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'It's Far From Over': Jacksonville LGBT Youth Group Fights Rising HIV Infection Rate

Watson in JASMYN offices
Jessica Palombo

A Jacksonville organization for young LGBT people is hoping a new grant will help prevent the spread of HIV among the city’s most susceptible residents.  

The Elton John AIDS Foundation and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation are giving more than $50,000 dollars toward its fight.

Cindy Watson is executive director of the Jacksonville Area Sexual Minority Youth Network (JASMYN), the community center for gay and transgender young people that also has a health clinic.

“We just feel like it’s so important,” she says. “These are young people whose lives will be forever impacted by HIV.”

The sexually transmitted disease is making a comeback in the city, especially among black, gay teens and young men between the ages of 13 and 34. Last year, the JASMYN clinic treated 55 HIV-positive young people, with a handful of new infections among them.

“We’ve known young people who have died in the last two years from HIV, and that’s because they have not had access to medication, and their lives are so unstable they’ve not been able to take advantage of that, so it’s far from over,” she says.

Watson first started this work in Jacksonville in the early ‘90s, as the gay community was reeling from the nationwide AIDS epidemic.

“Of course I’m reminded, and we don’t want to go back,” she says, “and the great thing about today is we have the medical tools to stop this epidemic.”

Through its AIDS Free Jax campaign, JASMYN aims to reduce the rate of infection by serving an additional 80 HIV-positive young people every year until 2018.

The Delores Barr Weaver Fund of the Community Foundation is giving up to $500,000 in a matching grant to their medical care. And the recent Elton John AIDS Foundation and Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation gift will go toward providing AIDS-prevention pills known as PrEP.  They run up to $1,800 for a one-month supply. 

Updated: The original version of the story did not mention the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. 

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP