I’ll never forget October 2009. I had just returned to campus at Boston College following several months abroad in Argentina. My boyfriend from that time was making the ages-old pilgrimage to Machu Picchu – now one of the ten wonders of the world. The immense joy of that moment was instantly sapped when, days later, I received the news: he was HIV-positive.
Being more than 8,000 miles away and on the receiving end of the phone unable to give him a hug was one of the most painful moments I’ve ever experienced. I had read my friend Larry Kramer’s masterworks, Faggots and The Normal Heart, and I was well-versed in my history of the plague that demolished his generation. But it wasn’t until that very moment, when someone my own age was diagnosed with HIV, that I felt the weight of a world torn apart by HIV and AIDS.
Frank’s image could have filled the pages of any magazine. He was young and just beginning his career in government. It broke my heart knowing that this diagnosis was preventable. An act of love with a trusted partner changed his life in an instant.
At the time, Frank would have been representative of the hardest-hit population by HIV today in America: young, non-white men. To put it into perspective, 87 percent of new HIV cases among men ages 13 to 24 are among men of color.
It begs the question, why isn’t this making front page headlines? Sadly, it seems that in 2014, stigma remains rampant in America. The masses are caring less and less about a disease whose demographics are increasingly focused on people of color, people struggling with homelessness and poverty, and other marginalized populations. We constantly envision an “HIV and AIDS free world.” But if transmission rates continue to rise among youth, how is this possible?
These alarming statistics will only be reversed if we take the time to engage with youth in real ways. The abstinence-only education model failed our nation, as double-digit increases in youth HIV transmission rates make clear. To no surprise, young people have and always will have sex, and realistic sex education is necessary. However, while we can talk about behavioral issues all that we want, attitude adjustment and behavioral modification alone are incomplete and ineffective.
Structural drivers and social determinants, such as poverty, homelessness, racism, lack of access to healthcare and trauma and intimate partner violence are better predictors of the epidemic. We need to address these issues among our youth in addition to teaching them about safe sex. If we encourage youth to think about HIV/AIDS as part of a larger picture of the disparities that exist in the U.S., we will reach them in more meaningful ways than just letting them know safe sex is a good idea.
After all, why is the HIV rate higher among youth of color? Youth of color are at a higher risk for HIV even when they have fewer “risk behaviors” than white youth simply because they are more likely to be impacted by these structural barriers than white youth.
Bailey House reaches out to marginalized youth through our now expanding STARS (Success Through Accessing Rental Assistance and Support) program, the largest supportive housing program for HIV-positive youth in New York City. STARS provides stable housing to 50 formerly homeless young people, many of them LGBTQ, who are living with HIV/AIDS and struggling to overcome mental illness and/or substance abuse. We connect each individual to life-saving medical care and independent living skills training, transforming vulnerable people in crisis into stable, safe and thriving adults.
But the work doesn’t stop inside Bailey House. An HIV and AIDS-free generation won’t be realized if we aren’t recruiting a new contingent of activists, leaders and philanthropists to carry on the work my late uncle Rodger McFarlane began when he took the helm of Gay Men’s Health Crisis at a mere 27 years old.
The future starts with my generation, and that’s why I’m working with our CEO Gina Quattrochi to better include youth and young adults in the current HIV/AIDS narrative in this country. It’s time for my peers to have a more open and engaged dialogue about some of the topics we tackle on a daily basis at Bailey House: homelessness, poverty, mental health. It’s only through increased communication that the walls of stigma can truly be broken.
I believe I will see a world without HIV and AIDS in my lifetime, and I look forward to a day where National HIV and AIDS Awareness Day will be something for the history books. Small steps toward this goal can be made on an individual level. The more we empower youth, the more they will make caring decisions in regards to their health and the health of their communities. Along those lines, I leave you with these words of wisdom from the Jesuit theologian Pedro Arrupe:
“Nothing is more practical than … falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Joseph Neese is an LGBT activist and journalist, who is on the Board of Directors of Bailey House and The Tyler Clementi Foundation, where he works specifically with issues affecting youth and young adults. Joseph works in Human Resources for the NBCUniversal News Group, supporting NBC News, msnbc and CNBC. He is the nephew of the late LGBT and HIV/AIDS trailblazer Rodger McFarlane.