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A Different Front in the AIDS War : Minority Activists, Facing Cultural and Religious Stigmas Tied to the Deadly Disease, Count on a Sense of Community in Fighting the Epidemic


When Louie Bass was without a place to sleep, when he had no food and was thinking of suicide, the Minority AIDS Project was his lifeline.

Each time he stumbled in trying to face up to his HIV infection, Bass was rescued by African-American AIDS workers who arranged for emergency housing, food and medical care. He credits Dr. Wilbert Jordan, who helped found the AIDS clinic at Watts' King-Drew Medical Center, with restoring his will to live.

Without their help, "I wouldn't be alive today," the 50-year-old former social worker said. "When I come here (to the clinic) and people talk, it's a comfort because it's all black. . . . There's a closeness."

Like many minorities with the AIDS virus, Bass first turned to his ethnic community for information and assistance. And minority communities have begun to respond through new and expanded programs, especially in light of the growing number of AIDS cases among Latinos and African-Americans in Los Angeles.

But minority AIDS agencies face many daunting tasks, including dealing with cultural and religious stigmas against homosexuality and birth control; language barriers in the Latino and Asian communities; fear among immigrants that they will be deported if they seek AIDS information or treatment; and the lingering perception that AIDS is still a disease of Anglo gay men.

Though the agencies are making some progress, the level of services in central Los Angeles is inadequate and lags far behind efforts in the Anglo community, said Jordan and several other front-line AIDS workers.

"We're inching our way forward, but at least we're moving along," said Olivia Rodriguez, executive director of Avance Human Services, a Latino AIDS agency in East Los Angeles.

On the Eastside--home to more than 400,000 Latinos--there are no hospices and only three AIDS organizations. In the Downtown area, which has the most AIDS cases in central Los Angeles, just a few agencies cater to Latinos and Asians. And South-Central's second AIDS hospice opened only last month.

"Ten years ago, when AIDS started very heavily, the white gay community started educating their people," said Paul David, director of health education for the Minority AIDS Project. "Now they work with the assumption that most people in their community know the basics. We're still dealing with the basics in the black and Latino communities, getting people to understand."

Said Jordan: "What's good for West Hollywood doesn't necessarily work for South-Central. There is no black gay community here. Black gay men are intertwined with everyone else. So the black community has had to embrace this as a collective community, which the white community didn't have to do. You have a different system altogether."

Several of the city's major AIDS organizations have been reaching out to minority communities by hiring bilingual employees and having workers go through cultural sensitivity training. AIDS Project Los Angeles and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation have worked on joint projects with minority AIDS organizations, mostly in South-Central Los Angeles. And the Shanti Foundation of Los Angeles has begun a campaign to work with at least 100 black churches in Los Angeles on AIDS education as well as with black fraternities, sororities and business organizations.

"AHF's goal is to service everyone affected by HIV, and it doesn't mean staying in one location or speaking just one language," said Michael Weinstein, director of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "We know that the numbers are growing among African-Americans and Latinos and our efforts have to be there too."

But there is still the affinity many minorities feel toward their own people.

"There's a real serious engagement I have with fellow Asians because there's a common identity," said Roy, a 27-year-old Filipino from Newport Beach who attends support group meetings conducted by the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team in Chinatown. "Even if everyone isn't Filipino, they're all Asian."

AIDS cases are soaring among blacks and Latinos, especially in central Los Angeles, where more than half of the approximately 3,000 cases reported to the Los Angeles County Health Department since 1981 were African-Americans and Latinos. As of August, 37% of all the AIDS cases reported countywide were Latino or African-American. Asians make up only 1% of AIDS cases in the county, but community activists say the disease is underreported because of cultural stigmas.

Among minority groups, the African-American community offers the broadest range of AIDS-related services, including food pantries, massage, art therapy and aerobics classes. Clients and AIDS workers attribute a good part of that progress to Los Angeles Laker Earvin (Magic) Johnson's announcement last year that he is HIV-positive.

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