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The Rising HIV Rates Among Young Women and Girls of Color: What's Going On? Part One

January 25, 2011

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Kellee Terrell: Jennifer, the work that you do at HEAT: How difficult is it for you to get straight men of color engaged?

Jennifer Irwin: It's difficult. I think it's very similar to what Tracie just said. I think a lot of the work, what happens with a lot of agencies not unlike our own, is that you have these three populations that you reach out to, or that end up walking in your door: young men who have sex with men, transgender youth and young women of color.

I think this is a failing on our part as well, that we don't put in the type of energy or time or resources around reaching that particular population unless they are partners of our young girls, or unless they come to some of our events, and may come back for services. I think a lot of that speaks to a couple of things we've been talking about so far today. I think a lot of it speaks to the way the funding is stratified out there. The grants that come out now are either grants that serve young men who have sex with men or grants to serve young women of color. I've been here eight years; I've never seen a grant come out to serve young heterosexual men that we could even apply for.

Claire Simon: And there hasn't been.


Jennifer Irwin: There hasn't been. I think the assumption is that they get locked into female-centered funding as partners, quote-unquote, of the female girls. So I think that's a big piece of it.

I also think, like Tracie said, it's who is yelling the loudest, who is knocking on the doors. In Albany, or in New York City, it's folks who are advocating for young men who have sex with men, and folks who, like Tracie, advocate a lot for young women. And I think there isn't a whole contingency of folks who are advocating for heterosexual men. I can't think of any, actually.

Tracie Gardner: There are not that many advocating for young women!

Claire Simon: I know. I know.

Jennifer Irwin: Those of us doing work on young women and sexual risk of HIV (mostly) and STDs partner more often with LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender]-focused groups. So it's easier to work with Gay Men of African Descent than it is working with Girls Inc. or the Deltas. The challenge of getting HIV "recognized" as issue of concern across the silos is difficult when orgs are not LGBT based.

Claire Simon: Right.

Tracie Gardner: Right. Exactly.

Jennifer Irwin: I think that's where the line is drawn. And I think it's a failing on all of our parts to not address this population. It just doesn't get addressed.

Tracie Gardner: Not to place all of the blame on AIDS, Inc., because there has been a failure of creativity and will on the part of folks who should be raising a ruckus with us to the policymakers. There's no reason why HEAT and the Boys Club can't work together in Albany around young people's health. There's no reason not to be working with local chapters of fraternities, in terms of the community work they're doing. There's no reason not to be working with some of the vocational programs that are working with young men, trying to get employment skills around their health.

We've got to get to them. AIDS needs to go to the places that are not AIDS, and say, "You've got to deal with AIDS." And how do we work together?

Kellee Terrell: I want to shift gears a bit. Earlier in the discussion, we were talking about how much societal value is placed on being in a relationship with a man and the pressure to hold on to him by any means necessary. I hear stories from older women going to family reunions where the first thing people ask is not, "What are all these great things you're doing at work?" It's, "Are you married?" "Do you have a man?" "When are you going to get a boyfriend?" "When are you going to have kids?"

"Unfortunately your worth seems to be correlated to whether you have a man or a baby. How much of this attitude is trickling down to our young girls?" -- Kellee Terrell

Unfortunately your worth seems to be correlated to whether you have a man or a baby. How much of this attitude is trickling down to our young girls?"

Claire Simon: This attitude is definitely affecting young girls and women, because these attitudes are very prevalent in our society. I have personal issues with it because I do get those questions all the time. Regardless of how many master's degrees or Ph.D.s I have, how much money I make, or what I'm doing, it doesn't matter.

Tracie Gardner: Right. What we're handed down, in terms of the message, is that your worth is judged based on your ability to have and keep a male partner. It flies in the face of the statistics -- particularly in the African-American community, where we are struggling around the notion of a black man and a black woman being together. And especially with President Obama and Michelle's marriage being so broadcasted, there is a sense of obsession with ...

Kellee Terrell: Black love.

Tracie Gardner: Yes, black love. And even in the most twisted of ways, it's a symbol and it's a beacon that resonates for a lot of people. Therefore, we embrace it, because we are told it strengthens the community.

Kellee Terrell: And it's also pressure for black women to be the ones to make those efforts to keep that black love together.

Tracie Gardner: Exactly. But look at the statistics of there being a lack of quote-unquote viable black men. So many black men in parts of this country happen to have involvement with the criminal justice system on a regular basis. And we can talk about the reasons and whys of that. But the reality is that the prison and the prison policies of a particular jurisdiction tend to hew real closely to the HIV prevalence numbers in different parts of the country.

And so prison health, and community health -- I've talked about this a long time -- it creates an imbalance in communities, where the ratio of men to women is such that men naturally, so to speak, have an ability to choose from a greater number of women than women have to choose from a greater number of men. Because on average, the man is not in the community, and that encourages concurrent relationships. It encourages closed sexual networks in closed communities. The epidemic that's happening in certain parts of the South and certain parts of New York City is not unlike the epidemic that was popping up in the gay enclaves in the '80s, when HIV was first rearing its head.

Claire Simon: When we talk about the male-to-female ratios -- I don't even know how much it is now -- one man to every three women, four women, five, or whatever. But when we're thinking about that, we're not thinking that this goes back to this whole notion of, "Oh, well, at least he comes home at night. At least he gives me money. Oh, at least I have a man."

It goes back to the notion of what is fueling this epidemic. Because I may be with someone who I know is with other women. But because he calls me every Tuesday, and we have a date every Wednesday, or he comes over and leaves me some money then that's what I do.

How do we really begin to break that? How do we begin to have honest conversations in our communities around that? That could be very well what's putting us at risk. That is what's putting us at risk for infection.

Part two: The panel discusses more about how poverty, race and gender inequality increase HIV risk for young girls of color.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for and

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