Yesterday’s Rain, Tomorrow’s Rainbow

Photo by Sophia Hantzes
Photo by Sophia Hantzes

With both its fortieth anniversary and annual Walk to End HIV this summer, Rainbow Health has a lot to celebrate this year.

As Rainbow Health CEO Jeremy Hanson Willis says, “It’s vital we remember that 2023 is not just the forty-year recognition of Rainbow Health or Minnesota AIDS Project or any one organization; 2023 is the recognition that we as a community have come together time and again to demand what we deserve and build what we need.”

But it’s clear that Minnesota’s LGBTQ community wouldn’t be where we are today without the work of organizations like Rainbow Health, which was founded in 1983 as Minnesota’s first organization to fight AIDS as the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP).

For more than thirty years, MAP focused its work on leading the fight to end HIV in Minnesota. Five years ago, MAP merged with the Rainbow Health Initiative and Training to Serve, and it later renamed itself Rainbow Health.

“We advocate for and serve LGBTQ+ communities, people living with HIV, and others facing barriers to health care,” Hanson Willis says. “Our approach is trauma-informed, harm reduction-based, and meets people where they are. We are grounded in the legacy of our fight against HIV by applying the models of advocacy and care that the AIDS movement pioneered to address the health issues our community faces today.”

As the fight against AIDS and the fight for LGBTQ health equity has transformed over the past forty years, so too must our movement for social change, Hanson Willis emphasizes. “While we have made great medical progress, that has not been matched by social progress. Today, the fight against HIV and health injustice is less about access to life-saving medicine than it is about ending racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.”

He continues, “The best way to fight HIV and other health issues facing LGBTQ communities is to fight for greater health equity and that is Rainbow Health’s focus today. Our legacy organizations merged to become greater than the sum or our parts and focus resources and energy on those at the intersection of multiple identities.”

This emphasis on social justice has been core to Rainbow Health since its merger, which sharpened the organization’s focus on fighting for health equity over any one disease or community.

“We’ve done this by providing compassionate whole-person care and by advocating for healthcare that says anyone can go to any hospital, any clinic, any treatment center, or any senior center in Minnesota and get the care they need and deserve,” Hanson Willis explains.

The merger has also strengthened Rainbow Health’s commitment to whole-person care, which connects medical and mental health with other services, like housing, legal advocacy, and more.
“Rainbow Health’s unified mission is more relevant to our current context and the current realities of people’s lives as diverse people,” he adds.

Photo by Sophia Hantzes

While Rainbow Health’s commitment to ending HIV in Minnesota is a priority—especially with HIV outbreaks in Minneapolis and Duluth—it also offers free PrEP for HIV, free tele-health medical visits to access PrEP, free injecting drug syringes, and free HIV tests.

“We provide the most comprehensive care for people living with HIV in Minnesota to help get people’s viral load to undetectable, making their HIV untransmittable. Secondly, we are expanding our mental health therapy as fast as we can to meet the unique and specialized needs of our community. We now have fifteen psychotherapists providing care to individuals, families, and groups – both youth and adults,” Hanson Willis says. “Thirdly, we’re growing our commitment to advocating for and serving older LGBTQ+ folks and people aging with HIV. Lastly, we are working hard to make sure that all of our more than twenty programs are aligned so that it’s easier for people to access whatever they need.”

Rainbow Health recently announced its largest private donation in the organization’s history: A $2 million, three-year grant from the United Health Foundation that will expand access to mental health and support services to LGBTQ and BIPOC youth and young adults. This will provide culturally responsive, high-quality, affirming mental health care to more than 250 young Minnesotans. It will also directly address the high rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety in our community for hundreds of young people and their families.

As Rainbow Health celebrates its fortieth anniversary, it’s also preparing for the thirty-fourth Annual Minnesota Walk to End HIV, which will be on Saturday, May 13 from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM at the Como Midway Picnic Pavilion in Saint Paul.

“Our theme this year focuses on the ‘Power of Community: Honoring Our Past. Building the Future.’ We wanted the Walk to End HIV to be a celebration of the progress and strides our collective community has made together in our work to end HIV,” Hanson Willis says. “This half-day event will feature speakers, performances, a community resource fair, food trucks, family-friendly activities, and much more. All are welcome to walk with us in remembrance and in honor of the lives lost and the thousands of Minnesotans whose daily lives continue to be impacted by HIV today.”

To mark its fortieth anniversary, Rainbow Health is looking to the future and preparing for what’s next.

“What’s next is centering and affirming those who face the most barriers to health and have the greatest need for affirmation,” Hanson Willis says. “What’s next is shaking up the status quo and designing new ways to connect people to care. What’s next is supporting the voices of the unheard. What’s next is demanding what we deserve and building what we need. What’s next is moving forward by leaving no one behind.”

He adds, “We celebrate our legacy by taking it into the future.”

Minnesota Walk to End HIV
May 13, 2023, 10:00 AM-2:00 PM
Como Midway Picnic Pavilion, Saint Paul

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