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Group Hosts Parties, Salons to Promote Gay Men's Health

by Matthew S. Bajko

People hold fans at an Impulse San Francisco event at Oasis. Photo: FEBE
People hold fans at an Impulse San Francisco event at Oasis. Photo: FEBE  (Source:FEBE)

Whether through dance parties and bar events or more intimate salon-like settings with invited health officials and other speakers, the Impulse Group aims to engage and inform gay men around the globe about how to take care of their own health needs and that of their peers.

Since launching more than seven years ago in West Hollywood, the volunteer-run organization now has chapters throughout North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Its San Francisco chapter formed in October 2016 and has held a number of gatherings, both educational and entertaining, for members over the last year.

Topics addressed by the local Impulse chapter have included safe-sex practices, drug education and harm reduction, and racial disparities, particularly those faced by gay black men, within the LGBTQ community.

"The feedback we get is it is diverse, engaging, and welcoming," said Jeremy Joseph, 34, a gay man who is president of the local chapter and works for Genentech.

Gay Los Angeles resident Jose Ramos, 37, founded Impulse as a way to inform gay men, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, about the latest advancements in HIV prevention and care. The idea was sparked when his best friend learned in 2009 that he was living with AIDS.

"After my friend was diagnosed, a lot more friends were becoming HIV-positive. Something was missing," said Ramos. "When I looked at the HIV community in West Hollywood, there was nothing promoting awareness and empowerment around sexual health. The way we are presenting this information needed to be where gay men were making those decisions."

Ramos stressed that the approach Impulse takes is meant to be informative so participants can determine on their own what is best for their health needs.

"We are not public health officials," said Ramos. "As volunteers, I try to tell my team we can't tell people what to do. We can empower them with the information they need so they make the right decisions."

Working with AHF
Shortly after founding Impulse, Ramos formed an alliance with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which in recent years has granted funding to the group. In 2017 Impulse's grant from AHF totaled $2 million, said Ramos, which was distributed to the group's 18 active chapters and two expansive chapters in nine countries.

A spokesman for AHF did not respond to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment on why it had decided to financially support the Impulse Group, one of a handful of nonprofits it has formed affiliations with in recent years. Ramos suspects his proposal was approved because the two organizations have the same mission.

"We want to stop HIV and want to stop AIDS and get people healthy and into treatment," said Ramos, who quit his job with Target last summer after being hired by AHF as its regional sales director for the western region of the U.S.

A question Impulse leaders routinely face due to their ties to AHF is what their stance is on PrEP, the once-a-day pill that has been found to be effective in keeping people HIV-negative. AHF has been a vocal critic of seeing the medication, known as Truvada (tenofovir/emtricitabine), become a primary HIV prevention tool.

The Los Angeles-based agency has questioned what the consequences of its longtime usage may be and has argued its adoption is contributing to the rise in cases of other sexually transmitted infections, such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia. Some gay and bisexual men taking PrEP are doing so in order to forgo condoms during sex, which puts them at risk for various STIs.

Concern over where the Impulse Group stands on the usage of PrEP and PEP, short for post-exposure prophylaxis and taken after sex that may have exposed someone to HIV in order to prevent them from becoming positive, has been elevated by the fact that the page designated for information on both HIV prevention tools on Impulse's website has been blank for months.

Ramos and Joseph both told the B.A.R. that Impulse supports PrEP, PEP, and any other tool shown to be effective in preventing HIV. As for the website page, Ramos said it is being redone as part of a restructuring of the entire site that is in the works.

The Impulse San Francisco chapter has repeatedly promoted PrEP, hosting a forum about it for its members and highlighting it in several videos it has released online. Last week, it posted a commercial on its Facebook page that encourages gay HIV-negative men to take PrEP and directs those interested in doing so to visit its website http://www.impulsesf.org to find a local provider.

"We believe in PrEP; we believe in condoms; we believe in being undetectable. Anything that will protect against new infections we support," said Ramos, noting that the group's Washington, D.C. chapter supported a PrEP campaign promoting its usage in the city's black community. "People will ask me, 'Do you support it?' And I tell them that at Impulse, we do."

As it advocates for PrEP usage, Impulse San Francisco is also cognizant of the need to educate men, especially those in their early 20s, about STIs, Joseph said. Despite the city close to reducing new HIV infections by 90 percent come 2020 - over the last decade new HIV cases in San Francisco have declined, falling to a new low of 223 in 2016 - local health officials have been unable to stem a decade-long rise in STIs that are particularly prevalent in sexually active gay and bisexual men.

"I think when we tell people PrEP only prevents HIV and not necessarily hepatitis B, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, and hear what the implications for our long-term health can be from STDs, people can be surprised," said Joseph.

Impulse, since its inception, has harnessed social media platforms to its advantage. The nonprofit organization, and its individual chapters, all utilize Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, for example, to reach the younger generation of gay and bisexual men. Ramos estimated the Impulse Group has half a million followers across the various platforms.

It has also used online videos featuring porn stars and drag queens to grab attention and help spread a safe-sex message. A spoof of a "Golden Girls" episode that promoted condoms starring a trio of drag queens went viral when released last fall.

"The fact we are not funded by the CDC or NIH gives us the freedom to be outspoken and provocative in the way we present the information," explained Ramos, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Most of the videos released by the San Francisco chapter have been created by, and often star, local filmmaker Alex Liu, 33, the owner of Herra Productions. One released over the summer that featured Liu, who is not an official member of Impulse, focused on the rise of STIs in San Francisco.

"What I like about the group, definitely, is that they are trying to de-stigmatize sex and sexuality as much as possible," said Liu, who is paid for his work and hopes to create even more videos in 2018. "I hope the message that comes out is, as a community, we have special specific health needs. If you value people, we should tend to those unique health needs of the community."

To learn more about the Impulse Group and its various chapters, visit https://impulsegrp.org/ .

Impulse San Francisco's next event will be its inaugural fundraiser EXTRA, a happy hour event with donations at the door benefiting the Q Foundation, which works to address homelessness in the city's LGBT community. It will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, November 2, at gay bar the LookOut, located at 1600 16th Street at Noe and Market streets.

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