Published 06/27/2013 in the Bay Area Reporter BAR | online
by Matthew S. Bajko
Two-dozen men in their 30s and 40s had gathered in a back room at Castro gay dance club the Cafe one weeknight in May. They broke into smaller groups to finish the sentence, "One time I got drunk and I ..." After about 10 minutes each group selected the best story and reported it back to the rest of the men. The alcohol-infused escapades ranged from college tales to more recent experiences and the retellings elicited laughter and smiles from those in the room.
"The moral of the stories is sometimes when we are drunk we don't take care of ourselves," said Frank Stenglein, who encouraged those present to watch out for themselves and each other, particularly during the city's annual Pride celebration.
|Bridgemen volunteering with Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco|
The meeting was a monthly get-together for members of Bridgemen, a program sponsored by the Stop AIDS Project that launched two summers ago shortly after the 2011 Pride festivities. It is aimed at empowering middle-aged gay, bisexual, and transgender men in the city by fostering friendships and organizing volunteer opportunities.
"If men are engaged and more involved then they will have life experiences and meet people and will be healthier and happier," explained Stenglein, 44, the Bridgemen program manager. "For men in middle age, suicide and depression is a big issue."
The group's motto is "strength, service, unity," and its name takes inspiration from the Bay Area's iconic span the Golden Gate Bridge, built to connect San Francisco and communities in Marin County.
"Part of the intervention is getting men together to unite over something," said Stenglein, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence known as Sister Violet Sin Bloom.
That is what attracted Bernal Heights resident Matthew Martinez, 48, to the group. He had been looking to meet men in a social setting and happened to run into some Bridgemen in March.
"I have been in San Francisco for a while but really hadn't connected with gay men," said Martinez. "This was an opportunity to do volunteer work and join a community of like-minded people."
His partner of a year, Tim Winslow, 42, lives in Oakland and is working on his doctorate. Martinez doesn't go out to gay bars much and hasn't met many guys in his neighborhood.
"I just wasn't meeting people," he said. "I didn't have a gay outlet."
In just the few months since he has been a Bridgemen member, Martinez has made friends that he meets up with to have lunch or grab coffee. He also likes how the group is always planning different community service projects in which members can take part.
At Bridgemen events, added Martinez, "There is a lot of positive peer pressure. There is not a lot of booze here and is an alternative to drugs."
Modeled after UCSF program
The program is purposefully designed to be an HIV prevention intervention disguised more like a coffee klatch for men, whether HIV-positive or -negative, said Stenglein. In the case of Bridgemen, the monthly meetings end with mingling over pizza.
"We don't advertise it as an intervention because men in their 30s and 40s aren't interested in an intervention," he said. "We do talk frankly about sex, well-being, and health, that is really key."
It is modeled after the Mpowerment Project created by UCSF researchers with the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies. Begun in 1989 with grant funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, it was designed to reach young gay and bisexual men age 18 to 29 and help them to remain negative.
Studies have shown that the model is effective at reducing unsafe sex behaviors among participants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists it in its "Compendium of HIV Prevention Interventions with Evidence of Effectiveness."
|Bridgemen in the Castro raising money for the AIDS Emergency Fund SF|
"When we developed Mpowerment, we were looking at what were the unmet needs of young men and if we could pair them with HIV prevention. We found there were very strong social needs to be with other gay men outside bars and hookup places," recalled CAPS Co-Director Dr. Susan M. Kegeles, a professor of medicineat UCSF.
Kegeles helped create the program with fellow CAPS researcher Robert Hays, who died of AIDS 12 years ago. Hays noticed that most AIDS studies ignored younger gay guys and decided to focus his attention on that age group.
"He realized there was a real need," said Kegeles.
The first group of men they worked with in Eugene, Oregon came up with the name for the intervention.
"They were responding to the idea of empowerment," said Kegeles. "They loved using empowerment spelled that way with the M. It stood for men."
Five years ago CAPS updated its Mpowerment materials to better reflect how the program is now employing online social media platforms like Facebook and texting-based services on smartphones. It also added an emphasis on the importance of sexually active guys getting regularly tested for HIV and STDs.
|@BRIDGEMEN_SF | Mpowerment San Francisco|
The program has been employed in 200 communities around the world. At present CAPS is aware of 70 programs using the Mpowerment model.
Kegeles is working on a project in South Africa with mostly gay black men in Ermelo, a rural township outside of Johannesburg. She also has a pilot program under way in Peru, working with gay men and transwomen together in Lima, the South American country's capital and largest city.
"It is so effective because it doesn't just focus on individual men's sexual risk behavior. We are not just working one guy by one guy to say you have to reduce your risk," said Kegeles. "What it does is try to build up a community that supports each other."
A first in San Francisco
Until the launch of the Bridgemen program, the model had never before been implemented in San Francisco. Nor had it been retooled to meet the needs of older gay men, said Kegeles, whose colleagues at CAPS worked with the Stop AIDS Project, which is part of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, on how to reshape the program to be relevant to men who have aged out of their 20s.
"They interviewed guys and what they found is guys a little bit older are really thinking about how to give back to the community and have a legacy of helping others. They've moved away from a time of self-focus and immediacy of development and forming identity into more of a state of wanting to help other people and put their efforts outward," said Kegeles. "A lot of guys are reconciling with themselves they will not have children – or happily recognizing they don't want children – but want a way to give back. Since their energy is not on raising kids, instead they want to put their energy on improving their community by doing something meaningful to help the world."
|@BRIDGEMEN_SF | Mpowerment San Francisco|
Thus, added Kegeles, "Bridgemen became much more focused on that kind of thing."
Seeing how HIV infections in San Francisco are increasingly among older gay men, Stop AIDS officials decided to create a program focused on men in their 30s and 40s. They have won funding each year from the CDC for the Bridgemen program.
In the past two years about 400 men have signed up with the program. The monthly meet-ups on the third Wednesday of each month can attract up to 60 guys.
Service projects have run the gamut from assisting with the AIDS LifeCycle check-in day to repairing salmon habitat at Muir Beach in Marin. A Christmas fundraiser netted $4,000 in donated toys for the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.
This weekend Bridgemen members will be staffing the gates to the Pink Saturday party in the Castro.
"Our service projects are empowering our members," said Stenglein. "If eight or more men can get involved, that builds community and it helps the men to develop leadership skills, make friends and make San Francisco better."
That was certainly the case for Bridgemen member Josh Champeau, 30, who lives in the Mission district. After living in the city for four years, Champeau still felt "a little disconnected from the community."
He found it easy to find other guys to hook up with or date but had not found a circle of friends.
"I have an anxiety disorder and tend to be shy. It makes it hard for me to burst out of the shadows," said Champeau. "Bridgemen provided me with a sense of confidence."
He also liked the laid-back atmosphere and how welcoming Bridgemen participants are to new members.
"It is not overtly sexual. It is just a group of guys getting together, not only to do community service but to connect with other people," he said. "Some of my closest friends are now Bridgemen."
He also likes how the program's safe-sex messaging is very subtle and aimed more at helping participants to feel empowered.
"When you are empowered, you feel like you can take care of yourself and that I come from a community that is resilient and strong," said Champeau. "We need to be instilling that in gay, bisexual and trans men."
At the May meet-up first-time participant Ron Green, 34, left impressed by the experience. The Castro resident had moved to San Francisco two years ago, and like other Bridgemen, has found it challenging to make friends.
"This is an easy way for men in our age group to meet and get involved," said Green. "I got a good vibe about this group of people."
|Bridgemen volunteering at 'Pet Warsh' for PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) 2014|