PFY, the organization previously known as Pride for Youth, hosted its annual Ruby Red Ball in Bellmore on Jan. 20. In addition to drag the performances and competition, the event focused on raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, and attendees were able to get free rapid tests.
PFY has been headquartered in Bellmore since 1993. Once an organization for LGBTQ youth, it has been able to expand the reach of its services thanks to a grant from the Paul Rapoport Foundation, and now provides lifelong assistance to anyone who identifies as LGBTQ on Long Island and in Queens. The organization is a division of the Long Island Crisis Center.
HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, damages the immune system, increasing vulnerability to disease and infection. When left untreated, it renders the body unable to fight off infections, leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
During the 1980s AIDS crisis, the disease swept across the nation, at a time when the medical community’s understanding of it was limited. Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has much greater knowledge of how the disease spreads, and how to prevent it.
Those who contract HIV can now live long lives if they are properly treated. Though there is no cure, many people who have HIV never develop AIDS. Medicines for the virus can reduce and in some cases even stop the spread of the virus.
Organizations like PFY work to ensure that people get tested and can find treatment. At its offices on Bellmore Ave in Bellmore and in Deer Park, in Suffolk County, PFY provides free testing for HIV Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Appointments are available outside of walk-in hours.
“Primarily, we are funded through the AIDS Institute,” Tawni Engel, associate director of the Long Island Crisis Center, previously told the Herald, referring to the agency of the state Department of Health. “Year-round, we’re always doing HIV testing and prevention.
“A lot of our programs, actually, are focused around educating the community on these things,” Engel added, “because, statistically, we do see a lot of members of the LGBTQ community at risk for HIV.”
“We really try to meet the mental health and sexual health needs of LGBTQ+ individuals from a wider scope, and really try to decrease the impact of the social determinants of health,” Aiden Kaplan, PFY’s assistant director of operations and programs, said.
The purpose of the Ruby Red Ball is two-fold, Kaplan said. PFY strives to raise awareness of “Undetectable = Untransmittable,” a term also known as U=U. If someone is living with HIV and regularly taking medication as prescribed, they can reach an undetectable viral load, rendering the virus “untransmittable.”
“If people are living with HIV, and they know their status, and they’re on medication, this is going to be the end of HIV,” Kaplan said. “But people need to know their status in order to get connected to medication to become U=U.”
The event also offered a number of educational opportunities. Rapid HIV and syphilis testing were available, along with PrEP screenings. PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, is medicine taken to prevent contracting HIV. It has been proven to reduce the risk of getting the disease by 99 percent.
Though all Americans are susceptible to HIV/AIDS, the majority of cases involve gay and bisexual males and injection drug users. Ethic groups such as Black/African Americans and Latinos are also at a higher risk of contracting HIV.
“Our hope is that they walk away with that sense of community, some fun, but also that element of education,” Kaplan said of those who took part in the Ruby Red Ball.
For those who were unable to attend, PFY hosts similar events year-round. For more information, visit LICCPFY.org.