A Grim Prognosis

HIV infection is soaring in the Latino population. Can El Futuro slow it down?

In 2002, with money from the Centers for Disease Control, the state health department approved a three-year grant for the development of El Futuro, a community center that would provide HIV prevention and outreach, mental-health services, HIV testing and a non-threatening group dynamic for gay and bisexual Latino men. The grant seeded the center with an annual budget of nearly $125,000 -- enough for two full-time employees and a smattering of contract workers.

The money was minimal, but it was a start -- and a near miracle, considering that this year, Colorado cut funding for HIV prevention programs by 12 percent. Medina has bolstered the center's coffers through fundraising -- his team generated almost $2,000 during this year's AIDS Walk -- and the kindness of friends and strangers. The center works with about a dozen volunteers and has received donations from across the state.

"In Colorado's history, the gay population of color has never received this much attention," Medina says. "The grant was something that was in process for a long time, and it took the efforts of a lot of dedicated people to bring it about. We told them we could prove that this thing could work, and now we have to prove it: This center is something that is needed in Denver, Colorado, right now."

Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.
Anthony Camera
Chris Medina directs El Futuro, a community center.

Now it is up to Medina to make sure the community gets the message.

Freddie Krueger is serving strong cocktails to the crowd at Broadway's, a gay dive bar where a Halloween party is just starting to find some drunken forward momentum. A few groups on the dance floor -- women and men in pairs of two -- are shakin' to "Turn the Beat Around," spun by a phantom DJ. The peripatetic disco beat makes ice pulse in empty glasses abandoned on tables all around the room.

Justin McCarthy scans the scene, looking for fresh meat. The crowd is mostly older, mostly white; some men at the bar are more interested in the Red Sox game playing silently on TV ("Johnny Damon, come to Daddy!" says one guy, whose friend makes catcalls at the screen) than in the action on the floor. Finally, McCarthy spots a guy he wants to talk to: a beefy, brown-skinned man, his silk shirt opened to the middle of his hairy chest. At 22, McCarthy is trim and adorable, with bright, shiny dark eyes, fine-boned cheeks and a closely shaved head hidden beneath a baseball cap. As he approaches, the man's eyes light up a little.

McCarthy reaches into his bag and produces lube, condoms and fliers like a gay Mary Poppins. The guy takes some of each, then stops to examine an invitation for an El Futuro orientation.

"Will you come?" McCarthy says coyly.

"I don't know," the guy responds. "I'll see what my friend says. I never heard of this before. It sounds a little weird."

As an outreach worker for El Futuro, McCarthy visits clubs, bars, parks and other places where gay men congregate, looking for Latinos who might be open to learning more about the place. He is seeking out a group that doesn't always want to be found -- and isn't always in the mood, or frame of mind, to listen. He prefers to approach individuals or couples. Large groups intimidate him: At a bar like this, people are out to have a good time, not think about a downer like HIV.

"I don't just go up to them and say, 'You! You should get tested for HIV!'" McCarthy says. "I try to sell them on El Futuro in a general way. Like, 't's a cool place to come and hang out and meet people. And, hey, everybody could use some counseling.'

"The drunker and drunker people get, the harder it is to talk to them," he adds. "And I have to be careful sometimes. Some guys can get the wrong idea if you come up to them waving a condom."

Still, McCarthy does better in gay bars -- where everyone is, at least for the night, open about their sexuality -- than in parks. In the years that he's been doing outreach (as a teenager, he worked with young people through the health-awareness program the Phoenix Project), he's developed a sense of whom to approach and whom to leave alone. "Some people will look at the flier and say, 'What? That's not for me. This place isn't for me. I'm not gay,'" he says. "They can get really offended. But it's like, 'Well, excuse me, but you are cruising Cheesman Park.'"

The next Thursday, one of the guys McCarthy met at Broadway's shows up for orientation at El Futuro. In the room, he and six other men chat while they fill out forms, including a seventeen-page questionnaire about their sexual habits, a rather intrusive piece of paperwork required by the state. On page four, they're asked to enumerate the number of times they have, for example, had "insertive anal intercourse with ejaculation." "You fuck him; you cum up his ass," it clarifies.

Medina knows the paperwork can scare people off, so he creates a diversion, a "let's get to know each other" game that starts with a simple question: "If you could come back in another life, would you come back gay or straight?"

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