Young, Gay, Black-and at Risk for HIV

Published: December 1, 2012

Joshua Alexander was 19 when he found out he was HIV positive in 2006. He had gone to a health fair at the university he attended in Mississippi to get tested, completely unaware he might have the virus. In his mind, he was just doing what we tell people to do now — if you’re in a relationship, go get tested with your partner. Joshua’s boyfriend was a no-show.

Alexander’s story is disturbingly common among young African-American gay men. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study this week showing that one-quarter of all new HIV infections in 2010 were among adolescents and very young adults, with an estimated 1,000 new people between 13 and 24 years of age contracting the virus each month. And, in the study, 45 percent of newly infected men who have sex with men — the researcher don’t track sexual identity, but rather behavior — were black. Other studies show that black men 13-29 who have sex with men have the highest annual new infection rate of any subgroup in America.

It’s obvious what part of the problem is, says Cornelius Baker, a senior policy advisor with the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition. "This data really highlights the need for better sexual health education in America’s schools, community health centers, and other health-care settings that speak directly to the needs of sexual-minority youth," he said. "Right now, young people are really abandoned to themselves for information."

Getting an HIV diagnosis was unfortunately Alexander’s first real health education lesson. His school in Greenville, Mississippi, included almost nothing in its health curriculum about HIV, and even less about how to stay safe as a sexually active gay man.

"When the nurse who tested me came back with my results, she asked me to have a seat," said Alexander, who is the subject of a new documentary about HIV/AIDS called Deep South. "But I told her ‘I’m going to stand because I know you’re gonna tell me I am negative and then I’m out of here.’"

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