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The Drop Reimagines HIV Care in the Mile High City

Anyone who approaches the small cove in the alley adjacent to Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain Region is first met by a giant rainbow triangle pointing straight to the sky. If they turn to the left and ring the doorbell, they’re greeted by a large room littered with tables, chairs, a few snacks, and a couch. Then, they’ll see one of four smiling faces.

Thera Marshall, Pauly Maldonado, Theariale StCyr, and Fabian Molina are the four queer men of color who have successfully launched The Drop.

The Drop, also known as the PPRM Denver Central Health Center, is the first clinic of its kind. It serves as a hub for a variety of Denver’s communities in search of HIV prevention, treatment, and education—no easy feat.

“We are never hardly working; we’re always working hard,” said Marshall, HIV program manager at PPRM. “It takes a lot of dedication and passion to do what we do over here. All four of us really care about the community we are fighting for, and all of us are ready to share what we know with others. We all work really hard together to get stuff done.”

The Drop

That hard work is paying off. The Drop offers free rapid HIV testing, assistance in getting on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), education on sexual health, outreach into marginalized communities, and a place to kick back, talk, and—most definitely—laugh.

Boasting as a community hub in the heart of Capitol Hill, anyone in Denver can reach out to The Drop to find a safe space for clubs and organizations to gather, host meetings, and get educated. The clinic’s main function is to provide HIV resources, but community is directly related to that mission in Marshall’s eyes.

With 15 years as a radio journalist, connecting with people and spreading awareness and education was not new to Marshall. That’s why he jumped at the offer to give back to the community. He wasn’t the only one.

Knowing he wanted to reach the Latinx community, Marshall approached Fabian Molina, who was working at the Denver Children’s Museum, to be The Drop’s bilingual HIV program specialist. Without hesitation, he joined the team.

“I’ve been here less than a year, but it definitely feels like we’ve all put in way more than year’s worth of work,” Molina said. “But, what I do here and the people I help is all worth it.”

During his time at the The Drop, Molina has set up relationships with organizations such as Servicios De La Raza to help spread awareness through the Latinx community. He is also the face you see if you prefer to communicate in Spanish.

In one case, Molina helped an undocumented citizen navigate the journey of finding out they were HIV-positive and which programs could help them in their journey.

“It doesn’t feel like work in that moment,” Molina said. “I put all my stressors and stuff aside, and I was there for someone in one of the most vulnerable moments in their life. I was able to get him connected to the right people—the people I knew could and would help him. That’s why we do what we do.”

The Tough Conversations

“I’ve definitely learned I’m not the b*tch I thought I was,” Theariale StCyr, HIV prevention specialist, said. “I was an only child, and I never learned how to share or how to make people feel comfortable. But I’ve been told many times that I’m easy to talk to, that I’m the only person they would want in that room with them. That’s when I know I’m doing a good job.”

StCyr has a face you may, or may not, notice. For nearly two decades, he has entertained Denver as one of the best drag queens in the Mile High City: Felony Misdemeanor. As a staple in Denver’s queer scene, StCyr knows how important it is to spread awareness and resources surrounding HIV.

“This is still very much considered a ‘gay disease,’” he said. “Most of the conversations and advertising are still pointed at our community, but the conversation has started to dwindle, while the problem has not.”

Denver is one of the many major cities nationwide that made a pledge to end AIDS by 2030. By 2016, the city’s public health department reported that Denver was two-thirds of the way to its goal. It also reported that 9,950 people were living with HIV—with 310 new cases in 2016.

Eighty-eight percent of those living with HIV in the Denver Metro Area are male, with 74 percent of those males contracting the virus by male-to-male sexual contact.

“This virus has been around since the 80s, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” StCyr said. “It says a lot that this program is just starting. We’ve come a long way, and we’ve got a long way to go. I hope my voice, which reaches a wide audience, can help with that.”

Branching out into HIV care is a huge step for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, but it’s not the only step they are taking to help LGBTQ folks. In Colorado, Planned Parenthood is active in the political community and major provider of all sexual healthcare.

Planned Parenthood: Not Just for Birth Control

When Trump was first elected into office, many people reached out to PPRM. A lot of them were women looking out for their sexual health, trying to get birth control prescriptions refilled or score a “Trump-proof” IUD to provide birth control through his four-year term. But others were reaching out to try and provide help to the organization.

Despite the trying political times, PPRM is doing really well in the Mile High City and beyond. And while the organization may be typically associated with birth control for women who sleep with men, Planned Parenthood in Colorado is a lot more.

In addition to generalized sexual health like STD testing and wellness exams, they offer hormone therapy for trans folks. This service is available at their main location on 14th Ave. All of their clinicians are trained in inclusive language to provide healthcare no matter how patients identify. They even provide training for trans folks to administer their hormone injections themselves, or have their significant others do the injections for them. Through all of this, they feel they are changing how Planned Parenthood is seen in the local community, especially with LGBTQ folks.

“Not only has expanding our care been much more intentional, and we are offering care of all kinds, but I feel we are being more welcomed into that community as well,” said Whitney Phillips, vice president of communication and brand experience with PPRM. “We have an incredibly diverse staff, and people don’t really go to work at Planned Parenthood by accident. People who work there are very intentional and passionate and push us to be a better healthcare provider and organization from the inside and out.”

Part of this push to be a better healthcare provider means getting outside of examination room and into the courtrooms, helping with lobbying and legislation that supports women’s healthcare rights, LGBTQ equality, and human rights in general.

While standing up for queer rights and access to healthcare is extremely important in 2018, many of the people going to Planned Parenthood are simply turning to the name they know and trust to get professional, confidential help.

“When our patients come to us, they aren’t necessarily making a political statement,” explained Phillips. “They come to us because they need healthcare. We already know that the Planned Parenthood brand is extremely trusted, and I think that folks are coming to us and asking questions that are really a little more than just for health. We make sure we are a safe space for people, whether that has to do with immigration or housing or their healthcare. We try and provide the care they actually need.”

“We are not just fighting anti-abortion legislation, but we are able to provide support and staff for any kinds of other bills that aren’t targeted specifically to Planned Parenthood, but that relate to anything in the community, anyone we serve, and others who are doing this good work,” Swank said. “We provide help with testimony, and our allies do the same for us. We have tons of activists knocking doors, and we are really hoping to flip the Colorado Senate. Right now, we don’t have a pro-reproductive health majority; we are down by one, so we want to flip it, and it’s doable.

In the days after Trump’s election, the callers weren’t just calling for services, but because they were worried Colorado’s Planned Parenthood chapter would be shut down. They were calling in to ask about the situation with funding, make a donation, or volunteer their time.

“I think our activist base is the strongest it’s ever been,” said Molly Swank, director of community engagement with Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “Our volunteer base is ready to fight whatever comes up; our activists are contacting their senators all the time. People are really taking it upon themselves and doing things on their own to help us out.”

For the Community

That’s something The Drop is working on.

Since the grand opening on July 21, the four men behind the drop have worked tirelessly. In the coming months, they will be doing more community outreach to break into new communities and spread the word about the community center.

“We want everyone to know about this place,” Pauly Maldonado, HIV prevention specialist, said. “We want this room to be filled with people gathering and having a good time. We have high hopes for The Drop. I can’t wait to see them come to fruition.”

As The Drop navigates their first year open, they’re inviting any and all to drop by, chat, get tested, learn about PrEP, or just give in to the laughter that fills the room every weekday evening.

The Drop is located at 921 E. 14th Ave. Ste. A. Reach out by calling 303-813-7794 for facility hours, activity and education information, and health services.

By Addison Herron-Wheeler and Ryan Howe

Photos by Jeremiah Corder