By JoAnne Viviano for the Columbus Dispatch
10/25/2018 – A new wellness center in Columbus is the first in the state specifically created for transgender youth. It offers free HIV testing and education as well as a safe place to socialize and grow.
If the Mozaic center had been around in the early 2000s, Mikayla Robinson may have felt more valued, more encouraged and more uplifted when wrestling with gender identity.
For Luster Singleton, who began claiming a transgender identity in the 1990s, Mozaic would have meant at least five fewer funerals of gender non-conforming friends who ended their lives feeling hopeless, guilty or burdensome.
The center in the University District, which held its grand opening this month, is part of Equitas Health’s Mozaic program for young people of color, ages 13 to 29, who are transgender, gender non-conforming or gender non-binary.
That means they identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, they identify as a combination of masculine and feminine, they don’t identify as any gender or they are questioning their gender identity.
Funded by a $1.9 million, five-year grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mozaic’s mission is to decrease rates of HIV, which is disproportionately higher among transgender people, and highest among black transgender women. It is one of seven sites in the country to receive such a grant.
Singleton, who serves as Mozaic’s outreach coordinator, helped in the 1990s to get transgender services added to the lesbian, gay and bisexual services offered at Ohio State University.
“Had there been some kind of safer space to drop into some of the challenges of my life and others that I’ve seen probably may not have happened, or if they happened they would have been less lonely and less traumatic because there would be a group of people that understood what you were going through,” Singleton said.
For Robinson, her role as Mozaic prevention specialist is part of a journey that began when she became an Equitas client in 2006. She hopes her story of growth and evolution can help others.
“It’s a great stage where we can meet people where they are and help them to elevate to get to a point to where they can be feeling more secure, independent and prideful with who they are as far as with their health, their longevity and their stability,” Robinson said.
The center offers free testing and education about HIV and other sexually-transmitted infections, with referrals to case managers who can help clients access appropriate health-care providers.
But, workers say, Mozaic also offers mentoring and a safe space to explore identity. Clients can get clothing and food and use day lockers, a computer center and an LGBTQ library. There are social and educational events, movies and video games, karaoke and merengue.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people of color face a number of challenges and disparities that place them at risk for HIV, homelessness and suicide, Singleton said. They may be thrown out of their homes, fired from jobs, alone and desperate to survive, turning to sex work for money or drugs to cope.
Singleton hopes the future holds expansion to other parts of the state. For now, a goal includes getting a van that will help staff reach people in rural areas.
The Mozaic grand opening came a week before the Equitas Health Institute for LGBTQ Health Equity held its third Transforming Care Conference at Ohio State University on Oct. 18-19.
Themed “Fighting for Our Lives,” the conference paid homage to early activists who called attention to the HIV crisis and also spoke to current events, said Julia Applegate, institute director.
“It’s better here in Columbus on this street. It’s better in the Short North. It’s not better in certain neighborhoods. … We have beacons of betterness that are relatively safer and a lot better, but it’s just wrong to say that things are just blanketly better because it really ignores that it depends on ‘do you have money, do you have education, what is your skin color, what city do you live in?’”
Mozaic, 2228 Summit St., offers free HIV and sexually transmitted infections testing from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. For information, visit www.mozaicohio.org or call 614-340-6731.
Read the original story and view photographs of the staff and space here.