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Health director under fire for blaming high HIV rate on Charlotte being a “party town”

Advocates are calling for an apology

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Mecklenburg County Health Department is coming under fire for what LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS advocates say are dangerous, outdated stereotypes.

Mecklenburg Health Director Gibbie Harris gave a presentation to the Mecklenburg County Commissioners on Oct. 24, to address the city’s HIV and STD rates. In addition to noting the county’s size, as well as the opioid crisis, Harris blamed party culture.

Harris says HIV rate is high because Charlotte is a “party town”

“Part of it is location,” Harris said. “In cities like Charlotte, that draws a lot of people in, it can be a party town. It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend, and then leave but leave stuff behind.”

The comments have been gaining notoriety over the past few days.

Harris comes under fire

“It made me want to cringe,” Commissioner Pat Cotham told The Charlotte Observer on Monday. “It made light of it. It felt offensive. I know people with AIDS. They are going to feel hurt.”

“We have people in abusive relationships, trading sex for a place to live,” said Jaysen McMaster-Foreman, a benefits manager at HIV/AIDS services organization RAIN. “They are not in a position to demand their abuser wear a condom.”

Equality NC Interim Executive Director Matt Hirschy criticized the comments on Facebook.

“The citizens of Charlotte need healthcare, not a sermon. What a joke,” he wrote.

Mecklenburg’s rate of over 30.4 new diagnoses per 100,000 people is more than twice the national average, and notably worse than the rest of the state.

Last year, there were over 6,600 people living with HIV in Mecklenburg. North Carolina also ranked in the top 10 for three other STDs: Syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. That is particularly troubling with the rise of antibiotic resistant infections.

STD rates are higher throughout the South than in the rest of the country, and a recent county report noted that the rate is highest in the least affluent areas of Mecklenburg. Experts point to lack of access to healthcare, stigma, poverty, and lack of proper sex education as reasons for higher rates of HIV and other STDs.

Advocates call for an apology

NC AIDS Action Network Executive Director Lee Storrow tweeted that Harris should apologize, adding that “judgment and stigma have no place in preventing HIV transmissions.”

LGBTQ rights group MeckPAC has released a statement also calling on Harris to apologize for her comments.

In addition, it is calling on Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio, who hired Harris, to apologize for her defense of those comments.

“Gibbie was referring to events in large metropolitan areas that attract crowds of residents and visitors where higher-risk behavior could occur,” Diorio said. “She has direct knowledge of these in Wake County and along the east coast, and has heard anecdotaly that they also occur in Mecklenburg County. Public Health will continue working with residents and visitors to encourage them to protect themselves and others.”

MeckPAC criticized Diorio for using what it called “blatantly coded language further stigmatizing at-risk communities and offering the astonishingly glib response that Harris’ comments were based not on fully-informed scientific or medical studies, but rather ‘anecdotal’ evidence.”

“They have pushed a dangerous, stigmatizing narrative straight out of the 1980s,” MeckPAC wrote.

A push for PrEP

MeckPAC is also using the opportunity to encourage the county to embrace PrEP, a once-a-day pill that can be taken to help prevent uninfected individuals from contracting HIV. It is currently not supported as part of Mecklenburg’s prevention tools.

“MeckPAC has been working this year to form a new effort, PrEPinMeck. Our effort will launch on Dec. 1, to coincide with World AIDS Day, and aims to remind Mecklenburg County officials of their commitment to stop all new HIV infections in Mecklenburg County by 2020,” it said. “We’ll focus on public education, lobbying and a push to see county resources extended to support this critically important prevention method.”

Posted by Jeff Taylor / Social Media Editor

Jeff Taylor is a journalist and artist. In addition to QNotes, his work has appeared in publications such The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inside Lacrosse, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport and has lived in Charlotte since 2006.@jefftaylorhuman.