This Dangerous Illness Is Spreading in Young Men at an Alarming Rate

These men and boys, as young as 13, are typically ashamed to talk about it, rarely get health care, and are too often shunned by their families.

(Photo: Aaron McCoy/Getty Images)

Dec 12, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Sarah Parvini is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles.

Going to school as a young, gay African-American in New York, Shariff Gibbons didn't have many options when it came to learning about safe sex. Most of the focus in his hour-long crash course in sexual education was placed on avoiding teen pregnancies, and nothing specific was done to reach out to gay youths.

It wasn't until the 25-year-old discovered the New York City-based AIDS service organization Gay Men's Health Crisis in college that he was able to fully understand the necessary precautions to prevent HIV/AIDS and find a support group. He hasn't contracted the illness, but sees why his community is being ravaged.

The AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is infecting a disproportionate number of young, poor black and Hispanic men who have sex with men. Nationally, one-quarter of new infections are among black and Hispanic men, according to a July 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In many black and Hispanic communities, Gibbons says, being gay just doesn't have a place.

"You become disconnected, and for many people of color when you're disconnected you're kicked out of the home and have no place to turn," he said. "It causes them to take risks, which then leads to them getting HIV and other STIs."

Many young men aren’t as fortunate as Gibbons, who was raised by a supportive and accepting grandmother.

Only 25 percent of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV have it under control. African-Americans and young minorities are least likely to receive ongoing care and effective treatment.

“There’s no point in taking care of yourself if you don’t care about yourself,” Gibbons said. “When you hear it enough that no one is going to care about you, it takes root in you and you’re going to believe it.”

Critics say that while there is no quick fix, little is being done to prevent such feelings of helplessness and low self-worth among this group. What efforts are made aren’t made fast enough—an ad campaign aimed specifically at young black men was launched for the first time just last year, according to the GMHC.

“There’s a push to target these particular young men of color, but the trick is to go bigger,” said Whitney Engeran-Cordoba, senior director for public health at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “HIV should be part of the battery of tests they run on anybody.”

While many organizations are working to spread messages of self-esteem, the outreach may not be broad enough, he said. Many young black and Hispanic men don’t hang out at the gay bars where posters advertising prevention and treatment of HIV are plastered on the walls.

“We have to do a better job of telling people they deserve to be safe,” he said. “There’s a lot of things other than the mechanics of using a condom at play here.”

In 2010, the highest number of new HIV infections—4,800—among males who have sex with men occurred in young African-Americans between 13 and 24. Black males accounted for 55 percent of new HIV infections among young men, according to the CDC, even though they don’t engage in as much high-risk behavior as their white counterparts.

Some experts attribute this to macro-level forces like poverty, mental health issues and drug abuse.

“Look at who has the finances and education to get access to health care,” said Tyler Arguello, an expert in HIV/AIDS at the University of Southern California. “Young people and ethnic minorities have historically been disenfranchised and HIV has become the risk of existing in this group.”

The Affordable Care Act means greater access to preventative care and treatment among young Hispanic and black men. The expanded base of young male eligible for health care is a large step in the right direction, Arguello said. With that availability comes access to condoms, testing, and routine checkups.

National programs like “Outstanding Beautiful Brothers” at the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the CDC’s “Testing Makes Us Stronger” aim to remove the stigma from being young and gay or bisexual, while providing people with a preventative lifestyle that will help them stay healthy.

The OBB campaign, for example, creates an environment where young men can discuss a healthy sex life and responsibly choose sexual partners, while also providing mental health and substance abuse counseling.

For Gibbons, the program has created a sense of community and circle of friends he can lean on for support. He says there’s a long way to go before the stigma is removed from being a young, gay or bisexual male, but in the meantime he would like to see the OBB and other outreach campaigns continue to grow.

“A place for support is important,” he said. “I’m gay and I’m not less of a man because of who I am.”