blackBOOTS, a Salt Lake organization headed by Michael Sanders, is all about kink and leather. And altruism. The band of leather-bound men has an initiative called blackBOARD — an educational program. Their commitment to opening space for Salt Lake kinksters to lead authentic lives has blossomed into a diligent effort to educate others on how they can do the same. In the words of their founder, in an interview with QSaltLake Magazine, “we saw too many people who weren’t being safe or using best consent practices here in Utah … those young people had very few tools that they need to keep themselves safe or to understand consent. So I started blackBOARD.”
Lead by Sanders, blackBOARD began running classes to serve the gay community, and when they decided to tackle the issue of Pre-exposure prophylaxis, Sanders decided he needed some help. “I knew it was too big a topic to do in a private class not available to the masses,” said Sanders. “I felt that this information was needed to be disseminated throughout the greater LGBTQ communities in Utah.”
PrEP is a regimen of medicine many people use to combat exposure to HIV. A tremendous savior to the gay community, PrEP boasts a 99+ percent effectiveness rate. A medical breakthrough like this has had an incalculable impact on the LGBTQ community and is mostly considered to be a life-saving and sexuality-affirming phenomenon.
Sanders’ first challenge came when he proposed a partnership with the Utah Department of Health, whose longstanding message to Utahns around sex education had been abstinence-only. Local health organizations and other local institutions dragged their feet on supporting PrEP education. But Sanders refused to follow suit.
Over 3,800 Salt Lake citizens, along with Sanders himself, signed a petition to get momentum behind an HIV-prevention program with which they broke the silence.
“After the signatures,” said Sanders, “the [Salt Lake County] Health Department became more interested in listening to what I had to say.”
The PrEP Resource team was finally sponsored by the SLCHD and their partnership with blackBOOTS birthed classes and outreach that Sanders says “was the beginning of anyone in Salt Lake even hearing what PrEP was about.”
Even though Sanders was asked to join the Utah Department of Health HIV Planning Committee after the buzz around his program, the pace around further messaging was painfully slow. Sanders was interested more in stomping ahead. Representatives of titanous organizations including the Utah AIDS Foundation, University of Utah’s 1A clinic, Intermountain Healthcare, and governmental health departments comprised the committee. And Sanders saw himself as an outsider.
“I am a community activist, an independent, a wild card. That allows me the freedom to occasionally say ‘okay this is moving a little too slow and I’d like to bust out on my own and do something,’” he said. “There is far too much bureaucracy, and too many opinions, and too much red tape to get started.”
After failed attempts at disseminating crucial information through the committee, Sanders paid out-of-pocket to print an informational pamphlet.
“I decided to put them in the bars around town,” said Sanders, and after some community members stepped up to help, he circulated thousands of copies. The pamphlet, with information about how to find PrEP, its benefits, and how to receive financial relief, is now in LGBTQ resource centers at every college from Logan to St. George and in shelters for homeless youth, with more locations pending.
“Hopefully, within a month or two, they’re in all the places from one end of the state to another that gay people are likely to be. That’s the goal,” he said.
Now, both youngsters in the community and old-timers alike, because of Sanders, all know more about PrEP and have easier access to it. It would not be an overstatement to say that gay Utahn lives have been saved in the process.
“I’ll be 56 in November,” Sanders said. “I lived through watching my friends dying around me — the most amazing vital young people … back then the thing that we talked about was ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a pill you could take so you don’t get this disease.’ Now there is a pill that you can take! So we need to take advantage of that fact.”
Unable to watch as the pace and politics impeded this significant step in gay men’s health, Sanders wants to promote PrEP to work toward eradicating HIV infections and encouraging testing.
“Growing up through the AIDS epidemic and HIV crisis,” he says, “testing was always considered going into the darkness. Now if you’re getting tested, you’re walking into the light.”