speaks to all of us, bringing out in the open our own realities and allowing us to reconsider our life choices and goals. 

These Tears also represents the artist’s stand on love and its non-idyllically reality, thus reflecting the side of him that makes his advocacy work possible. “When it comes to love,” the artist-advocate says, “people have to have respect for themselves. It is not cool to have sex just because everybody else has [sex].” He encourages everybody, especially the youth, to practice safer sex, have monogamous relationships or be single rather than have unprotected sex. Too many people, especially young people, today don’t follow the model of playing it safe and thus they put themselves at a greater risk of getting HIV or any other STD. Lovari talks about HIV/AIDS as being part of the larger STDs content, mentioning that among the male especially gay population ages 18 to 24, the number of STD infections has increased by 150 percent!

What is Lovari doing about it? He does youth advocacy work through Jersey’s LGBTQ youth organization, Our Youth, founded by Rob De Anthony. Lovari was part of A Night of Awards ceremony in May as a presenter and performer. 

When it comes to his fans that are also his friends, Lovari considers himself blessed to have so many of them. “I’m very grateful for everybody who’s listening to my music,” the artist says. “This is my dream. I hope to accomplish a lot in my life.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

From the Archives: The Optimist Within - An Interview with Lady Clover Honey

From the Archives: The Optimist Within - An Interview with Lady Clover Honey

The Optimist Within: An Interview with Lady Clover Honey
[Originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

She is the first openly transgender correspondent to appear on a national TV show—Under the Pink Carpet, an LGBT news and entertainment show. She has performed on stage and on screen, in large and small production films. She has her own gossip column—Gossip Girl—and curated art shows like Strike A Pose - Gender Id in 2008, hosted by SoHo’s Leslie-Lohman gallery. She is Lady Clover Honey, a fixture in New York City social and entertainment life and in the city’s annual Gay Pride Parade.

“I think I was born with a feminine spirit,” Lady Clover Honey (a.k.a. Clover Welsh) describes herself. “I have a man’s body, which is fine with me, and I have a female spirit, so that I can express myself sometimes as a man and sometimes as a woman.”

Born in Totowa, New Jersey, Lady Clover Honey recalls always being different growing up. “I don’t know what it’s like to be normal,” she comments. As a kid, she never fit in. Other kids used to call her names, but she didn’t care because she was mature enough not to care. She has always been out, never in the closet. She’s also been lucky to have parents who accepted her the way she was.

Right after graduating from college, Clover moved to New York City where she started writing poetry and became involved in a neo-pagan movement that accepted those living on the fringes of normal, and also accepted women as divinity. That’s how Clover discovered the Radical Faeries, a spiritual movement started by Harry Hay in 1979. While most of the members of this spiritual movement are usually gay and feminine, they vary from one region of the country to another. Clover joined the Radical Faeries community in Brooklyn, where she lived at the time. She describes them as wearing beautiful blouses and broaches, not necessarily dressing as women, but starting to create the image of a woman, reaching for God (or Goddess) and the spirit.

Lady Clover Honey at the Gay Expo 2014, in New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lady Clover Honey at the Gay Expo 2014, in New York City. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

“It’s always been my fantasy to be a beautiful woman, like Marilyn Monroe,” Lady Clover Honey confesses. A decade ago, when she started being a drag queen, she got her first wig on sale on 14th street. “I thought anybody can be a blonde or a brunette, but I’d rather be a purple, actually more of a maroon.” When three photographers for the Radical Faeries wanted to take her picture, she was happy to model—the photo appeared in Time Out NY. Today Clover is on the Board of Directors for Fresh Fruit Festival. She believes that drag queens are interesting, and that gender expression makes such a visual art that she decided to put together a show for them in Strike A Pose, celebrating gender identification in our contemporary society.

Recently, Clover had a small, yet poignant role in Lovari’s directorial debut, Shore Thing, a film taking a fresh look at possible shark attacks in the New York waters. In Shore Thing, Clover plays a librarian—a woman usually not perceived as good looking. And, with the fine artistry we are used to, by now, Lady Clover Honey shows that all women, even librarians, can be glamorous. As with everything else she does, Lady Clover Honey uses her Shore Thing character to continue breaking taboos.

Today, drag queens are still on the fringe of what society considers “normal.” Drag queens are also different images of God. “I think God is a force,” Clover explains. “It’s important to have a spiritual connection to the universe. It helps us to be strong. [I] hope that the universe, God (or Goddess), loves me as well.”

Lady Clover Honey cherishes her connection with the universe, and also wants to do her part and help others here, on earth. Therefore, she reaches out to the person who is afraid to go out dressed as a woman because people would throw stuff at him. She reaches out to all individuals and encourages them to be who they truly are, to come out of the closets of their lives. While she is very aware that coming out is not always easy or safe, she hopes that “We all have to respect one another, because we’re all children of God, with different ways to express ourselves.”

She’s always been an optimist, especially when it comes to gay rights, when she believes that we make progress every year. “I do have hope,” Lady Clover Honey concludes. “We’ve come a long way in 40 years. We have a long way more to go.”

Thanks for stopping by!

Feel free to check out my new website(s) I'm still working on:

Art, AIDS & Others

Alina Oswald

Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS: A BIOGRAPHY of AIDS with Photographs by award-winning photographer Kurt Weston 

From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

From the Archives: Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights

Learning the ABCs of Civil Rights
An Interview with Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

[Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine]

Do you know your civil rights?

Do you understand these rights?

Do you know where to ask for help if your civil rights are violated? 

The Hope Principle. Bauhaus Rendering. Image by Alina Oswald.
The Hope Principle. Image by Alina Oswald.

A safe place to start, especially for those living with HIV/AIDS, is to call Frank Musumici, Investigator with the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A Hoboken native, Musumici has worked with the local HIV community for many years. Before joining the OCR team in 2004, he was a regional health administrator. His job enabled him to get to know the local HIV community while giving presentations to help provide funding for several small HIV organizations. It was during one of these presentations that the enthusiasm and passion with which he talked to the audience caught the attention of Michael Carter, OCR Regional Manager for Region 2 (representing New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). Soon afterwards, Musumici became part of the OCR team.

The OCR enforces the laws that prohibit discrimination against race, disability, color, age, religion, national origin and sex. It protects individuals from discrimination in health and social services programs (from hospitals and Medicaid/Medicare to nursing homes and nutrition programs) that receive money or assistance from the DHHS. Although the OCR deals with denied or delayed services because of disability (HIV is considered disability) many people call in with various types of complaints. In this case, the calls are redirected to investigators who can best be of help. The OCR investigators work with complaints that are less than 180 days old. Musumici focuses on HIV-related issues, but the department deals with a variety of issues, from quality of services (which are redirected to the Department of Health) and immigration, to translations. Most OCR investigators are attorneys. Many of them are bi- or multi-lingual, which comes in handy when dealing with individuals who know little or no English. Investigators call these cases LEP, or Limited English Prevalence, cases.

Musumici encourages people to call if they need help, regardless of the type of their complaint. To make sure of that, he provides his phone number-a direct line-because he wants people to know that if they have questions they have someone on their side, an agent whose job is to assist them and protect their rights. That's why, upon his becoming an OCR investigator, Musumici helped start an outreach plan that enables investigators to go out and inform the community about the services HHS/OCR provides. "I'd like to put a physical face to our agency," he explains, "so that [individuals who need OCR's help] will know that they can come to us."

Individuals can contact HHS/OCR by phone, in writing or online. The website provides a complaint form which can be completed and mailed in. The complaint form requires basic information about the complaint: what, when, where and how it happened and why does the applicant think it happened. Once the OCR department receives it, the complaint goes to the department managers from where it is assigned to one of the investigators. Within 30 days from receiving the complaint form, OCR investigators follow-up for more information regarding the incident. In the same time, the facilities where the incident took place are directly interested in solving the problem because they receive funds from the DHHS. "In my experience," Musumici says, "ten out of ten times when we call, [the facilities] are very responsive. They do everything possible to make sure that [the incident] doesn't happen again."

Through his outreach program, Musumici emphasizes the importance of knowing the "ABCs" of civil rights. "If [individuals] know that they have somewhere to go in terms of discussing an act of discrimination against them, I think it empowers them to be strong and go on. We need people to know that [the information they provide] helps investigators help others." When someone contacts an OCR investigator with a complaint, that individual enables the investigator to follow through. As a result, the hospital where the complaint originates takes all possible measures to sustain and solve the problem so that it will never happen again. The process empowers that someone to assist many others who will be going into that hospital. "I want people to know," Musumici concludes, "that this is a great opportunity to empower themselves to do good."

Thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald