After weeks of back-and-forth between a San Francisco gay man and the organizers of a support group for people living with HIV over 50, he decided not to join the group after being victimized of what he described as humiliating and shameful comments from fellow band members, as well as a host.
Michael Misenti, 67, signed up to attend a support group sponsored by Ward 86 of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, the hospital’s HIV care and research center, in 2021. The group is doing part of Ward 86’s This text will link Golden Compass Program >, which was designed specifically for people living with HIV over the age of 50. The support group is described on a Golden Compass webpage as “[a] monthly support group [providing] an opportunity to come together, share experiences and relieve loneliness.”
Misenti, already enrolled in the Ward 86 program, was encouraged to join the affiliate support group.
“Well, they wanted me to join them,” Misenti said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. “I was approached by the Ward 86 social worker because I was in the age group. They are supposed to help you with many different issues related to HIV, especially aging.”
At the time, it seemed like a great idea. Misenti has lived with HIV since the 1990s and needed a social outlet.
“I try to find things to go out and be with people,” he said. “It’s harder to do with COVID.” Joining the group also offered a small incentive, a $10 Safeway gift card, which made the option even more attractive.
Misenti joined the Golden Compass group in June or July 2021, he said. Typically, there were six or seven members, usually men. A few women were also involved, but only occasionally. Misenti enjoyed the group for the first four months or so. Communication with other members was comfortable and he enjoyed the company. That changed around the beginning of December.
Like many support groups, members come and go. And two new members joined, a married gay couple. For Misenti, things started to go downhill from there.
The new members, Misenti said, were “loud” and “critical” and began to “dominate the group”, often, apparently, with support from the two leaders.
A host “also let these two participants ramble on topics that had nothing to do with the current topic,” Misenti wrote in an email to BAR “He repeatedly showed favoritism towards [the] two very conservative participants who often made value judgments.”
The breaking point for Misenti came when he mentioned to the group that he may have been potentially exposed to syphilis. The couple, he said, made it very clear how they felt about it.
Half of the couple “said that anyone living with HIV who takes medication shouldn’t have unprotected sex. I disagreed,” Misenti said. “When I tried to speak, [the facilitator] allowed these participants to interrupt me and tell me that I deserved to get syphilis after having unprotected sex. This host was clearly uncomfortable when I talked about the possibility of contracting syphilis. Later, after complaining to [prior facilitator] Helen Lin on her, the host wouldn’t talk to me or give me a chance to talk. It’s very stressful having a passive-aggressive facilitator.” (BAR is not naming the other facilitator because he did not respond to a request for comment. Misenti shared Lin’s email response with the newspaper.)
Misenti filed a complaint with the HIV Consumer Advocacy Project, a division of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel. On February 28, HCAP staff attorney Stephen Spano emailed UCSF Patient Relations requesting a meeting with himself, Misenti, and a patient relations representative in position. of authority. Misenti provided the BAR with a copy of the email, but later said he would not participate in any mediation.
Spano’s email said Misenti felt “ashamed and stigmatized” by the comments made in the support group and that he did not have “sufficient space to share his feelings” on the statements allegedly made by the gay couple.
As it happened, Misenti said he tested negative for syphilis and, for that matter, was also undetectable for HIV thanks to his medication. In the past, at another support group he was involved with in the 1990s, he says, people felt free to talk about health issues related to their sexuality.
“People had no problem with these topics,” Misenti said. “And neither were the animators, who were all volunteers.”
While other band members disagreed with the couple’s statements, he said, few were willing to say much more in order to avoid conflict.
Misenti said he tried to speak with Lin about it, but “[a]After I complained, Helen Lin’s response was that the band members could say whatever they wanted and they weren’t going to address this issue because it was too upsetting for the band participants. .”
While there were attempts by the group leaders to speak with the gay couple, this was not done during the group sessions, Misenti said.
In an email to Misenti, which he provided to BAR, Lin wrote, “As a former host of this group, I want to give you your feedback since you shared it with me in your last E-mail. It is important in a group dynamic. be both open to receiving feedback and giving feedback. My preference is that you have the courage and patience to chat with…the group facilitator, either in person during a one-on-one session or over the phone so that you have the opportunity to review your expectations and to hurt you.
“This suggestion is in no way intended to accuse you, but does suggest that meeting in person to discuss grievances is, in my professional opinion, the most effective way to preserve the integrity of the group’s agenda while prioritizing your needs,” Lin wrote. “Conflicts and differences of opinion are a way for groups to grow together, but in this group, conflicts cannot be resolved the way you want without inflicting undue stress on other uninvolved members.”
Spano, the HCAP attorney, declined to comment on Misenti’s specific case, but described his work generally.
“In short, the HIV Consumer Advocacy Project seeks to resolve disputes between consumers of HIV services and service providers funded by Ryan White Care Act dollars and DPH HIV Health Services contracts,” Spano wrote in an email to BAR “I do this using the least adversarial dispute resolution methods available, knowing that my clients are often highly dependent on these services, even in the face of a dispute.”
The BAR requested an interview with Lin and the other host through the hospital’s media office, but only received the following statement from Dr. Monica Gandhi, Medical Director of SF General’s HIV Clinic: “Golden Compass provides additional services for people over 50 years old with HIV, offering bone health support, a heart clinic, exercise classes and support groups. We always try to provide a favorable environment in our clinical programs.
Neither Lin nor the other facilitator responded to BAR’s direct requests for interviews.
Misenti left the Golden Compass group at the end of January and has since joined another support group at Castro’s Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, which he attended more than 20 years ago. Although he originally planned to settle the matter through mediation, he has since changed his mind.
“Stephen [Spano] told me that I would not be allowed to return to the group unless I met Helen Lin and [the other facilitator]“, Misenti wrote in an email to the bar. “They also stipulated that I had to attend a mediation with the two members of the group with whom I had a conflict. In the meantime, these two people are still in the group. So I guess they’re saying I did something wrong. But they won’t tell me what. The only thing I can think of is that I complained about the problem. I asked Stephen to elaborate. But he wouldn’t.”
“I went back and forth to get back into this group,” said Misenti of Golden Compass. “I could use the weekly [incentive] $10 Safeway Gift Card. But while I was in this group, nobody supported me, so I decided not to come back.”
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