HIV Up Among Young, Gay Black Men

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says annual increases in rates of infection among young, gay black men are the highest in any demographic group in the U.S. One member of the community says it will take more than condoms to change that.

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Among the alarming numbers reported at this week's International AIDS Conference in Mexico City: Infection rates in the U.S. have risen dramatically for young, black gay men. That report came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NPR's Brenda Wilson has this story told through one man's perspective of why young, black gay men are at such high risk of acquiring AIDS.

BRENDA WILSON: A tall, sylphlike young man with the slow, graceful strides of a giraffe moving on the savannas. He has a sort of stark, natural defiance as if there was never a time that he could be anything else but gay.

"CHRISTOPHER": I was going to be who I was. I was going to go to school. Put the clothes that I wanted to wear, you know? I mean, you know, very good grades, scholar roll, honor roll. I mean, why is there a problem? I was actually homecoming king. I was vice president on my same class. I was definitely a role model for a lot of people. Once you accept yourself, it's so much easier for others to accept you. Because if you are in doubt then there's just room for other people to say, oh, you're in doubt. You're a queer, you know, because they know it's going to affect you the most.

WILSON: But they knew you were gay?

CHRISTOPHER: They knew I was gay, yeah. Definitely.

WILSON: Christopher is not actually his name. He fears discrimination and agreed to speak to NPR only if we didn't identify him. After all, he says, this is Charlotte, North Carolina. And despite the degree of tolerance he's found, it's still the Bible Belt. The world is a tougher place than high school, and the discrimination comes from a lot of directions.

CHRISTOPHER: Black and gay, because that's life - a dual thing. You know, the black community was taught to be God-fearing and, you know, if you're black and gay, even the black community look down on me. If I'm going to a restaurant, white society might look at me a certain way but the black community is more likely to say something about it right then and there. If I'd gone to T.G.I. Friday's then, you know, I'm more likely to be called a queer or faggot by, you know, someone of my same race.

WILSON: And that rejection by your own as much as anything else, he says, can wear young black gays down. Christopher has worked for an AIDS service organization, and he knows all about the statistics - those surveys done in five big cities that show that nearly half of the black gay men hanging out at bars and clubs tested positive for HIV. Nearly half of them didn't know they were HIV positive or that their partners were.

CHRISTOPHER: I've talked to some people, and they said if the person is positive, I don't want to know. Not a lot of people are going to volunteer their status, their information to you. And a lot of people have their, well, he didn't tell me, so that means, you know, he doesn't have it.

WILSON: Do you ask?

CHRISTOPHER: Yes. I ask it, and I negotiate. I talk about it.

WILSON: It's almost as if those high rates of infection themselves get in the way of living a healthy life.

CHRISTOPHER: I haven't really had a relationship. A lot of black gay relationships, they don't exist or they exist - they exist for the wrong reasons, whether you're supporting their person or drugs is involved or other issues. I can count on one hand how many friends I have that are in healthy relationships, but I can count on four that are HIV positive. So that just sends an alarming message.

WILSON: Christopher says we're going to have to address a whole lot of the underlying issues that trigger risky behavior if we want to get through to young black men, if we want them to stop putting their lives at risk.

CHRISTOPHER: A lot of people in the community have. They struggle with depression, self esteem, aloneness, not having their mother and father, abandonment - a lot of those issues get left out of the equation. We don't really address them. I think there are so many triggers for behavior.

WILSON: What did it take to get through to you?

Christopher froze. I waited for an answer. But he never really answered me.

CHRISTOPHER: Next question. Next question.

WILSON: That silence said a lot. Turns out, Christopher is HIV positive. There was that time just after he graduated when he was living in a southern town and feeling bad about himself. He let his guard down in all the ways he just described. He'd had sex with somebody he shouldn't have trusted.

He's now looking for work but continuing to meet with other young, black gay men who get together just to talk about how they can make their lives better, to make sure they are not isolated in their struggle.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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