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LEXINGTON, Ky. — If Freida Downey, aka the Caped Condom Crusader, had a super power, it would be super chatter.
Need to learn about using a dental dam during oral sex? She’s happy to tell you.
Want tips for proper condom usage? She’ll gladly oblige.
Need to inquire about obtaining an HIV/AIDS test? No worries.
“It’s your health,” she says, “you’ve got to be able to talk about it.”
A full-figured beauty with a penchant for curly, dark wigs, Downey favors phrases like “you better check it before you wreck it” and “you don’t swim in the shark tank without putting on your life preserver” while expanding her condom crusade as a volunteer for the Lexington-Fayette County, Ky., Health Department.
She has adapted the work of Beyoncé — “if you like it then you better put a condom on it” and Aretha — “p-r-o-t-e-c-t, protect yourself, yeah, baby” — for her own purposes, and she will sing her versions in an enthusiastic a cappella groove whenever asked.
So passionate is she about reaching her self-imposed goal of signing up 2,014 people for HIV/AIDS testing in 2014 that she repeatedly contacted the White House to request that President Barack Obama join her on the White House lawn to get a quick cheek swab. (The White House politely declined.)
“You have to ask,” says Downey, grinning at the thought of the photo op that could have been.
It is a Thursday morning, and she is fully made up, with a black hat at a jaunty angle on her head. In her small, tidy apartment, platters filled with artfully arrayed packaged condoms and bowls overflowing with them in their glittering wrappers are interspersed among the more traditional decorative touches.
And then there are the capes. Burberry plaid, pink and fluffy, silvery and shiny, chic, black-and-white houndstooth; she has a closet filled with costumes for every occasion. She is happy to employ them if that’s what it takes to draw people in.
“You give a little bit of quick energy (and a condom) and you walk away,” she says as she pantomiming her technique.
Lauren Newsome, an HIV/AIDS outreach specialist at the health department, is a fan of Downey.
“She certainly has a vibrant personality,” Newsome said, adding that Downey’s outsize personality allows her to draw people in. Her ability to talk frankly with no embarrassment about sexual health, sexuality and sexually transmitted disease makes others feel comfortable about sharing.
“She has no fear,” Newsome said.
Downey grew up in Lexington and went to Bryan Station High School. She contends that what she’s doing is really nothing new. When she was growing up, there was a lady in her neighborhood, Miss Mildred, who provided information about sex and condoms when needed. “She was a staple in the community,” Downey says.
Downey became the Caped Condom Crusader in 2011. Although she studied social work at Eastern Kentucky University and spent many years working in a factory and in parking enforcement, she was unemployed.
In 1999 she suffered a head injury when a drunken driver plowed into a crowd at a Lexington, Ky., Wal-Mart. The man was convicted, but his three escapes from Kentucky prisons caused Downey stress. There was some depression, too, and she found she went out less and less.
Then she went to a health fair hoping to get some leads on a job. She saw a young person loitering near the health department display. She took it upon herself to make an introduction and illustrate the proper use of a dental dam, a latex sheet used as protection during oral sex. Newsome took notice of Downey's ease with the subject matter and invited her to become a "gatekeeper."
That is the official term for Downey and seven other community volunteers who help distribute condoms, encourage HIV/AIDS testing and let people know about health department services. Downey and the other volunteers were trained, and Newsome meets with Downey about twice a month to discuss Downey's outreach efforts. The volunteers do not provide medical advice or testing; they act as a referral service to connect people with health department professionals.
"They are able to reach parts of the community that we can't because they already have established relationships," Newsome says.
Downey's mantra about HIV/AIDS testing is: "It's safe, it's anonymous and tell them the Caped Condom Crusader sent you."
"Do you know a lot people don't even know the health department exists?" say says.
Single with no children, Downey, 45, takes special joy in reaching out to young people. She's been known to provide "curbside interventions" and offer latex therapy to couples on the street. She's not sure where her open-minded attitude comes from, but she is thrilled to be of service. A certificate lauding her efforts holds a place of honor in her living room. Its frame is adorned, of course, with several condom wrappers.
Her caped persona is accepted as part of her personality, says Downey, a member of Main Street Baptist Church.
"Everybody knows me from way back," she says.
Still hoping to find a paying job, she gets by, for now, with help from family. But she stays busy. She estimates she has attended hundreds of events — health fairs, bar trivia nights, gatherings in homes — to give out condoms. Sometimes, she says, people come up to her and ask for some.
So, she will keep up this volunteer work. She recently started a Facebook page. She's thinking about going overseas to spread HIV/AIDS awareness. She might try a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the travel, she said. She is reaching out to the Wonderful Pistachios folks, the creative team behind those wacky commercials with offbeat celebrities.
"They've got that lady that does Prancercise," Downey says, "why not the Caped Condom Crusader?"
She's also trying to devise a plan to ride down Lexington's Main Street on a horse, throwing condoms in her wake. She'll be wearing a cape, naturally.