New Orleans Pride is excited to have Dr. MarkAlain Dery as Local Grand Marshal for Pride 2019. Dr. Dery is the Chief Innovation Officer with Access Health Louisiana and the Medical Director for the AIDS Education & Training Center Program (AETC). We recently caught up with Dr. Dery to discuss Pride, and HIV in New Orleans.
Ordinary is not a word that would be used to describe you; from your tattoos, three- piece suits, and skateboarding, you are unlike most other physicians.
On the surface, I am an anomaly compared to other physicians. Among those things listed, I am also a musician obsessed with enjoying great music, too. This individuality provides me a unique privilege with my patients.
The tattoos, music, three-piece suits, and skateboarding is how my patients connect with me, and vice versa. I’m a strong advocate for people living with HIV, social equity, racial equality, amongst other things. All my facets are on display for patients; which creates an unbeatable relationship of trust, resulting in effective treatment and care.
You have quite an extensive resume related to HIV/ AIDS services. What made you decide to go into this field?
I often make the comment, “Never say Never.” When the HIV epidemic occurred in the 1980s, I watched my father, an optometrist, care for men who were directly affected by HIV. It inspired me to become an infectious disease physician. I’ve always been sure of what I wanted. At the time, I never wanted to specialize in HIV. Instead, I wanted to chase and cure health epidemics globally.
Once I made it to New Orleans, my love for the music, culture, and people, transformed my desire to pursue healthcare on a global level. Not only did I decide to stay in New Orleans, but to champion HIV research and create effective treatments for my people in the city. Honestly, it was my love for New Orleans that crystallized the idea that I could simultaneously focus my energy and passion on everything I love in a place I’ve always cherished.
Studies show that New Orleans is 3rd in the nation for highest new HIV diagnosis and nearly 70% of New Orleans’ new infections are among young African American Men. Why do you think these numbers are so high for us?
We can’t address this issue until we bluntly discuss – and rectify – society’s systemic injustices within black and brown communities. When we become an anti-racist society that provides communities of color with social, economic, and racial equity and equality, we will see a drastic decrease in HIV diagnoses in African American men.
There is a direct correlation between the populations of people living with HIV and the lack of legislative rights and opportunities. Cities with the highest rates of socioeconomic barriers such as poverty, illiteracy, unsafe, unaffordable housing and incarceration, also have higher rates of HIV. These barriers are set in place to keep black and brown communities physically and socially oppressed
How is Access Health working to lower these numbers?
My positions as Chief Innovation Officer with Access Health Louisiana and the Medical Director for the AIDS Education & Training Center Program gives me access to communicate with medical and non-medical professionals about effective treatment options for patients. This state-wide pipeline of communication is essential to eradicating inefficient care for HIV patients. AHL has been supportive of implementing advanced educational programming meant to specifically prevent HIV and more effectively treat people living with HIV and Hep C.
What sets Access Health apart from all of the other HIV clinics in New Orleans?
First, let me say all the HIV clinics in New Orleans are doing a phenomenal job at providing care for HIV patients. No matter where you are treated in the city, you will receive world class care. What sets Access Health Louisiana apart from our partners in HIV prevention and care is that we are state-wide. With over 29 locations in the state Louisiana, AHL provides free HIV and STI testing for all patients—regardless of insurance and income. Our state-wide care visibility in places where access to health is difficult, allows for continuity of patient care.
Why is it so important to get the U=U [Undetectable Equals Untransmittable] message out there?
The U=U message is so essential to promoting social and sexual equity. For the first time ever, HIV positive people are fully liberated from the social stigmas of HIV. People living with HIV and in partnership with those who are, now have an effective tool that releases the shackles of society stigma. The U=U message is revolutionary in its ability to free people living with HIV by empowering them to have active, healthy sex lives, without fear of transmitting the virus to their partners.
New Orleans Pride is quickly approaching, and you are named local Grand Marshal. What was your reaction when you received the news?
I was deeply honored to be selected as the local Grand Marshal. Let’s revisit the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. We’re now celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. My work in public health as a physician, an advocate and activist in the community, the work being done at WHIV is rooted in moving social, racial and economic justice forward. While great strides have been made for equity in these areas by all people, but specifically my brothers and sisters who fought at Stonewall, there’s great work to be done by us who remain. I’ll be riding in the parade with the spirit of the Stonewall activist and global activist around the world that are fighting for sexual equality and equity.
This year’s focus for New Orleans Pride is HIV awareness. PrideFest will offer Free health screenings by Access Health. In addition, Walgreens, Ochsner, and Avita Pharmacy are also playing parts in Pride. HIV Activist, Mondo Guerra is Celebrity Grand Marshal, and Big Freedia, who has been vocal on HIV Awareness and the importance of testing, is headlining PrideFest. What are your thoughts on the importance of using Pride as an outlet to raise awareness of HIV and educate on the importance of getting tested?
The community and healthcare professionals are devoted to creating a world for the generations after us to thrive, freely and healthy. Events like Pride are so super important because not only are we celebrating the vibrancy of our community, but we are giving kids and young adults a glimpse into how vivacious and prosperous their future will be because of the dedication to fairness and liberation for all.
Truthfully, that’s the most important factor: the youth. We are witnessing an alarming rate of suicides and murders in gay young people and those that identify as transgender. Pride is not only an event to celebrate our beautiful lives, but to educate others about who we are, boldly declare our presence, and demand our protection.
If you were to sum up a speech on HIV Awareness and education, what few sentences would you say to get your message across?
I would hit 3 major points to start:
HIV and most infectious diseases are found in communities of color. Until we generate and implement policies that create equity and equality for them, we will continue to see an increase in new cases.
The most important thing we can do is demand and expect polices that promote inclusive protection and wellness for LGBT community. There should be transparency in awareness and education for the prevention and treatment of HIV in teenagers. Also, protection and resources for those who identify as transgender or nonbinary. President Obama’s 2010 project, “ It Gets Better”, shared his message of hope and support for LGBT youth and low tolerance for bullying. Fully embracing intersectional diversity and sexuality at the youth academic level will encourage a generation of full social equity and empowerment.
There is justice and protection for the LGBT community beyond liberation and social, racial, and economic equity. The equity for LGBT community is the expectation that society will provide the same opportunities for all people, including housing, healthcare, and education, from which communities of color have been excluded traditionally.
However, when speaking of sexual equity, it’s beyond having the right to love who and how you want, but also having the policies in place to protect the love life and identify of an individual. Basically, people need to mind their business, and laws need to be created that allow people to express themselves with full control over their bodies. I would love to speak more about exploring the concept of sexual equity because there’s so much to reveal.