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Erica Demarest AIDS: Black Gay Men's Caucus responds to rise in AIDS cases in young men
by Erica Demarest
2011-08-17

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Panelists Sidney Thomas,  Chris Brown, Mildred Williamson,  and David D. Robertson


In response to alarming new data that reveals young Black men who have sex with men are significantly more likely to contract HIV than their peers, the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus ( CBGMC ) hosted "Conversations: A Discussion on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and the impact for Black Gay/Bisexual Men in Chicago" Aug. 11.

On Aug. 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that HIV cases among young Black men ( ages 13-29 ) who have sex with men rose by 48 percent between 2006 and 2009. Similarly, records from the Chicago Department of Public Health indicate new HIV cases among young gay Black men ( 13-29 ) in Chicago rose by 62 percent between 2005 and 2008.

"At a time where we've seen advances in scientific technology that help to reduce both the spread and the mortality of HIV, we are still seeing Black men who have sex with men become infected and die more than our white and Latino counterparts," said Keith Green, director of federal affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and co-chair of the CBGMC.

As the sun began to set on a beautiful Thursday night, a group of about 75 health professionals, city officials, school teachers and activists gathered in a spacious meeting room in the Gary Comer Youth Center on Chicago's South Side.

While attendees enjoyed a complimentary dinner, Dr. John Schneider, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Chicago, articulated factors that could be contributing to the high rates. Chief among them: unemployment, substance use, poor sex education, mental health issues and a lack of accessible care.

"We don't have really good services on the South Side for anal and penile care," Schneider said. "We need to have providers make those services available ,,, and train the front staff to be culturally competent and know how to engage somebody who may be very sensitive about either their appearance or their HIV status."

Schneider stressed the need for stable youth centers like Gary Comer and said that while many community groups do good work, funding is always a concern. "Howard Brown can have a problem," he said, "and all the donors step up and fund them. If a small group on the South Side has a problem, they lose their funding and they're gone."

He noted that when youth use alcohol or drugs before sex, they're significantly less likely to use condoms, and that social use of marijuana is common. Through his clinic work on the South Side, Schneider said he's seen many young adults who have very poor grasps of basic sex and health functions.

"What's tragic is that sex education in Chicago public schools has been left up to teachers," he said. "There's no standard procedure. You know, if I can fit it into my math class—eight condoms plus six condoms equals 14 condoms—that's my sex education. There really needs to be good sex education and HIV prevention education."

Another common problem: Many HIV-positive men don't take their medications as prescribed. Some feel they're young and invincible; some don't want to deal with a daily reminder of the disease; others lack access; and still others simply slack off.

"We really need to get people who are infected and have virus in their body on medicine," Schneider said. "Fundamentally, that's it."

After Schneider's presentation, the audience broke into four small focus groups, each of which contained at least one city health official or doctor—including Chris Brown, assistant commissioner of Public Health for the STI/HIV/AIDS Division of the city of Chicago, and Mildred Williamson, PhD, MSW, HIV/AIDS section chief at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The groups proceeded to draft lists of suggestions that could help community leaders, healthcare providers and city officials stem the growing epidemic. Working to reduce homophobia in Black communities was a common concern; many said churches needed to be more accepting and social media could be used to spread positive messaging.

Funding was another heavy-hitter. Some group members wondered how they could procure more funding as cuts were being made all around them. Others complained that current funding channels and grant application processes restricted creativity.

"We don't have the collaboration we need," said Veronica Brown, who works in the governor's office. "Most entities are working as an island by themselves for fear that a move of clients means a shift in funds. And so our funds make everybody not work as a group to meet the needs of a person. … We need to stop. It needs to be about addressing the issue and not the money."

To address the dearth of comprehensive sex education in schools, one group advocated launching a Chicago condom campaign similar to the one in New York City, which ran with the slogan "We've got you covered."

Dozens of suggestions were offered during the three-hour event, and city officials eagerly jotted down notes. Brown said he would create a citizen-based commission to continue generating ideas and welcomed people to call him at the Chicago Department of Public Health to join.

David Robertson, 27, a prevention specialist at the Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago, said he loved the ideas he heard but thought the event was flawed. Though it aimed to address a problem faced by young Black queer men aged 13-29, very few were in the audience.

"I'm disappointed," Robertson said. He stressed that if youth were brought into the discussion and treated as equals, then "we wouldn't have all these attitudes, arguments, debates. This in here is an implosion. There's an explosion going on outside. [ Youth ] should be in here. Period."

"There's no faith in my generation," he continued. "We have innovative ways, we have a connection. Have a little faith. … We're not going to steer you wrong. We want to make sure [ these young people ] are going to be our doctors to take care of us. We want to help them, trust me."

Green announced that the CBGMC would hold a second event that focused exclusively on fostering youth voices and creating youth-led solutions. No date has been set.

A list of ideas generated at the Aug. 11 event will be posted at: chiblackgaycaucus.org/


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