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Strange Fruit: Syphilis on Rise Among Gay Men; 'Sidewinders' Play Deconstructs Gender

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Once nearly eradicated in the United States, syphilis is back on the rise-- mostly among gay and bisexual men. Rates reached an  all-time low in 2000, and of the roughly 6,000 cases, only about  7 percent were among gay men; it was a concern almost exclusively for straight people. But better treatments for HIV led to complacency about safe sex, perhaps especially among younger men who didn't witness the AIDS crisis of the 1980s firsthand.

Now, men who have sex with men (known in medical research as MSMs) account for a full 91 percent of all national cases. And those nationwide numbers  are reflected at home. In Louisville, rates jumped from 13.2 per 100,000 residents in 2009 to 27.7 in 100,000--well above the national average of 18. Statewide, reported syphilis infections have almost doubled since 2009.

To help explain why this is happening--and what can help--we talk this week with Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, deputy director of the  Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Humbaugh explains how exactly the disease is transmitted, and how you can protect yourself and your partners.

Syphilis is treated with penicillin, and responds well to treatment--but you have to know you have it. A list of testing places is below (some are free or have sliding-scale fees).

Also this week, we talk to playwright and friend-to-the-show Basil Kreimendahl, whose absurdist play "Sidewinders" is running in Louisville, produced by Looking for Lilith Theatre Company. Kreimendahl said she set the play on a frontier in the American West to evoke a lawless place where people made their own rules--much like people are making their own rules today about gender identity.

"It's just sort of about being a human being, and about naming things," she says. "You know there's a lot of power in naming things and having a name for who and what you are, and it sort of explores, what if there isn't a word for what you are that fits perfectly? How does that affect you?"

"Sidewinders"  runs through May 23 at  OPEN. (Full Disclosure: Our producer Laura Ellis is in the cast, and joins us in this segment to talk about her character and her work on the play.)

In our Juicy Fruit segment, we talk about First Lady Michelle Obama's  commencement speech at Tuskegee University in which she described how the public's perception of her as first lady was colored by race and racism. Remember the " terrorist fist jab?" The New Yorker cover showing her  with an afro and machine gun? " Obama's baby mama?" FLOTUS name-checked them all, and talked about the doubts they raised in her mind.

"I had a lot of sleepless nights," she said, "worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom."

Obama also laid out the can't-win situation black women face today, especially in the public eye. "Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?" The whole speech is worth a read ( transcript here).

And  Louisville Metro Police is rolled out their plan to  put body cameras on their officers this week. WFPL's Jacob Ryan joins us with the details.

STD Testing Sites 

Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness (Specialty Clinic)

7201 Outer Loop Suite 232

(502) 574-6699

Park DuValle Community Health Center

3015 Wilson Avenue

(502) 774-4401

Family Health Centers (Portland)

2215 Portland Avenue, Louisville, KY 40212

(502) 774-8631

Family Health Centers (East Broadway)

834 East Broadway, Louisville, KY 40204

(502) 583-1981

Family Health Centers (Fairdale)

1000 Neighborhood Place, Louisville, KY 40118

(502) 361-2381

Family Health Centers (Iroquois)

4100 Taylor Boulevard, Louisville, KY 40215

(502) 366-4747

Family Health Centers (Southwest)

9702 Stonestreet Road, Building 1, Suite 220, Louisville, KY 40272

(502) 995-5051


Laura is LPM's Director of Podcasts & Special Projects. Email Laura at lellis@lpm.org.

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