The Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and owners of gay businesses in the city are launching a pilot program they hope will encourage Western Pennsylvania’s young gay and bisexual population to get tested for HIV infection.
The new initiative will place an AIDS prevention worker in three Pittsburgh gay nightclubs—Pegasus, the Eagle and Studio 54—one night each month through December to perform free HIV testing for patrons.
PATF staff and about six local club owners held a planning meeting at the end of August. Most participants offered positive feedback on the proposal and expressed an interest in becoming a part of such interventions in the future, said Nancy Commella, PATF director of communications.
The club owners expressed concern that they have begun to witness what appears to be a resurgence of risky sexual behaviors among their patrons—particularly those too young to have witnessed the devastation of AIDS in the gay community during the late 1980s and early ’90s, Commella said.
Similar programs in other cities nationwide found that roughly 10 percent of their gay and bisexual male population tested HIV-positive. Of those, about 77 percent were unaware they were infected. The disturbing trend made prevention workers realize that more aggressive outreach and education measures were necessary.
PATF has been visiting area clubs to distribute safer-sex kits containing condoms, lubricant and a small pamphlet about safer-sex and HIV.
“Even though we provide condoms, a lot of people don’t even take them,” Commella said. “Many of them just take the lube and leave the condom, so it became obvious that we need to do more than just pass out condoms.”
PATF has worked out a schedule with the owners of Pegasus, the Eagle and Studio 54, who are providing private areas in their clubs where HIV testing can be conducted away from other patrons.
Testing will be performed at the Eagle on the first Saturday of each month beginning Oct. 5; at Pegasus on the third Thursday of each month—which is also a Youth Night—beginning Oct. 17; and at Studio 54 on the third Saturday of each month beginning Oct. 19.
Testing hours are 10pm to 1am. The test used takes only a few minutes and involves a simple, non-invasive procedure using Orasure oral test kits, Commella said.
Beginning Nov. 4, from noon until 8pm, results from tests performed at all three locations will be available at Pegasus on the first Monday of each month through January. Counseling will be available to all participants, whether the individual’s test result is positive or negative, Commella said, since part of the goal of HIV testing is to educate people on how to better protect themselves. Counselors from Persad also will be available to assist with counseling.
PATF is viewing the three-month program as a trial run, Commella said. If the HIV testing program succeeds in reaching a significant number of people, PATF plans to expand its on-site testing to other venues and make it a permanent part of the agency’s services.