When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics earlier this year that showed that the rates of HIV infection among young Black men nearly doubled between 2006-2009, the HIV community quickly began strategizing on how to curb the shocking trend.
But while many said the culprit was risky behavior, others have argued that the rise in infections is the symptom of a far more complex set of issues.
A group of community experts took on the topic at the U.S. Conference on AIDS Nov. 12 in a town hall meeting on Black gay men and HIV. Approximately 50 people came to the evening event.
Present were Christopher Bates, executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS; Ernest Hopkins, director of Legislative Affairs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Joseph "Buzz" Prejean, of the CDC Division of HIV/AIDS prevention; Lawrence Stallworth II, founder of the AIDS Task Force of Greater Cleveland; Darrell Wheeler, dean at the Loyola University School of Social Work; Jamal Edwards, president and CEO of Howard Brown Health Center; and Keith Green, director of federal affairs at AIDS Foundation of Chicago. Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, moderated.
"At the end of the day, we have got to be able to save ourselves," said Wilson.
Experts argued that it was not just behavior regarding sexual health that needed to change, but that the entire strategy for preventing HIV among gay youth needs to change.
First and foremost, said speakers, Black gay men needed to be given the opportunity to speak for themselves.
"If you think that people who don’t look like you are sitting up at night worrying about whether we die, you’re fooling yourselves," said Bates.
"We need to get to the table and start taking charge of the strategy that affects our community," said Edwards.
Stallworth, the only youth on the panel, spoke of his own experiences contracting HIV in 2009 at the age of 17.
"It was like my life came crashing down on me," he said. His teachers held a meeting about how to deal with having an HIV student, and he had to quit his job in order qualify for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
"Having to choose between a career and my healthcare prevented me from being a productive member of society," he said.
Stallworth said the issue for him came down to personal responsibility. Now that he is HIV-positive, he finds it a duty to advocate for his community.
But Bates added that the issue goes beyond personal choices and behaviors in curbing the trends among young black MSMs. He said that many factors were already working against that population.
"We have such a high level of HIV that even when we’re using a condom, it’s that one time when we don’t" that it is transmitted, he said.
Chicago transgender activist Joy Morris raised the question of tracking infection rates among transgender people. She urged the panel to look at trans-specific surveillance data, and argued that that population is often left out of the conversation and out of funding priorities.
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