Michael Thomas has seen the effects of stigmatization on HIV testing and education in his home country of Grenada.
"There's a lot of stigma that prevents people from being comfortable and being able to go to the clinics to be tested," Thomas said.
"We have situations where people in the communities that we work with are afraid to get tested," he said. "What if the nurse finds out that I am gay? What if the nurse finds out that I am a sex worker? Because the community is so small and everybody knows everybody, someone is going to find out."
Thomas is a Liaison and Advisor to the Board of Directors of GrenCHAP, the only organization in the Caribbean nation that focuses on the sexual health of marginalized populations, including individuals who identify as LGBTQ and sex workers. He has spent the past month in Chicago as a fellow in the U.S. State Department's Youth Leaders of America Initiative (YLAI), hosted by WorldChicago. He has spent much of that time visiting The Night Ministry's Outreach and Health Ministry and Youth Housing Programs and meeting with our partner organizations to learn about health outreach to the LGBTQ community in Chicago.
"One of the main reasons I applied to YLAI was to find effective ways of linking members of the LGBTQ community to care without having to worry about what people think or what they say," he said.
Thomas said accompanying The Night Ministry staff on outreach efforts in Chicago has been eye-opening.
"I was able to get a one-on-one insight into the struggles that homeless people go through in Chicago," he said. "It really hit home to me that certain things happen to people, and they are not in control of the situation. But because of how society perceives them, it's difficult for them to get out of the situation."
Thomas said much of GrenCHAP's work involves encouraging individuals in at-risk populations to get tested for HIV and sexually transmitted infections.
"What we are really doing is trying to show individuals that we understand your fears and concerns, but the health care system is very confidential, and you should not be afraid to actually go and get tested," he said.
"If you don't want to go get tested on your own," he added, "we'll be more than happy to go with you."
Thomas said GrenCHAP also educates members of at-risk communities on ways to protect themselves from infection. Education happens through direct consultation with clients and through public health campaigns.
"My job as a sexual reproductive health rights advocate is to ensure that you have the necessary information that you need to ensure that you do not contract HIV or any other STIs," he said.
Thomas said battling discrimination in Grenada is an important part of combating the spread of HIV and STIs.
"My organization works to ensure that people within the LGBTQ community and the sex worker community are not only taken care of health-wise, but are respected within the country," he said.
"We are trying to push, 'Live and let live.' You may not want to accept something, but you can at least be tolerant of people living in the same country, or being in the same space as you."Through its participation in YLAI, The Night Ministry may have the opportunity to send a staff member to Grenada for a reciprocal experience in the future.