CHICAGO – For AIDS Foundation of Chicago President/CEO David Munar the connection between the organization’s focus on AIDS and stemming anti-LGBT bullying is clear.
“It intersects directly with our work,” Munar said. “A lot of our work is addressing homophobia as it relates to AIDS. In many ways there is really strong behavioral science that shows that adults who were bullied as children have poorer health outcomes than gay people who grew up in more supportive environments – higher substance abuse rates, higher HIV acquisition rates, higher numbers of sexual encounters.”
Raising public awareness about the dangers of bullying is why AFC is bringing writer and activist Dan Savage back to Chicago to keynote the AFC Spring Luncheon May 2. Savage has brought national attention to the bullying issue through his work on behalf of the It Gets Better Project, the group he founded to combat anti-LGBT bullying.
“We’re really thrilled that Dan’s coming back for this,” Munar said. “We want to frame this issue as being about health. It’s about a future for HIV youth that’s better than their reality today. …So we really connect with the It Gets Better Project.”
Connecting the dots to get to core factors that influence HIV transmission rates and risk has led AFC to examine other issues as well. African American gay and bisexual men have higher rates of HIV than other gay men and transgender youth of color, Munar said, are also disproportionately affected.
“We know that transgender youth have some of the highest transmission rates,” Munar said. “They’re off the charts. It’s about low educational attainment, drug use, homelessness and higher rates of survival sex. We’re going to try to understand these problems better in our strategic planning process this year.”
In the end, Munar said, lowering the HIV and other health risks faced by transgender youth of color means addressing those fundamental issues.
“HIV is the last thing on their list – it’s ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’” Munar said. “No amount of group or individual sessions, no amount of condoms and lube is going to change the fact that unless there are other options – education, food, housing, jobs – we’re not going to change HIV rates. We’ve got to deal with these core issues.”
AFC’s strategic planning process is also going to seek ways to address other issues, Munar said. Federal, state and local public health resources have been stretched thin in recent years, he said, and how and where they’re allocated needs to be reassessed.
“The city of Chicago continues to be the epicenter of HIV in Illinois but the next highest area is the suburbs,” Munar said. “The south suburbs are very impoverished, where a lot of people have moved.”
One problem is that federal HIV funds are not always divvied up according to need, he added.
“There’s ample evidence that areas where HIV is most prevalent do not get enough resources,” Munar said. “If your priority is to end AIDS you have to put the resources where the epidemic is.”
AFC is also going to be watching new Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts as he tries to reshape Chicago Public Schools. Munar said HIV education and anti-bullying policies should be improved in many schools.
“Our sense is it varies from school to school,” he said. “We think the quality of HIV education could be better.”
Munar said the local school council structure has made it more difficult to improve HIV education and anti-bullying efforts at some CPS schools.
“I think there’s been receptiveness at CPS but there have been a lot of barriers,” Munar said. “We hope the environments will get better in a lot of schools. It’s not one response. It’s mulitiple responses.”
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