On a recent Saturday night around 10:30 p.m., the small gay bar Posh on West 51st Street was packed. The Phoenix team of the gay football league was celebrating a win earlier in the day and bright orange team T-shirts were in an enthusiastic huddle at the foot of the bar near the door.
Further back, in the deepest part of the long narrow bar near the cushioned sofas was another team of sorts, their two “captains” identifiable by white T-shirts with the word “SIN” prominently displayed over their chests. This was bar night for the group Strength in Numbers, or SIN, a social support network for HIV-positive gay men.
One of the captains-or hosts, actually-David Llewellyn was making his way
through the crowd looking for men standing alone, engaging them in conversation and asking them if they were there for the SIN event. When they, relieved, answered in the affirmative, he made a point of introducing them to three or four other men already engaged in animated conversation.
A recent post to the group's Yahoo e-mail list gave a chance for a man new to SIN to express his gratitude: “You treated me like part of a family. I've wanted a gathering like this for years. To all the men I had the privilege of meeting tonight, thanks for being so friendly.”
Llewellyn, 32 and diagnosed with HIV three years ago, is the main host and moderator of SIN's New York City chapter. SIN began in Los Angeles in 2003, the inspiration of Bryan Levinson, 36, an entertainment executive. What started as a potluck dinner in a private home in the Hollywood Hills has since grown into 26 chapters in U.S. cities and eight more in urban areas around the world. According to Llewellyn, New York is the largest chapter doing social events, with 585 members on the e-mail listserve. L.A. has more members but is focusing primarily on educational outreach rather than social events.
The New York chapter existed prior to this spring, but wasn't doing too much until Llewellyn, a project director for a printing company, contacted Levinson and asked if he could take over and give the local chapter a boost. Since March, Llewellyn has organized a bar night each month, five brunches, and a board game night, with more events to come including a holiday party this coming Sunday, December 17.
For some, the events located at bars that remain open to the public like the Saturday night gathering, are still cause for anxiety. Alan, 53, from Manhattan and diagnosed with HIV in 1990, doesn't like bars with their loud music, but also has concerns about knowing who is who.
“I wanted to know who the sick people were,” he joked. “I didn't know who was part of the SIN group and who wasn't. But I still wouldn't really feel comfortable in a bar environment, even if they took blood samples before letting you in.”
Llewellyn notes that he encourages all of those coming to an event for the first time to find him or another of the hosts in their SIN T-shirts.
“Come and say hi to me,” he said, “and I'll introduce you around.
The group has begun experimenting with blue beaded bracelets to identify those at a bar as part of a SIN event.
Chris, 45, from Manhattan, and diagnosed in 2001, came to an earlier SIN social at a bar and was asked by another patron why the bar was so crowded. When told, the man said “Oh, that's why. How was I supposed to know?” with a disgruntled face according to Chris, who like the others interviewed for this article, asked that only his first name be used.
“There is still a lot of stigma against people with HIV in the gay male community,” said Llewellyn. “What's so great about SIN is that there is really a spirit of guys engaging each other and looking out for each other.”
Daniel, 31, from Queens and diagnosed in 1995, came with a friend and while also a little uncomfortable negotiating the loud music and he men already established in small groups, agreed with Alan and Chris that he is willing to keep trying SIN events and are looking forward to the holiday party and game nights that are attended by SIN participants only.
“I think it's great that something like this is out there. It's really needed,” Chris said. “It's hard enough meeting guys in New York and the HIV thing just makes it that much worse. Knowing you can go somewhere where people will be nice and HIV is a non-issue is a terrific thing.”
SIN's holiday party will take place on Sunday, December 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. To RSVP for location or for more information on this and other SIN events, go to http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/SIN NewYorkCity.