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SIN Is In!

SIN Is In!


Strength in Numbers, a rapidly growing social support network for HIV-positive men, had a rather serendipitous beginning 3H years ago when founder Bryan Levinson was hoping to find other HIV-positive men for dating. 'I felt most comfortable with the idea of dating another HIV-positive man because we would have more in common'like similar health considerations, similar struggles, and so on,' he says. 'Disclosing that I was HIV-positive at that time was extremely stressful because of my fear of being rejected, which happened more than I would have liked.' Levinson, a 36-year-old former corporate attorney who now works for a major entertainment company in the Los Angeles area, was diagnosed with HIV infection in 2000. Soon afterward he got involved with area AIDS service groups, particularly with the agencies' social programs, since he was hoping to form friendships and'ideally'a romantic connection. But most of the gatherings, he says, left him uninspired'and dateless. A fruitless speed-dating event provided the final nudge Levinson needed to switch gears from event attendee to activity organizer. 'I thought there must be a better way to provide a safe, fun, and relaxing environment where guys could meet,' he says. 'So I put together a potluck, and that's how Strength in Numbers got started.' Although Levinson intended his first event as a gathering of dating-minded single men, he says he realized about halfway through that the attendees were more interested in simply socializing with their peers. He happily refocused the group's mission to one of fostering friendships and social support through regularly held activities and local Internet sites. That change proved especially fortuitous, positioning SIN to fill a clearly unmet social need among HIVers in Southern California and, it turns out, throughout the nation. Despite promoting the organization almost entirely through word of mouth, enrollment in the Los Angeles group swelled, and HIV-positive men in other cities quickly began requesting local chapters. Since its founding in September 2002, SIN groups have formed in 21 U.S. cites as well as in Canada, Australia, and England. The flagship Los Angeles group, which now boasts more than 650 members, holds two regular get-togethers'weekly breakfast gatherings and SIN in the City, a monthly dinner outing held at various restaurants. Singles mixers, potlucks, movie outings, pool parties, and other events'like a recent white-water rafting trip held in conjunction with the San Francisco AIDS group Healing Waters'are also scheduled whenever possible. Other cities' SIN chapters are following Levinson's lead by hosting their own recurring events, often geared toward the unique social or geographical characteristics of their local region. Some also are linking with other AIDS social organizations; the Dallas area and Houston chapters, for example, hope to partner with a Texas organization that holds twice yearly campouts for HIVers, says Jimmy Holliman of Dallas'Fort Worth's SIN group. While the social outings are the most visible aspects of SIN, the heart of each city's program is a Web site that allows members to post information on message boards, scan calendars of local events, and even engage in real-time online discussions. Levinson says he uses Yahoo! Groups'networking sites offered by the Internet giant'for each chapter's home on the Web, because the sites are free to set up and access plus they are easily replicated for newly forming chapters. He also manages a central SIN Web site ( that includes information about the organization, links to local chapters, and even sells SIN-branded T-shirts, caps, and gift items. Daniel Szuhay, a moderator of the Los Angeles chapter, says the local Web sites offer SIN members several levels of involvement, ranging from simply reading the message boards, all the way up to joining'or even coordinating'online chats and social activities. 'It's a really quiet service for some guys; users can be very passive if that's what they want,' he says. 'Or they can get much more involved. What's great about it is that there's a lot of choices.' One of the most popular options, Levinson says, is each site's message board. Users can post questions and responses, solicit advice, and even seek out nearby HIV-positive men for support, he says. And replies are usually posted within a day, sometimes in just a few minutes. 'We get a lot of posts like 'I need to find an HIV doctor in Fort Worth' or 'I'm starting this new drug; is anyone else using it?' ' says Holliman of the Dallas'Fort Worth site. 'It's really a great way HIV-positive guys can share information.' What the sites aren't, however, Levinson and other SIN members insist, are cybervenues to meet sex partners. 'If you're looking to hook up, there's a lot of other sites out there you can go to,' says Wayne Norman, a facilitator of the Dallas'Fort Worth chapter, noting that message board posts seeking sex partners are prohibited. 'We let it be known that that's not the purpose of this group.' That's not to say that love connections don't sometimes occur. Some members, including Salt Lake City chapter coordinator Jonathan Jensen, have met long-term partners at group-sponsored events. In February 2005, he says, 'I actually met my boyfriend at a SIN activity, and we've been inseparable ever since. I doubt that we would have met or formed such a strong attachment without SIN.' But while romance may be on the minds of some group members, most rely on the organization for camaraderie, support, and even for breaking through the stigma and isolation that too often comes with being HIV-positive. 'Poz guys can be dealing with a lot of loneliness,' Levinson says, 'especially if they're newly diagnosed or have no friends who are positive. You can feel really isolated. A group like SIN can come in, and even if you never go to an event, at least you know it's there. For a lot of guys, that's a very big deal.' It's also a big deal for more than just gay HIVers, Levinson says, noting that he's received requests from women's and minority HIV groups to help set up SIN-like organizations: 'They say they'd love to replicate what we're doing.' Although he hopes to one day be able to assist other HIVers, for the time being, Levinson is committed to expanding SIN's reach among gay men. His short-term goals include opening as many local chapters as possible, partnering with other support organizations, launching Web sites in other languages, and possibly even incorporating SIN as a nonprofit organization. But even as SIN is poised to become a bona fide national presence, Levinson insists the group will remain true to its local grassroots foundations: 'I want SIN to always be run by positive guys for positive guys. That approach is very empowering.'

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