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Ft Lauderdale’s World AIDS Museum is Preserving Queer History

With dozens of LGBT-friendly hotels, more than 40 gay nightlife venues, gorgeous beaches, and warm winter weather, it is easy to see why Fort Lauderdale is a favorite vacation spot for the LGBT community. I’ve been eyeing up Fort Lauderdale for years because I knew they were the only city in the world to prioritize transgender travel.

Fort Lauderdale has funded research on the needs of transgender travelers, provided inclusive training opportunities for tourism professionals on best practices for working with transgender clients and they used three different transgender models in their mainstream advertising campaigns this year. Not to mention the fact, the Ft Lauderdale tourism staff have spoken at conferences all over the world about the need for more awareness on transgender and gender nonconformity in the travel space. I’m proud to support a destination that is centering the most marginalized in our community.

While we were in town we had to visit the historic gayborhood, Wilton Manors. Wilton Manors’ main thoroughfare, Wilton Drive is home to all kinds of LGBT centric nonprofits like Out of the Closet Vintage, Stonewall National Museum and Archives and Good Luck Cat Cafe – there’s a lesbian joke somewhere with that last one – but I’m going to let it go for now.

Anyway, we wandered around the shops, stopped to have lunch at Rosie’s Bar and Grill, and eventually made our way down to The World AIDS Museum. The World AIDS Museum is the first museum dedicated to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Educational Center provides information on treatment & prevention of HIV. We stopped in for a tour with the Director of Operations, Ed Sparan.

As soon as we walked through the door we were greeted by Ed’s unique brand of delivery. He was able to walk us through a museum focused on a very somber topic without making the afternoon feel unbearably heavy. He walked us through a timeline of HIV/AIDS history starting in 1908 pointing out various points in history with narratives that ran counter to what I’d learned in school. Like did you know one of the first westerners to die from the virus was a woman? Grethe Rask was a Danish physician who worked in the Congo and died from an unknown illness in 1977. A sample of her blood was later tested and they discovered traces of the virus.

I went to school for 20 years and never received so much as one sentence of LGBT-specific content in sex education – or well – any subject for that matter. What little curriculum we had on HIV/AIDS always circled around the issue and taught the subject matter as if it was a problem that occurred elsewhere or in the past. As an adult, I know that couldn’t be further from the truth. As Ed was walking around the museum he commented that many young people believe you can take a pill every day and be perfectly fine if you contract the virus. He commented several times that he believes the students who come to see his presentations don’t understand the implications of HIV and generally fail to see the broader impacts of the virus. He creates works of art to dispel these myths with a visual representation of the illness. One of the more jarring pieces is a very large red ribbon made of out  $333,000 worth of medication bottles collected over the course of 10 years.

Queer women have been long ignored in HIV and STI programs. We need and deserve tailored interventions that are specific to our culture and sexual practices. With research-based education comes better health outcomes. HIV transmission between women, although rare, is possible but we are also at a higher risk for herpes, chlamydia, and bacterial vaginosis infections, as well.

As I was going to the museum, I kept thinking, knowledge is the only way we as a community will be able to fight and prevent this to happen again. We have to help create information that is culturally relevant to our community like this Safe Sex 101 post from AutoStraddle. We also need to get tested and know our status. These days you can find a local testing center via the CDC or if you’re worried about privacy issues you can order a testing kit from Health Testing Centers.

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