‘Killer Lesbians’ describe PTSD from spending years locked up

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This piece originally was published on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

It was intended to be a fun night out on the town for the seven Jersey women of color – a night in the West Village of New York City.

They enjoyed being around other gay people while visiting the neighborhood of the historic Stonewall Inn, the birth of our nation’s gay rights movement. But as the documentary “Out in the Night” shows, it ended up being a night filled with harassment, violence, and trauma that endures to this day.

The documentary by filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther can be purchased on DVD by clicking here.

As these women strolled along that summer night in 2007, the last thing they expected was for an older black man to get up in their face and talk filthy – especially not in the birthplace of the gay rights movement.

But that’s what happened. When the man first said, “I want that,” tiny Patreese Johnson thought that he simply wanted a drink of her friend’s Pepsi. Sitting by a fire hydrant, he looked a little down and out.

Patreese had seen her share of struggle – her brother was caught up in a gang fight when she was 11 and then shot dead by police at the age of 17, caught in the crossfire.

But when the man pointed at her crotch and said, “I want THAT!” and followed by “D-ke B-tch-es” and “I’ll f— you straight and put my d— in you’re a–,” they had enough.

Renata Hill, another of the women, had been raped by her mom’s husband when she was a child. She wasn’t about to listen to all of that.

Ultimately, the man laughed at the women, struck them, and a fight ensued. In fact, he pulled out Renata’s dreadlocks, leaving her weaves on the concrete and her scalp a bloody mess.

And ultimately, the women defended themselves. Patreese, who carried a small knife for protection at the plea of her brother Anthony, stabbed the man.

Black, female, gay: Marginalized to the edge of the margins

Black. Female. Gay. Three demographics in this country that have been marginalized for years, all rolled into one. Even in New York City, many people still don’t get it.

“Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker” screamed on headline. “Hated by Lez Gang” read another. “Killer Lesbians,” yet another.

But the headline that really ticked of Dorosh-Walther? “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger,” read a story on an inside page of the New York Times.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest departed gay friends, the headline “blew her skirt up.” It wreaked of ignorance, and added insult to injury appearing in a newspaper of authority such as the New York Times. That’s when Dorosh-Walther knew she wanted to tell these women’s story.

But as a white woman, she wanted to make sure she could tell it right. “You want to make sure you tell the story accurately through the lens of the person or people who experienced it,” she told me.

I spoke with Dorosh-Walther, Patreese, Renata, Venice brown and Terrain Dandridge (the other two women who went to prison) on a conference call for about 45 minutes. Dorosh-Walther was excited to have the movie reviewed on a health website.

Some of the key takeaways from the film ought to be an understanding of what years of harassment and trauma can do to someone, or a group of people. It’s also important to remember that being locked up in a penitentiary forever changes people. Indeed, it leaves many prisoners with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And then what happens when a person gets out?

“When people are released from prison, they give you a bus pass to get on the bus, or the subway,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They have no support, no family, a one-way ticket…you’re going to put them on public transportation? You’re putting everybody else in jeopardy. This is a public health issue.”

Nuns take in ‘damaged goods” ex-felon

“After going through all of this, and you’re done with your time…you’re damaged goods, and you’re being thrown back into a brand-new world,” explains Renata. “You’re thrown into a cage. You’re separated from those you love and care about. You have no support system. You’re paid a few cents per hour. They control you, belittle you, verbally abuse you, some physically abuse you.”

When Renata was released, she was taken to a shelter in New York City run by nuns.

“I had to stay in New York, and I’m not from New York. I never went to New York, unless it was to go to the village,” she explained. “I had no family support.”

Renata said she was extremely grateful for the transitional housing provided by the nuns, because some people don’t get any transitional support at all. On the other hand, being black and being a lesbian – a lesbian who speaks earlier in the film about wearing a dildo when she goes out into the village – it’s not difficult to understand the discomfort she felt.

“Simple things, like going to the corner store…I couldn’t do that,” Renata said. “In some ways, I still felt stuck in the same place. I had to go to parole. I had to enlist in a drug program, even though I never did drugs. I had to pi—in a cup while they watched me.”

When asked how she got past feelings of anger and self-pity that must have been going through her mind, not only in prison but afterward too, Renata’s answer was simple: “What kept me going was knowing I had to get my son back.”

Renata missed several years of her young son’s life while she was a locked-up single mother. When she was released, she learned she had lost custody of T.J., who had been put into the hands of the state of New Jersey.

“I had to look for a job, and when I looked for a job, with a felony…I never even was given a chance to explain my situation,” Renata said. “When you get out of prison, where is the help? Where is the toolbox?”

A frightening experience for a femme

“In prison, you have to develop a certain type of thinking to survive,” Patreese said. “Everything there works different.”

Tiny, femme and poetic, Patreese served more time than any of the women…almost eight years. She looks about as threatening as a church mouse, and she readily admits that being in prison messed with her head.

“I said, ‘Am I going to take these meds?’ Some of these people deserve to be in a mental health hospital,” Patreese recalled of being medicated in the prison. “But as I found out, they were giving the meds to me anyway, and I didn’t know it. They gave them to me because I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to somebody. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should just take the meds just to get through day to day.’”

Almost two years after her release, she still struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. “Our mental health should be a priority when we get out. It’s really hard when you’re trying to transition back to society. When I’m lost, I’m even scared to ask for directions. There are no resources for us.”

Dorosh-Walther agreed. “This is a public health issue. Mental health is something we’ve never put enough resources into. Mental health, far down the line after release…is a lasting issue.”

When Patreese and the others were convicted, one headline read, “Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women” while another proclaimed, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”

How to get past injustice? Baby steps

“When you come out, you come out with ‘institutionalized thinking,’” Patreese said. “It’s something similar to PTSD. You end up getting changed by the system.”

The fact that people in that condition often end up being sent out the door with no support network at all is “absurd,” Dorosh-Walther said. “If there is nothing to transition you to live in the outside world…. or only a tiny fraction of services…how are you even supposed to get housing?”

As a journalist, I often get caught up in anger and a relentless drive to spread the truth whenever I see an injustice. I do it whether the victim is someone else, or, has been the case a couple of times in stories I will describe in my upcoming book, myself.

How do you get past it, I asked the women again and again?

Finally, Dorosh-Walther answered for them.

“You don’t really have time to comprehend the injustice and the pain,” she said. “There are hoops to jump through over and over and over again. You’re court-ordered into a shelter, for example. They are not going to make anything easy. It’s just piled on, piled on and piled on, and at some level you’re in survival mode and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The women said being able to tell their story via the film has helped them heal a great deal.

I can relate to that.

“It’s baby steps,” Terrain said. “There are moments it feels good, like we can celebrate. Other moments we’re still struggling.”

And I can relate to that, too.

Aging gay people struggle to find support and community

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This piece originally was published June 28, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

By David Heitz

When we enter this world, we’re defenseless. We need someone to care for us to survive.

And when we’re in the sunset of our lives 70, 80, 90, or even 100 years later, we’re often in the same boat. This is truer today than it ever has been. Modern medicine is allowing us to live longer, but not necessarily better.

And another truth: Remember when you were little, how scary it was to be alone? Remember what it felt like when you suddenly were separated from your mom at Kmart? Elderly people often are frightened to be alone, too.

Many end up moving in with their children, as I reported in this feature I wrote for the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa in 2009.

Many gay people find themselves especially vulnerable in their golden years. Most elderly gay people today don’t have children to care for them. That’s a reality that’s changing for future generations of elderly gays, but for now, it is what it is.

And just like many elderly people, gay people often find themselves old and without a spouse or a partner. Let’s face it – gay marriage only became the law of the land in this country in June 2015. And many elderly gay men in particular not only have lost their spouse or partner, but they did so many years ago, tens of thousands of them to AIDS.

And one more harsh truth faced by some older gay men: They’re living with HIV. It’s good news that they’re living and have made it into their golden years. But some were brought back from the brink just as new drugs hit the market. That means that some of them were unable to work and sock away money for retirement during their prime earning years. You can read more about that in this piece I wrote for Healthline News.

Sound depressing? That would be one way of looking at it. But that’s not the angle filmmaker PJ Raval takes in “Before you Know It,” a must-see film that you can learn how to purchase by clicking here. You can watch the trailer by clicking here.

I can only describe it as incredibly uplifting, albeit brutally honest.

PJ followed three elderly gay men for five years, from 2009 to 2013. There’s Robert, the crotchety owner owner of the oldest gay bar in Texas, in Galveston. He calls himself, “Robert the Mouth, the Ugliest Girl in the South.”

And Ty, a black man in Harlem who works for SAGE. Ty lives a pretty good life, but without an organization like SAGE looking out and offering support and community to elderly gays in Harlem, that likely would not be the case. You can learn more about SAGE and their work with elderly gay people in this piece that I wrote for Los Angeles Times Content Solutions.

Finally, we meet Dennis, or “Dee” as he calls himself when he goes out dressed as a woman. Like Ty, a Navy veteran, Dennis also served his country, in the Air Force. After military service, Dennis worked 30 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was married to a woman during that time. When his wife died, he finally came out as gay, and later as a cross-dresser.

None of these men have it easy, especially not Dennis. But this remarkably uplifting film shows how they boldly moved past isolation, stigma, and hardship to squeeze every last drop out of life as they edge closer to going over the rainbow.

“When people watch this film what I’m hoping they take from it is that the aging process doesn’t discriminate,” Raval said. “It’s actually something that happens to all of us. And gay men are facing some of the most extreme examples of ageism, isolation, without a family structure, often single and with no children. They have to make their own communities and find their own communities.”

Cross-dresser finds peace at gay retirement complex

Dennis winds up finding community at a gay retirement complex in Portland, Oregon, called Rainbow Vista. At the age of 82, Dennis still lives there today, paying $745 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. The facility no longer offers meals – it’s essentially just a place to live, and for active seniors only.

But Dennis remains active, taking gay cruises and even going out for a cocktail now and again dressed up as Dee. It’s not something he ever would have done prior to moving out of his water-damaged trailer in Florida several years ago after finding Rainbow Vista on the Internet.

“I was married 30 years to a woman and kept everything under restraint,” Dennis told me Saturday while aboard a ship cruising through the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, ending in Warren, Rhode Island. “In Florida I never ‘dressed’ because of the community attitude. Dennis says rainbow vista is “no frills” but adds, “I love the companionship I’ve found there.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene comes near the end of the film. As he takes a final pass through his trailer before leaving before Florida for good, he declares his family won’t mind that he’s gone. “I’ll be out of sight, out of mind. For years they just tolerated me.”

It’s a sentiment so many of us now all too well, even those of us who are not seniors yet. I asked Dennis how he got past such hurt, and got a response that warmed my heart.

“I have been reconciled with my family,” Dennis said. “I think that the pope’s comments helped.”

There’s a heart-warming scene, too. I hate to be a spoiler, but you won’t want to miss Dee riding aboard the “TG Girls” float in the Portland, Oregon Pride Parade.

Sucking Downs Suds and Cigs at the Gay Bar

Robert “The Mouth, Ugliest Girl in the South” not only finds community where so many gay people find it – a gay bar – but as the bar’s owner, he’s the one who provides that community.

In many communities, the gay bar still is the only town square for gay people. In conservative Galveston, Texas, Robert has provided that town square for many, many decades, but not without hardship.

While it may sound like a sad life on the surface, for some elderly gay men, sucking down cigarettes and suds at the local gay bar is the only community they’ve got.

Robert’s Galveston gay bar bears striking resemblance to a gay bar in my own community, as a matter of fact, at least in terms of the extremely direct banter.

In one scene, a drag queen who works for Robert begins to very frankly declare what those who judge elderly gay men who frequent gay bars – and “chase chickens” – can do with themselves.

She has a point. These men often don’t have anyone beyond the fellowship at the bar. I’ve been in that situation myself during lonely periods of my life. I’m sober now, but how quickly I forget the fellowship I received at the local gay bar when I needed it.

“I worry sometimes about this emerging view that the LGBT community is so widely accepted,” Raval said. “It’s actually not, and these seniors are examples of it. Not everyone is a 22-year-old living in the Castro District with a gym-ready body.”

A sad irony in all of this is that gay community itself is very much to blame for placing eternal youth ona pedestal.

We don’t stay young forever, and many gay people do end up alone. It’s often a parent’s biggest fear when their gay child comes out to them.

LGBT caregivers: The isolated among the isolated; what Baltimore is doing to help

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Editor’s note: This piece originally was published in 2015 for the website Caregiver Relief. Reprinted here with permission. Special thanks to Diane Carbo.

By David Heitz

There’s a double-edged sword when it comes to LGBT people and caregiving.

On the one hand, LGBT people often fall into the caregiver role. Many caregivers, gay or not, will attest that when you don’t have children and/or a spouse, you tend to be elected mom’s or dad’s caregiver by your siblings. The idea is that you don’t have kids to look after, you don’t have a spouse to coo over, so “it’s just easier” for you to do it.

Don’t get me wrong. Spouses often end up caring for their spouses too, often with no help at all from their kids, if they even have any. And that’s certainly no cakewalk either.

But time and again, I see many gay and lesbian people caring for mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, an aunt or an uncle, or even just a friend.

When I first met other caregivers like myself, which really never happened until my dad went into a facility, I was shocked by the sheer number of “family” (as in “friends of Dorothy” as they say) that seemed to be all over the place.

And here’s the other side to the LGBT caregiving sword. Going back to being that person with no spouse, and no children, what does that mean for you when you get old?

It means you might be by yourself. Eighty percent of all caregivers are family members, statistics show. So who takes care of you if you have no family? (You can read about that in part II of my report on LGBT caregivers)

It’s a cruel, uncomfortable riddle increasingly coming to light and being addressed in communities from coast to coast, albeit slowly.

Family, friends either don’t care or don’t get it

In Baltimore, Chase Brexton Health Care has launched an initiative called SAGECAP. The initiative provides resources, education and support for informal, unpaid LGBT caregivers.

The truth is, all caregivers need way more help than we’re getting. So what makes caregiving any harder for LGBT people?

“The reality is that many more LGBT older adults are cut off from family and depend heavily on support from friends and other caregivers,” said Nate Sweeney, executive director of Chase Brexton’s LGBT Health Resource Center. “Through SAGECAP we can connect LGBT caregivers and elders to culturally competent and welcoming service providers. We’re encouraged by the tremendous response from Baltimore area providers who want to help improve critical services for the often isolated and marginalized LGBT population.”

Caregiving expert Diane Carbo has been encouraging me to write about being an LGBT caregiver. Until I received the Chase Brexton news release last week, I thought, “What makes LGBT caregivers any different from any other caregiver?”

Well, with dad already into his second facility, and with 13 years having now passed since I moved back to Illinois from Los Angeles in 2002 to help care for him (at a time when my own life admittedly needed rebuilding), I forget how difficult it has been.

I wish I could say that the stereotype of gay people being narcissistic isn’t true, but often it is true. While lots of gay people my age eventually find themselves in the caregiving role, many others are far too wrapped up in their hedonistic lives to be bothered which such things. Until you become a dedicated caregiver and meet the other LGBT people doing this same thing, you don’t find a lot of compassion unless you’re looking for it.

And there’s another sad truth. Many of us have relatives who, because we’re gay, just don’t think too highly of us. As we enter our middle-age years, particularly if one parent already has passed, there really isn’t much support from our families. I have two cousins – Cindy and Brad – who have been there for me in one way or another, and I’m grateful for that. But they’ve got kids, spouses, and aging mothers themselves. They already have lost their dads, as I did my mother in 1995. They understand what I’m going through, and that it’s difficult.

When discrimination simply can’t be tolerated

When you enter into this caregiving stuff, it’s extremely overwhelming. The pharmacy becomes the first demon who enters your life. Then the doctors. Then, the facility.

Oy. The facility.

You will find that some facilities may employ people who care for your loved one who don’t much like gay people either. Sometimes it’s the culture they grew up in. Other times it may be their political views. Sometimes you will find family members of others at the facility who don’t care for your “gay lifestyle” either. Some are rude enough to make it perfectly clear.

I can tolerate, ignore even, people who don’t like me because I’m gay. But if they are being paid thousands of dollars per month out of my dad’s hard-earned life savings, while it’s circling the drain, I won’t tolerate them being rude to myself or my father. I’ll speak up. Some people don’t like an angry queen up in their face, even after they’ve gotten up in your face.

The gay factor often just creates more poo on top of the poo that caregivers face every day. And the poo is endless. The paperwork. The voice mails you leave for the adult protection agencies that never are returned.

Feeling like nobody gives a rat’s bottom about your loved one. Feeling like you’re all alone in the world.

It’s really, really tough. I got sober 15 months ago, when I knew what a nightmare I had ahead of me. And thank God I did. But when you get sober, if you’re going to stay sober, you’ve got to say goodbye to all of those people you partied with. You simply must. So for me, that led to further isolation. But with my writing and with social media, it really hasn’t been so bad.

How the Maryland program works

Chase Brexton, through a partnership with SAGE (Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders) created SAGECAP to help LGBT caregivers who are as lost and frustrated as I once was. They’re offering one-on-one counseling, referrals to financial aid, legal and medical assistance, and other information. And they do it in a safe and welcoming environment.

It’s simple. Being a caregiver often feels like a punch in the gut. Every day. You need to be in a place where you can be yourself, where you can be comfortable expressing yourself, when you’re looking for help.

“Providing long-term care can feel overwhelming, and can often be even more of a challenge for members of the LGBT community, who may be isolated, living without family and lacking good access to service,” the Chase Brexton news release states. “Despite recent progress, accessing services can be difficult and uncomfortable, and LGBT aging adults access services at a lower rate than the rest of the population. Education is key to finding these services and programs, and can help keep a loved one home where they want to reside.”

LGBT people need to prepare for their own trips over the rainbow

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Editor’s note: This piece originally was published in 2015 for the website Caregiver Relief, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission.

Gay people tend to spend much of their lives thinking they’ll never get old.

And then they do. Often alone, unfortunately.

“In the LGBT community we are very ageist,” said Nate Sweeney, executive director of the LGBT Center at Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore. “We don’t like to think about ourselves getting older, or getting sick.”

The reality is that many gay people find themselves alone, without blood relatives, children or a spouse when they enter their golden years. They often have no one to rely upon than other LGBT people, who often are not their partner or spouse, to care for them.

“If I get hit by a car, my husband can go into the hospital and tell them what my wishes are, and that’s a great piece of marriage equality,” said Sweeney, who is legally married. “But the vast majority of LGBT people are not married, have no children, and live alone.”

Even for those who do have partners, if they are not legally married and they don’t have advance directives in place, who will make end of life decisions?

LGBT older adults are part of a vast group of Baby Boomers called “elder orphans.” As many as 25 percent of Boomers are elder orphans, as CNN reported in May.

That’s why Chase Brexton just launched a new program called SAGECAP Baltimore. The program provides resources, education and support for informal, unpaid LGBT caregivers in the community.

“LGBT people for years have been caring for their families of choice,” Sweeney said. “Maybe they moved across the country, and they are isolated from blood relatives. Maybe they started caring for an ex from 15 years ago because they don’t want that crazy sister that’s five states away making medical decisions.”

There also is a SAGECAP program in New York City, but it is run out of a senior center, not a healthcare facility. SAGE is an acronym for the New York-based Services & Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders.

According to SAGE, about 80 percent of long-term care in the United States is provided by family members. However, older LGBT adults often are estranged from their families. LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone and three times more likely to be without children.

One stop elder care, caregiver referrals

The Chase Brexton program is being funded with a three-year grant from the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation. What makes the program unique is that Chase Brexton is a federally funded, holistic healthcare center.

Services range from LGBT-centered caregiver support groups to full blown case management. “As you know, it’s very isolating being the caregiver,” Sweeney said. “So being able to reach them and find them is difficult. That why we’re partnering with other interested providers so they can make referrals to our services. We’re hoping we’re building something that can be replicated at other LGBT health centers.”

On the national level, SAGE has provided cultural sensitivity training to the Alzheimer’s Association of America. Conversely, the Alzheimer’s Association has provided caregiver support training to SAGE.

At Chase Brexton, caregivers can get support and referrals for themselves when they bring their loved ones for medical appointments. Services may include referring a stressed-out caregiver to a mental health therapist, for example.

Chase Brexton also will be able to advise LGBT people about the sorts of paperwork they need to have designating someone to make their healthcare and end of life decisions. It’s not something many LGBT people think about.

In the aptly-titled PBS document, “Before you Know it,” filmmaker P.J. Raval said, “When people watch this film, what I’m hoping they take away from it is that the aging process doesn’t discriminate. It’s actually something that happens to all of us, and gay men are having some of the most extreme examples of ageism, isolation, without a family structure, often single and with no children. They have to make their own communities and find their own communities.”

Elder care: An American healthcare crisis

Caring for the elderly has become a healthcare crisis in America, with 11,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every single day. Many Baby Boomers already are caring for their own parents, not to mention that they’re getting older themselves

Among Baby Boomers who care for their parents, LGBT children are more likely to step up to the plate for that task as compared to their heterosexual siblings, Sweeney said. And it’s often because of the very thing that threatens their own livelihood when they get older – they’re alone.

“Our healthcare system for elders in this country needs a lot of work,” Sweeney said. “We don’t value the elderly in our society. All these systems have been brought up not to value or elders, nor the staff who works in these fields.”

In a story I wrote last year for Healthline News titled, “The People Caring for Your Parents Live in Poverty,” I reported on the extremely low pay that home health care workers receive for their important caregiving work.

For LGBT seniors who need skilled nursing care or who can afford an assisted living facility, they often find themselves being shooed back inside the closet. For seniors who blazed the trail for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, it adds insult to aging. I wrote about that last year in this story for Los Angeles Times Content Solutions.

SAGE is working nationally to change that reality. It has provided training to more than 3,000 elder workers in 27 states to help create more affirming environments in nursing and assisted living facilities. Training varies from online courses to in-depth, on-site training. The organization even provides facility audits.

“Reforming the entire aging services industry…it’s a huge undertaking,” Sweeney said. “There are 11,000 McDonald’s in the U.S. There are 16,000 nursing homes. That’s not something we think about a lot when it comes to making systemic changes. The corner we’re starting in is about the caregiver, and helping LGBT older adults prepare for their own futures.”

A methed up life turned boldly around: A gay man’s inspiring story of recovery

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This piece originally was published June 6, 2016, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted here with permission from Healthline. Christopher was a great interview and ought to serve as an inspiration to many, especially for his frankness in sharing his story. His story is not the least bit uncommon and is being played out right here in the Quad-Cities. What is described here is NOT a big-city phenomenon, in the least. I admire frankness. Best to you, Chris!

In the picture shown above, Christopher Interdonato believes he was near life’s end. Addicted to crystal meth, which he shot up, and barely surviving on the streets of Los Angeles as a sex worker, he got to a point where “I felt like I was dying. I could no longer move.”

The picture you see here nearly brings me to tears, not only because of the sad vulnerability expressed on the young man’s face, but because I once was addicted to meth, malnourished, unhealthy, desperate, hopeless about life, and certainly without even an ounce of self-respect. It’s impossible to get sober (or at least sustain sobriety) when you have no self-respect.

Interdonato lay there like that for a few days, his veins so collapsed doctors could not extract blood to get a diagnosis. When they finally did, Interdonato learned he had HIV.

While HIV is a manageable disease these days, there still is no cure, and you’re required to take pills for life (although long-lasting injectable forms of HIV treatment are in the works).

Read more: An injectable HIV treatment could be ready by next year

In a couple of weeks, Interdonato will celebrate two years sober. A far cry from what you see in this picture, he is strikingly handsome, healthy, and works as a house manager and case manager at a rehabilitation center. In August, he will go back to school full-time to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor.

How Interdonato ended up in the abyss

Interdonato moved to Los Angeles in 2011 after living a year in Orange County (the suburbs to the south) first. Ironically, that was the same trajectory I took when moving to Southern California after college in 1992.

Interdonato worked for the circus, Cirque du Soleil. But when his contract ended, he found himself in a frightening position – homeless on the streets of L.A.

Interdonato had tried meth once at a bathhouse in Seattle, but he didn’t like it. In fact, “I hated it at first. I stayed up so long.”

But like so many young men who find themselves homeless on Tinseltown’s streets, the drug’s hyper-stimulating side effects – the power to keep you up for days at a time – offered a bit of safety, the thought process often goes, as opposed to falling asleep in the big city. “I was in a city where I knew no one,” Interdonato said.

The other side effect? Intense sexual arousal that allows already virile young men to perform for hours and hours and hours and hours.

Read more: Hooking up to stay alive: The sexual exploitation of young men and boys

Interdonato says he doesn’t want to be portrayed a victim as it pertains to his days as a sex worker. “I was never forced into anything,” he said. “I made a conscience decision to do what I did to support the lifestyle I had. I never had sex for the drugs. I always had my own drugs. I sold the drugs, too.”

Read more: Six signs that you are ready to get sober

I asked him why, like many sex workers in Los Angeles, he didn’t just hustle the streets sober, and pocket even more of his money as opposed to spending it on drugs. “Prostitution is not something I can do if I’m not high,” he said. “So when the drug use stopped, for myself I was not able to continue doing it because I felt dirty.

“Part of getting sober for me was about my self-esteem. It wasn’t just about rebuilding my body. And today sex is not the only currency I haveI have more to offer than that.”

Meth a huge problem in gay mid America as well

Unfortunately, I understand Interdonato’s story all too well. While I always had a job and never had to hustle to survive, I left Los Angeles in 2000, and a second time (for good) in 2002, horrifically strung out on crystal meth.

When I returned to the Quad-Cities, meth again reared its head a few times. But as I always told people rather frankly, the meth here was crap compared to what I snorted (and smoked) in Los Angeles, so I never slipped way back down the slope. I did, however, abuse cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol. I celebrated two years sober last month. (Editor’s note: It will be three years in May 2017).

And thank God I am sober, and very confident in my sobriety. If you can say, “I’m an alcoholic and an addict,” and know that you can never take another drink, never snort another line, you have won more than half the battle. And I know I am an alcoholic and addict. For me, using again isn’t an option.

So, I’m glad I left behind the party scene and the bar life when I did, as now the methamphetamine problem right here in the Quad-Cities, in mid-America, is as bad as it is in the urban gay meccas.

Headlines beginning in the spring of 2016 in the Quad-Cities illustrated this, so there’s no point of regurgitating it here. People still are talking about it. Indeed, eye-popping stories, and I suspect we will see more of them.

People are quick to point fingers at places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City as hedonistic harbors where young, gay men can go astray. But the Quad-Cities is not one bit different. In fact, I believe it’s worse, as there is a void in terms of affirming support services. Mental health services in the Quad-Cities are wildly substandard, particularly for those who do not have private insurance and/or belong to a minority group.

While the Los Angeles LGBT Center is known for civil rights advocacy and being front and center at flag-waving festivals, it also is a lifeline for people like Interdonato. It absolutely 100 percent supports and helps anyone who is struggling with a drug problem, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. It is a world-class non-profit organization offering world-class services, including the Jeffrey Goodman ClinicCrystal Meth/Addiction Recovery Serviceslegal services, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Interdonato is living proof of the life-changing work that this amazing organization provides.

It’s why I’m covering AIDS LifeCycle this year for absolutely zero financial gain.

Interdonato said he already was familiar with the services of the Los Angeles LGBT Center even before his hospitalization and HIV diagnosis. He regularly went to the Center for HIV/STI screenings and post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, after he believed to have been exposed to HIV in the past.

“I represent that percentage of the population of our community…unfortunately, in the gay community there’s a high incidence of people who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, and there is a high incidence rate of contracting HIV as part of it,” Interdonato said. “That’s my reason for riding, besides for thanking the L.A. LGBT Center for getting my life on track, but by being an example of a sober young person in recovery, who is HIV-positive, and hopefully I can help someone by showing them you can be as low as you can get and it is possible to recover from drug addiction and live a healthy life. Even as an HIV-positive gay man.”

‘Killer Lesbians’ in PBS Movie Open Up About Trauma, PTSD, Mental Health

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Originally published June 19, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

It was intended to be a fun night on the town for the seven Jersey women of color – an evening in the West Village of New York City.

They enjoyed being around other gay people while visiting the neighborhood of the historic Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of our nation’s gay rights movement. But as the POV documentary “Out in the Night” shows, it ended up being a night filled with harassment, violence and enduring trauma.

The PBS documentary by filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther will air Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS. Check your local listings. The film will stream online for a month thereafter.

In my view, “Out in the Night” illuminates public health hazards that are getting worse every day.

As these women strolled along that summer night in 2007, the last thing they expected was for an older black man to get in their face and talk filthy – especially not in the West Village.

But that’s what happened. When the man first said, “I want that,” tiny Patreese Johnson thought he simply wanted a drink of her friend’s Pepsi. Sitting by a fire hydrant, he looked a little down and out.

Patreese had seen her share of struggle – her brother was caught up in a gang fight when she was 11, shot dead by police at the age of 17, caught in the crossfire.

But when the man pointed at her crotch and said, “I want THAT!” and followed with “D-ke b-tch-s” and “I’ll f— you straight and put my d— in your a—,” they had heard enough.

Renata Hill, another of the women, had been raped by her mom’s husband when she was a child. She wasn’t about to listen to all of that.

Ultimately, the man lunged at the women, struck them, and a fight ensued. In fact, he pulled out Renata’s dreadlocks, leaving her weaves on the concrete and her scalp a bloody mess.

And, ultimately, the women defended themselves. Patreese, who carried a small knife for protection at the plea of her brother Anthony, stabbed him.

Black, Female, Gay: Marginalized to The Edge of The Margins

Black. Female. Gay. Three demographics that in this country have been marginalized for years, all rolled into one. Even in New York City, many people still don’t get it.

“Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker” screamed one tabloid headline. “Hated by Lez Gang” read another. “Killer Lesbians” yet another.

But the headline that really ticked off filmmaker Dorosh-Walther? “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” read an inside page of The New York Times.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest departed gay friends, the headline blew up her skirt. It wreaked of ignorance, and added insult to injury by appearing in a newspaper of authority such as The New York Times. That’s when Dorosh-Walther knew she wanted to tell these women’s story.

But as a white woman, she wanted to make sure she could tell it right. “You want to make sure you tell the story accurately through the lens of the person or people who experienced it,” she told me.

I spoke with Dorosh-Walther, Patreese, Renata, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge (the other two women who went to prison) on a conference call for about 45 minutes. Dorosh-Walther was excited to have the movie reviewed on a health website.

Some of the key takeaways from the film ought to be an understanding of what years of harassment and trauma can do to someone, or to a group of people. It’s also important to remember that being locked up in a penitentiary forever changes a person. Indeed, it leaves many prisoners with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And then, what happens when the convicted gets out?

“When people are released from prison, they give you a bus pass to get on the bus, or the subway,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They have no support, no family, a one-way ticket … you’re going to put them on public transportation? You’re putting everybody else in jeopardy. This is a public health issue.”

Nuns Take in ‘Damaged Goods’ Ex-Felon

“After going through all of this, and you’re done with your time … you’re damaged goods, and you’re being thrown back into a brand-new world,” explained Renata. “You’re thrown into a cage. You’re separated from those you love and care about. You have no support system. You’re paid a few cents per hour. They control you, belittle you, verbally abuse you, some physically abuse you.”

When Renata was released, she was taken to a shelter in New York City run by Catholic nuns.

“I had to stay in New York, and I’m not from New York. I never went to New York unless it was to go to the village,” she explained. “I had no family support.”

Renata said she was grateful for the transitional housing provided by the nuns, because some people don’t get any housing support at all upon their release. On the other hand, being black and being a lesbian – a lesbian who speaks earlier in the film about wearing a dildo when she goes out into the Village – it’s not difficult to understand the discomfort she felt.

“Simple things, like going to the corner store … I couldn’t do that,” Renata said. “In some ways, I still felt stuck in the same place. I had to go to parole. I had to enlist in a drug program, even though I never did drugs. I had to pee in a cup while they watched me.”

When asked how she got past feelings of anger and self-pity that must have been going through her mind, not only in prison but afterward, too, Renata’s answer was simple: “What kept me going was knowing I had to get my son back.”

Renata missed several years of her young son’s life while she was a locked-up single mother. When she was released, she learned she had lost custody of T.J., who had been put into the hands of the state of New Jersey.

“I had to look for a job, and when I looked for a job with a felony … I never even was given a chance to explain my situation,” Renata said. “When you get out of prison, where is the help? Where is the toolbox?”

A Frightening Experience for a Femme

“In prison, you have to develop a certain type of thinking to survive,” Patreese said.

“Everything there works different.”

Tiny, femme and poetic, Patreese served more time than any of the women – almost eight years. She looks about as threatening as a church mouse, and she readily admits that being in prison messed with her head.

“I said, ‘Am I going to take these meds?’ Some of these people deserve to be in a mental health hospital,” Patreese recalled of being medicated in the prison. “But as I found out, they were giving the meds to me anyway, and I didn’t know it. They gave them to me because I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to somebody. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should take the meds just to get through day to day.’”

Almost two years after her release, she still struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. “Our mental health should be a priority when we get out. It’s really hard when you’re trying to transition back to society. When I’m lost, I’m even scared to ask for directions. There are no resources for us.”

Dorosh-Walther agreed. “This is a public-health issue. Mental health is something we’ve never put enough resources into. Mental health, far down the line after release, is a lasting issue.”

When Patreese and the others were convicted, one headline read, “Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women,” while another proclaimed, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”

How to get Past Injustice? Baby Steps

“When you come out, you come out with ‘Institutionalized thinking,’” Patreese said. “It’s something similar to PTSD. You end up getting changed by the system.”

The fact that people in that condition often end up being sent out the door with no support network at all is “absurd,” Dorosh-Walther said. “If there is nothing to transition you to live in the outside world … or only a tiny fraction of services … how are you even supposed to get housing?”

As a journalist, I often get caught up whenever I see injustice.

How do you get past it, I asked the women again and again?

Finally, Dorosh-Walther answered for them.

“You don’t really have time to comprehend the injustice and the pain,” she said. “There are hoops to jump through over and over and over again. You’re court-ordered to a shelter, for example. They are not going to make anything easy. It’s just piled on, piled on and piled on, and at some level you’re in survival mode and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The women said being able to tell their story via the film has helped them heal a great deal.

“It’s baby steps,” Terrain said. “There are moments it feels good, like we can celebrate. Other moments, we’re still struggling.”