July 21, 2011
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic has shifted from Manhattan to the outer boroughs of New York City, young Black gay men have banded together against a resurgent killer. Another article in the series discussed efforts to provide support to young men through discussion groups and outreach geared toward HIV prevention and treatment.
Groups like the AIDS Service Center NYC's Sexy With a Goal, a support group for young MSM of color, and Health & Education Alternatives for Teens, a Brookyn HIV-prevention organization for young Black MSM, encourage these men to get HIV tested. Yet some prevention organizations charge that this vital outreach work is being stifled by an unlikely opponent: the New York City Department of Health.
In late 2010 the health department released an ominous video titled "It's Never Just HIV" that featured graphic images reminiscent of the city's previous antismoking and antiobesity campaigns. The video shows brief close-ups of bones cracked by osteoporosis and raw sores from anal cancer. Several months later, images from the commercial moved to the ad space on subway cars.
HIV-prevention organizations in New York City and nationwide have criticized the campaign as needlessly fear-mongering. The activists say that the videos go too far, actually deterring young gay men of color from reaching out for support and getting tested. GMHC and GLAAD called the video "sensationalistic and stigmatizing," stating that it unfairly portrays gay men as disease carriers and public health risks. But health department officials argue that the only way to alert a young generation for whom HIV is no longer a death sentence is to jolt them out of complacency.
A different kind of awareness campaign targeting the same demographic group adorns the walls of the subway station at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, where the No. 4 and 5 express trains rumble northbound, splitting left and right for destinations in the Bronx, where the intensity of the city's epidemic ranks second only to Brooklyn. Posters display young, grinning Black men, the text beneath them reading, "Positive since ----" or "Get tested."
In one ad, a man stands with his arms crossed, smiling in front of the lights of a New York cityscape. It's Tree Alexander, 24, an outreach specialist for the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force (BATF). The poster states that Alexander has been HIV positive since 2006 and is part of the HIV Stops With Me social-marketing campaign started in 2000, which aims to tackle both the virus and the stigma surrounding it.
In February 2011, aware of the stigma of being young Black MSM, Alexander and BATF created Brooklyn Men (K)onnect, an online forum for young men who might feel uncomfortable asking in person for help with living HIV positive, but who feel safer participating in a Facebook community.
"For me personally, being infected and having been homeless, I know how it felt, I know what that's like, being alone, being without resources," the Chicago native says. "Most of the young people are living for right now, in the moment. They think more about family issues, the struggle to survive, where they are gonna stay, when they are gonna eat," he says. Both Alexander and his BATF colleague Spencer Cassius say that they have been shocked to see 13- and 14-year-olds looking to them for help at street-based outreach events. "There's a new breed coming out. Have you ever walked down Christopher Street? It's getting younger and younger," says Cassius.
Some doctors believe that the best way to provide sexual-health and prevention information to an increasingly younger at-risk population would be through the school system. As the founder and co-director of the Center for HIV Educational Studies & Training, a research center affiliated with Hunter College that performs behavioral studies to identify epidemiological trends, psychologist Jeffrey Parsons, Ph.D., says that what concerns him most is the future of the city's gay teenagers. "The health education that these 13- to 18-year-olds are getting in their high schools is not addressing the issue," says Dr. Parsons. "How do you implement HIV-prevention programs for men who have sex with men in school systems?"
The New York City public school system overhauled its HIV-awareness programs in the 1990s and now introduces students to sexual-health issues during elementary school. Prevention methods such as condom use are discussed in grades 7 through 12, when adolescents are taught to avoid drugs and alcohol. But the curriculum does not reference the spread of HIV among young gay men, the most at-risk group in the city. In the final years of high school, students "are strongly encouraged to abstain from sexual intercourse," according to the New York City Department of Education website.
Adrian Fussell is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a graduate of the NYU School of Journalism.