Three decades ago, the sexual revolution skidded to a halt when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first reported a bizarre strain of pneumonia besieging gay men. After having decimated an entire generation, AIDS now threatens another. Today, young gay and bisexual men account (especially men of color) are responsible for the most alarming surges in new HIV diagnoses and represent the only demographic group whose rates of infection have continued to climb each year since antiretroviral drug therapies introduced in the mid-’90s gave patients hope. The highest rate of new HIV infections are occurring among black men 13 to 29 who have sex with men.
Welcome to Generation H, the twentysomething queers who’ve never known a world without AIDS and yet appear reluctant to use condoms.
Advocates and health workers are scratching their heads and asking, “Who or what is to blame for so many young gay men contracting HIV? Rebellion? Complacency? Arrogance? A desire to self-annihilate?” Maybe it’s because they’ve missed the most effective prevention program of all: funerals. “They don’t realize what we went through, but that’s human nature,” says Mark King, who blogs MyFabulousDisease.net. “If I wasn’t there, I don’t get it and I don’t have time to listen to you because I’m 26 and my friends are waiting for me at the club. And that’s exactly how we behaved. The only thing that made it different for us is that we were living in a horror movie.”
Sean Strub, a veteran AIDS activist and founder of POZ magazine, doesn’t buy the argument that young gay men “don’t get it” when it comes to HIV. On the contrary, he argues that Generation H is “healthier about their sexuality—especially in self-acceptance—than any previous generation of gay men in recent history. They also are quite sophisticated. Part of the reason they turn off and don’t heed safer-sex messages is because they’ve figured out that many of those messages are overly cautious, not heeded by nearly everyone, and paint a picture of an unlikely outcome.”
For Michael Tikili, 25, the “unlikely” outcome of an HIV diagnosis became a reality for him almost two years ago. But he sees seroconverting (becoming HIV-positive) as actually having changed his life—and not all bad. “Everyone that doesn’t have it thinks it is the worst thing in the world, but we need to stop looking at it as a death sentence because it’s not,” he says. “You can lead a healthy life with HIV.” The experience of the virus for Tikili and his friends include seeing healthy, humpy guys living with HIV, as well as six-packed models in omnipresent pharmaceutical ads touting the medications that have allowed those infected with the virus to live near-normal lives. You have to read the fine print to understand the nasty side effects of, and eventual resistance to, these wonder drugs. Nor do the ads mention how expensive they are.
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