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HIV and Young Black Gay Men: Finding the Courage to Stand for Their Lives

Secrecy and fear shouldn't go hand in hand with being young, black and gay. And a sense of self-worth and positive vision for the future are keys in motivating and enabling people to protect themselves.
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Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic 30 years ago, we've made great leaps in prevention and treatment. We've learned what prevents HIV, how best to treat HIV and AIDS, and how to help people protect themselves from the virus. And we've known for years that HIV infection rates among young, black gay men are disproportionately high compared to any other youth demographic. What have we done about it? Collectively, hide our heads in the sand.

We cannot continue to ignore this problem and hope it magically disappears.

Since 2001, there has been a steady increase in HIV and AIDS among young black men who have sex with men. According to this week's report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young Black men account for 60 percent of new HIV infections -- even though they account for less than 20 percent of the population. And 87 percent of young Black men acquired the virus through male-to-male sexual contact. As such, a black gay man has a one in four chance of becoming HIV positive by age 25.

Those statistics clearly indicate the urgent need for us to do better by our young black men.

More than half of all new youth HIV infections occur among young gay and bi-sexual men. This is unacceptable. We are saddened because we know we can do better. Our young men need to know that we care. Our communities must release the homophobia and hate that we, continuously, douse our gay and bi-sexual brothers in everyday. We are refusing to embrace them, because we blame them, but the blame is on all of us. Our young men "come out" and they are thrown out from our families and harassed and bullied in their schools. They are spotted on the street or at the mall and they are attacked; robbed, beaten or killed for simply having the courage to be who they are. If we want to see a difference in the HIV rates among our young black gay and bi-sexual men we must start loving them; loving them by advocating for their rights; supporting programs and policies that ensure they can go to school and learn in a safe environment; and we must stop turning our brothers away from our own communities.

Over the past decade our nation has argued over health care and HIV prevention funding, shied from "controversial" topics like LGBT youth sexuality, and ensured that young black men bear the brunt of our nation's failures, from lack of education to unemployment to incarceration. The message is loud and clear -- we don't care enough to protect young black gay men, but we must, because their lives are on the line.

We know what we must do to stem the tide of HIV infections among young men who have sex with men. This is not a mystery -- it is a series of goals which can be achieved with commitment and effort.

From our government, we need an all-hands-on-deck, inter-agency response to remove structural barriers to prevention and care. Black young people are three times as likely to live in poverty as white young people. When you don't know where your next meal is coming from, taking care of your health stops being a priority.

We need school environments that intentionally address HIV prevention. School districts must be willing to change their policies, allowing for access to HIV and STI testing within their schools by offering HIV and STI screening for all students. Schools must be made safe for young LGBT people, eight out of 10 of whom experience bullying and discrimination. Sexuality education should be inclusive and include discussions of healthy relationships, adolescent sexual development, gender identity, and bullying, and other topics to help all young people take personal responsibility for their health and overall wellbeing.

We need holistic, comprehensive approaches to educate our young men. Efforts must address their physical, spiritual and mental health needs. We need community health efforts that successfully meet the needs of our young men and young women. We need better prevention programs to support young men to take responsibility for their own health and wellness. Programs must go beyond simple messaging; they must build interpersonal and concrete skills like condom use and talking about HIV with a partner. These programs must not stigmatize young gay and bi-sexual men of color, but actually include them and address their real-life experiences and challenges.

Perhaps most of all, we need a vaccine or cure, and full funding of research to find it.

But until there is a cure, we also need a commitment from our society and our communities to value and support young people -- all young people. Secrecy and fear shouldn't go hand in hand with being young, black and gay. And a sense of self-worth and positive vision for the future are keys in motivating and enabling people to protect themselves. As a society we have to get over the homophobia and let young black men know that they are respected and loved as they are, and give young people a voice in decisions that affect them.

Today, we call on governments and communities to start the work that will end this epidemic. And we call on individuals, too: Demand action from your government. Support efforts in your own community. Support recognition of the National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day.

Tell our young people they are valued -- and show them their lives matter.