“I’m all alone. My parents don’t want me. My friends will think I am a freak. I don’t want to live in this body anymore,” he said.
I will never forget these words as they fell from the lips of my childhood friend as he attempted to adjust to life after coming out to his parents in high school. This moment was even more significant because it took Chris* more than four years to find the courage to be honest with himself, accepting that his same-sex attractions were more than the passing “phase” some suggested.
It was also significant because Chris’s boyfriend was diagnosed as HIV-positive — something that now, in 2016, is projected to affect half of all gay Black men in the United States and impact youth as well, with approximately 1,000 young people, ages 13-24, contracting HIV and AIDS each month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While there is no cure for HIV and AIDS at present, it is critical to take steps to reduce stigma and increase awareness so that we, as a society, can reduce and eliminate the number of new cases of HIV and AIDS, ensure all youth are tested and those who are diagnosed with HIV and AIDS are provided with the appropriate treatment to ensure safety and wellness and, most importantly, that all youth are enveloped in unconditional love — the type of love that frees them from fear of stigma or shame and encourages open and honest dialogue that can ensure health and safety.
Days like National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day serve as an anchor to remind us all to start talking and to do more listening with love.
During times of crisis, one of the worst feelings one can experience is that of isolation. When Chris came out to his parents, he was seeking the love and support that each of us require to live up to our full potential and to succeed in spite of the moments when life attempts to convince you to give up. Chris would spend years following this initial conversation searching for the comfort and support he wished his parents would provide.
On National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, and every other day for that matter, we can take the following three steps to educate, empower and eliminate the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS:
1. Know your status. Your life matters and staying healthy is important. One in six people with HIV are unaware of their infection (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Most commonly, people get or transmit HIV through sexual behaviors and needle or syringe use. Everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested at least once. The CDC recommends that sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested every three to six months.
It is incredibly important to have conversations with your partner and friends to ensure everyone knows their status. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, gettested.cdc.gov, to find free, fast and confidential testing near you. You can also call 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636), text your ZIP code to KNOW IT (566948) or use a home testing kit.
Testing makes us stronger. If you test positive, you can receive treatment (often antiretroviral medication) designed to keep you healthy and living longer as well as learn about important steps to ensure good health and well-being for your sexual partner. Effective treatment lowers the level of HIV in the blood, reduces HIV-related illness and reduces the spread of the virus. If you test negative, meeting with a knowledgeable health professional can ensure you take the appropriate steps to reduce risk of exposure to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and infections while optimizing other health outcomes.
2. Take care of yourself. Lower your chances of getting HIV by using condoms consistently and correctly. Youth who have multiple sexual partners and fail to consistently use a condom are at increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, including those that facilitate the transmission of HIV. Use a condom — they are an especially important form of contraception.
Taking care of you also means taking care of your overall health and well-being. Know that you are not alone. Find or create safe and nurturing spaces where you can talk honestly and openly about what you are experiencing and feeling. Seek the support of caring and concerned adults who support your best interest to provide counsel and guidance about everything, from healthy eating habits to dating and relationships and stress and anxiety management.
3. Stop the spread of stigma by holding yourself and others accountable for celebrating humanity. While HIV and AIDS has a disproportionate impact among men who have sex with men, HIV is not a gay disease. Statistics that highlight the impact that HIV/AIDS has in the lives of men who have sex with men do not tell the whole story and without context can contribute to stigma. Accordingly, it is important that we provide environments in which all young people feel safe and comfortable talking about and seeking the support needed to engage in safe, healthy sexual practice, when appropriate. A critical step in sustaining healthy and nurturing environments is curbing the practice of using language to exclude, bully, harass or otherwise express not-so-positive feelings about people who are HIV positive. We can take critical steps toward reducing the rate of HIV infection by first being mindful of the words that we use to talk about the disease as well as those infected and impacted.
If there is one thing that each of us can do to honor the spirit of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, it is to urge adults to listen to your feelings and experiences without wanting to judge or correct. We, as adults who care about your health and well-being, can and should actively and intentionally listen with love. We must create safe spaces where you feel comfortable sharing your stories, asking questions and making sense of sex and sexually transmitted diseases. Adults, actively and intentionally listening with love requires asking meaningful questions such as: Are you sexually active? Have you experienced sexual or romantic thoughts about the same sex? Will you describe the steps required to practice safe sex? How can I support you and help you live your best life? Listen not to respond, but to understand.
After asking questions like these, it is essential to listen to the answers with an open heart and an understanding mind — without projecting or attacking but responding with love and compassion. The conversation requires us to be vulnerable and meet youth where they are instead of insisting they meet us where we are in a space that can often induce fear or silence.
When questions arise, seek the counsel of experts. For additional sources of support, consider the following:
HIV Among African American Youth, Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/factsheets/archive/cdc-youth-aas-508.pdf
National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day: https://www.aids.gov/news-and-events/awareness-days/youth/
HIV Among Youth, Center for Disease Control: www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/age/youth/index.html
Magic Johnson Foundation HIV & AIDS Initiatives: http://magicjohnson.org/programs/hivaids-initiatives/
Trevor Project: www.thetrevorproject.org
It Gets Better: www.Itgetsbetter.org
To support and sustain environments that are safe, inclusive and supportive of African-American LGBTQ youth, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans has partnered with the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) to host a White House Summit on African-American LGBTQ Youth in June during Pride Month. The summit will provide a platform for youth to highlight how caring and concerned adults can ensure they are safe, supported and engaged — in school and in life. For more information about the summit or the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence visit www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation
David J. Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
(Photo: Jack Hollingsworth/Blend Images/Corbis)