Mark Ebenhoch toured the U.S. with a rainbow flag to promote LGBT pride.
Mark Ebenhoch toured the U.S. with a rainbow flag to promote LGBT pride.

Equality Florida's HIV Advocacy Project Fights a Persistent Social Stigma

When Mark Ebenhoch first heard the news in 1996, it came with a strange relief: There would no longer be long waits fearing whether he had contracted HIV. Nevertheless, the stigma of being "poz" led the 35-year-old former Marine to contemplate suicide.

In sunshiny Los Angeles, he slipped into depression.

"It was a shitty time in life," says Ebenhoch, who today is in his late 50s. "We were still considered untouchable people back then. There were special quarantines in health facilities; many heath-care folks didn't want to take care of us."

Ebenhoch wasn't alone. During this time, the peak of the HIV pandemic in the United States, many gay men considered killing themselves. Disconnected from others, many of them indeed ended up taking their own lives. Being HIV-positive carried an entrenched deadly stigma. Now, decades later, some advocates see that stigma growing — and a new project by Equality Florida aims to squash it again.

Ebenhoch, who now lives in Key West, has come a long way since those gray, uncertain days. He's become a notable local LGBT-rights leader. In recent years, he's championed gay marriage from his home base in Monroe County and has toured the United States to bring awareness to Section 93, a special segment of the sea-to-sea rainbow flag that once unfurled across the width of Key West. It's become a cherished symbol of LGBT pride among locals.

Although he's become a "victor" rather than a victim of the virus, the rise of rhetoric against people with HIV has been disheartening. Case in point: Georgia politician and physician Betty Price recently suggested that people with the illness be quarantined from the general population. "I was shocked, angry, fearful," Ebenhoch says, "same feelings Jews had during Hitler's reign in Germany. Mrs. Price is the wife of a former presidential cabinet member... way too close to the national government and its policymakers."

The spouse of former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price hasn't been the only public figure to recently push discriminatory rhetoric toward people with HIV or the LGBT community at large. Ebenhoch says the fear of job loss, habitat loss, and even health-care loss — not to mention virulent discrimination — could spur many HIV-positive individuals to stay in the shadows, afraid to speak openly about their HIV status because of the possible negative consequences. That secrecy could lead to more cases of the virus in Florida, he predicts. It's a tragic ending that Ebenhoch has been fighting to diminish over the years, and that's why he's taken a loudspeaker in denouncing talks of quarantines.

"Those stigmas are the same today as they were in the '80 and '90s. With the lack of protections of these individuals and the current ideology of the [political] 'right' now in power, we will continue to see the proliferation of HIV infections," Ebenhoch says. "During the last administration, there was a sense of relaxation and fear, [but] with the swamp being overstocked with ideological adversaries in this current administration, the fear level has skyrocketed... Many won't speak in public, but the fear is real and palpable."

Ebenhoch isn't the only LGBT-rights leader who has condemned Price's quarantine suggestion. Alejandro Acosta, the coordinator of Equality Florida's HIV Advocacy Project, which launched in September, says her comment is a "perfect example" of how even a medical professional can lack basic knowledge about the virus and how to treat it.

"Like most Americans, we are appalled and quickly denounced the dangerous rhetoric from the Georgia lawmaker," Acosta says on behalf of Equality Florida, the largest LGBT-rights advocacy organization in the Sunshine State. "We believe in equality for everyone regardless of HIV status."

Acosta, who tells New Times that Florida leads the nation in the rate of new HIV transmissions and that the virus disproportionately affects the LGBT community, emphasizes the importance of ending discrimination as a way to curb new infections. "Today medical advances allow people living with HIV to live long, healthy lives with no difference in lifespan than someone without HIV," he says, elaborating on how modern medicine has changed the narrative for people with the virus. "This was echoed by the CDC on September 27, when they published a memo recognizing that people living with HIV who are on successful treatment cannot sexually transmit the virus to a negative partner. This is an important recognition that should help us in our work to end stigma and discrimination based on HIV status."

Ebenhoch's and Acosta's advocacy efforts strive to not only end discrimination of people with HIV but also empower those who are poz and their allies — to mobilize politically. That said, on November 12, Equality Florida will host its annual Broward Gala, and its new HIV Advocacy Project will be highlighted and discussed at the event.

"This is not the time to sit back and be complacent," Acosta says. "Our current government is a threat to our rights and overall well-being. There are many ways to get involved, starting with your own communities. Volunteer with Equality Florida. Get to know where your elected officials stand with LGBTQ issues and vote for those who believe in equality."

Equality Florida Broward Gala. Sunday, November 12, at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66, 2301 SE 17th St., Fort Lauderdale; 305-335-2102; eqfl.org/browardgala. Ticket prices start at $175.

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