May 1985: The FDA has just approved the first commercially available HIV test, Hollywood film legend Rock Hudson has passed away from AIDS-related complications and people are becoming more and more aware of what the disease actually is.
It is during this time that Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO) first opened its doors to the community. Thirty years later BAO is still open and is considered by many as one of the major benefactors in AIDS research.
The organization recently held a gala to celebrate BAO’s 30th anniversary in Birmingham. BAO Executive Director Karen Musgrove admits that the celebration was a mixed bag of emotions.
“We wanted to celebrate the fact that we’ve been in the community for thirty years but at the same time… it’s kind of sad that we have to still be here after 30 years. We’ve come so far but at the same time we still have so much farther to go,” Musgrove said.
Musgrove credits BAO’s longevity to the community’s constant support.
“Birmingham AIDS Outreach has always been for the community and has always been supported by the community,” she said. “And I would say that more so than any other nonprofit organization, in my opinion. It was the community that started BAO and they still support us to this day.”
Musgrove said she believes that the reason the community has stayed so loyal to the organization is BAO’s promise to provide excellent and private services to all who need it.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH): Alabama has a combined total of 22,637 reported HIV/AIDS cases as of March 31, 2015; 320 out of the 584 new cases of HIV in 2014 were for people under the age of 29; and nearly 20 percent of those (102 of the 584) were from Jefferson County.
Josh Bruce, director of education, and a member of the board at BAO, works closely with individuals newly diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and makes sure that they do not feel alone during this time in their life.
“If someone tests positive, it’s very important for that individual to see a doctor in order to get an idea of what’s going on in their immune system,” Bruce said. “I help them navigate through the medical system, answer any questions they have, and act as that initial support during a time when they are afraid to tell anyone their status and therefore have no one to turn to.”
Musgrove also credits BAO’s longevity in the community to its refusal to be a “stagnant agency.” Even though it is primarily an agency that works with HIV/AIDS, the organization has several future projects to help the agency grow. In October 2013, BAO added LGBTQ services to their mission statement, meaning the BAO would start providing people in the LGBTQ community with more than just HIV/AIDS related services.
Their first step was a project called Family Matters, in which local photographer Carolyn Sherer (known for her “Living in Limbo” exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute) had 12 Birmingham LGBTQ youths, ages 15–23, write narratives about family values and what family means to them paired with various photographs. The exhibit premiered April 24, 2014 and, according to BAO’s Youth Services Leader Amanda Keller, was a huge success.
“It was so wonderful to see so many people show up to see these photos and to support our step into LGBTQ youth services,” Keller said.
BAO’s Magic City Acceptance Center is another example of the organization’s passion to move forward. After receiving a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 2013, BAO opened the center to provide Birmingham’s LGBTQ youth with activities, support groups and information on HIV prevention.
“It’s a place where LGBTQ youths can go and be themselves,” Keller said. “We’re trying to figure out how to support the community through the needs of its youth. We’re trying to not only be accepting but affirming as well. We have moved passed tolerating because people don’t need to tolerate; they need to accept and affirm and that’s what our goal is for this center: to provide a more affirming environment for these youths.”
Musgrove says that BAO also plans to open a legal clinic that provides legal services to those who feel their rights have been violated in some way.
“It’s open to the entire LGBTQ community,” Musgrove said. “We’re going to have attorneys staffed all day that are there to help people organize their wills, their advance directives, power of attorney papers, all of those needs. You can get all of those things taken care of at this clinic free of charge.”
“Something we’re focusing on with this clinic is…most of the cases we’ve seen are cases that, sadly, could have been avoided with the proper paperwork,” she said. “So what we’re trying to do with the clinic is provide people with services to help them get out of these awful situations but also help prevent them from having the problem in the first place.”
In addition to its close relationship with UAB’s medical team, BAO plans to open a Wellness Center to help provide people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and people in the trans community a place where they are assured proper and non-judgmental care for whatever their medical needs may be.
“Some people are unfortunately denied the proper medical attention they need because of a doctor’s personal judgments or they don’t seek out the attention they need because they’re afraid of being judged,” Musgrove said. “So with the Wellness Center these people can come and find medical professionals (whether with us or with UAB) that are not going to judge and will give them whatever they need.”
Another aspect in which BAO has moved forward is in its testing methods.
“Testing has come such a long way,” Bruce said. “It used to be that you had to drive down to the health department and get your blood drawn then wait two to three weeks for the results. Now an HIV test is a simple mouth swab and people get their results in 20 minutes.”
Musgrove also took note of the comparative ease of taking the test today.
“When I think about testing back in 1990 compared to testing now, there should be no reason why people aren’t getting tested,” she said.
BAO provides several opportunities for people to get tested, including setting up shop at local bars and a monthly bingo night.
“The community sees us as partners and as friends and we’re just there to help people,” Musgrove said.
Starting in July, BAO is teaming up with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to provide members of Magic City Acceptance Center with free STD testing.
“Every Wednesday we’ll have a movie playing and we’ll have popcorn and there will be medical team members from UAB there to provide free testing and information for the youths,” Musgrove said.
“We’re trying to give these people a fun and structural activity to enjoy but at the same time provide them with information and with these services to help them,” Keller added.
BAO also is working to solve the remaining knowledge gap about HIV in this community.
“It’s 2015 and there are still people who don’t know anything about AIDS or HIV,” Musgrove said. “We provide classes and other educational services to help people learn how the disease is spread, how it can be prevented/controlled, and the fact that it can infect anyone.”
Despite BAO’s prominence in Birmingham, Keller and Musgrove agree that word of their services are mostly unknown in suburban areas.
“I’ll go to the suburbs and people will be shocked that BAO exists or that there’s even a need for us to exist,” Keller said. “We have a youth center for LGBT youth called Magic City Acceptance Center and we go out and do service announcements to let them [suburban youths] know what services we provide and some youths don’t even think to look for organizations that offer our services because they assume since it’s Alabama, there aren’t any. So it’s been very interesting going and informing people that we do indeed exist.”
During its 30 years, BAO has become more than an AIDS service organization, Bruce says: “It is a support system for those in need, a community center, and a voice for the LGBTQ community while also providing health education and enhancing the lives of those living with HIV.”
Keller explained that the most important thing people need to know about BAO is that it accepts everyone.
“We want people to be able to live their lives the way they want and to be happy,” he said. “We welcome everyone but we really want people to know that when they enter our building they are in a safe place.”
Musgrove explained that when it comes to BAO’s future the sky is the limit: “We are an organization that loves to think outside the box. We have so much planned for us to grow and for us to keep helping people in new and exciting ways. And I like to believe that we are only limited by our imaginations and the number of hours in the day.”
BAO offers free HIV testing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9:30am-4:30pm and Wednesdays from 2:30pm–6:30pm. No appointment needed. For more information on BAO’s services and upcoming events, visit their website at birminghamaidsoutreach.org.