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City's New HIV Prevention Campaign Targets Transgender Community

 The city's new campaign features transgender people of color, a community officials say is particularly vulnerable to the spread of HIV.
The city's new campaign features transgender people of color, a community officials say is particularly vulnerable to the spread of HIV.
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WEST VILLAGE — The city's Department of Health is making an effort to reach transgender New Yorkers with a new campaign promoting HIV prevention.

Posters placed in subway stations and on city buses depict individuals and couples of various sexual orientations, races and gender identities promoting the use of an HIV prevention medication called PrEP as well as condoms.

It's a "a sex-positive strategy really encouraging people to combine things," Demetre Daskalakis, assistant commissioner of the Department of Health's bureau of HIV/AIDS prevention and control, explained in a recent interview.

The city promotes the use of condoms, which Daskalakis notes are "really good though not infallible," and is making efforts to connect people with PrEP, a drug geared at people who are considered high-risk, but have not yet contracted the virus.

"If people who are potentially at risk use PrEP, they can reduce their risk by 90-plus percent," Daskalakis explained.

The tagline, "Play Sure," is a play on the word "pleasure," Daskalakis said, as a way of pushing the idea that safe sex leads to more pleasurable sex when you eliminate the anxiety that you could get or transmit HIV.

Daskalakis, who identifies on social media as a "gay health warrior," is a doctor who has specialized in HIV screening, prevention and control for more than 12 years.

He is known for having done HIV testing in sex clubs years ago, in one of the first initiatives to meet vulnerable populations where they are, rather than expecting them to come to his clinic.

The ads are another instance of trying to combat the spread of the disease with an eye to understanding the people who are most at risk.

"We looked at folks who are getting HIV and made sure that we had people who look like them," he said.

The ads are all over the subway system and on buses in the outer boroughs, as well as some targeted subway stations, like the one 14th Street and 7th Avenue, near the LGBT Center, on Prince Street to target people shopping along Broadway in SoHo, and on turnstiles near Yankee Stadium.

The Health Department also produced a little case that it hopes to distribute for people to carry condoms and a little pill box for medication.

Daskalakis said the #PlaySafe kit was inspired by a patient who brought a little case into his clinic, which was originally meant for his Beats headphones, but which he used to carry condoms, some lubricant, and his HIV medication.

Daskalakis was so struck by the idea, he snapped a photo of it.

"Fast forward, I become the assistant commissioner of HIV," Daskalakis said. He remembered his patient's kit, and thus the #PlaySafe kit was born.

A limited number of Play Safe cases were produced and given out to people who attended the "house ball" the city hosted for members of the "house and kiki community."

(The house and kiki community, largely involving trans people and people of color, holds massive balls periodically where different "houses" compete to win dancing and runway-walking competitions.)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a goal early last year of bringing the number of AIDS cases in New York below epidemic levels by 2020, and unveiled a "blueprint" to meet that goal over the summer.

Mayor Bill de Blasio for months would not commit to contributing funding for the plan, but eventually announced his own funding in December, on World AIDS Day.

"One of the things that’s different between the city and the state is we actually just completely shouted out our target populations," he said.

For example, the city is specifically targeting adolescents for PrEP, something trans activists have said is important for the youth in their community.

As DNAinfo New York previously reported, many in the transgender community felt the state's original plan overlooked their needs. Activists highlighted the issue of crystal meth, which Daskalakis agreed is burgeoning problem.

"I always feel like services for meth are lacking," he said. "Anecdotally, every provider I’ve spoken to feels like there’s increasing crystal meth use in the city and it’s definitely a driver in HIV acquisition."

The city has also issued requests for proposals targeting trans-focused and trans-led organizations, another thing trans activists said was important to meet their needs.

"We don’t want this to be a thing that burns bright for five years," he said. "We want this to be an opportunity to build the infrastructure in our communities to allow them to get to the next level."