And sex ed for all
By PAIGE RENTZ
A new national study released by the Centers for Disease Control highlights the increased risk for HIV infection among men who have sex with men. According to the analysis, this demographic is more than 44 times more likely to become infected with HIV than other men and is the only subgroup whose infection rates are still on the rise. Among black and Hispanic men, the sharpest increase is among young men who have sex with men, aged 13-29.
In New York City, new HIV infections have increased more than 50 percent among 13 to 29 year-old men who have sex with men since 2001, even as the total number of cases dropped by a third, according to rates released by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The new CDC study notes that particularly for young men, complacency about HIV may play a key role in HIV risk, since they are too young to have personally experienced the severity of the early AIDS epidemic. Additionally, they may harbor the false belief that because of treatment advances, HIV is no longer a serious health threat.
The study also highlighted social and economic factors, including homophobia, stigma, and lack of access to health care that may increase risk behaviors or be a barrier to receiving HIV prevention services.
Many behavioral studies and outreach programs to young men who have sex with men have been spurred by this drastic increase–including two studies focusing on 13-17 and 18-20 year-olds at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
But little has been done to address the broader issues surrounding the health of LGBT teens, said Amy Liss, community outreach coordinator at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. While HIV rates for young men who have sex with men are accessible, this data set is included as a risk factor along with intravenous drug. Very little research has been done with the sexual health of LGBT youth as the primary focus.
“There’s a whole population of youth being underrepresented in research,” Liss said, and additionally, there is a lack of funding for this kind of research for “kids who are underserved, at-risk and disenfranchised.”
Added to the dearth of research is a problem with accessibility to health and sex education pertinent to the lives of LGBT students. The law on health classes is actually unclear, said Erica Braudy, an advocacy coordinator with the New York Civil Liberties Union. While LGBT students must be allowed access to health and sex education classes, there is nothing that says that the specific concerns of LGBT kids must be addressed. Gay and lesbian students are often left out of the lesson plans, which may account for the rampant myths and misconceptions about LGBT issues, and part of the rising HIV rates among young men who have sex with men.
Marisa Ragonese, director of Generation Q, a drop-in center for LGBT youth in Astoria, calls the lack of adequate health education one of the biggest problems faced by LGBT youth. “There is a real need for sex ed addressing what kids want and need to know,” she said, citing outrageous misconceptions harbored by her teens, such as “the act of gay sex makes AIDS be born.”
Jason Sirois, a consultant with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network, has found as he has worked with teachers and administrators on anti-LGBT bias that the educators themselves are uncomfortable having conversations about these issues. “That’s why you see the situation of LGBT kids getting into situations where they aren’t safe and don’t know how to protect themselves,” he said.
Outside organizations find themselves trying to fill the gaps left by the school system. Generation Q hosts a peer sex education group that covers everything from condoms and other barriers to self-esteem. A trained peer educator facilitates the conversation. According to Ragonese, the youth-run and adult-supported program is confidential to the point that even she doesn’t sit in on sessions.
At Callen-Lorde, the Health Outreach to Teens (HOTT) program provides free or low-cost services ranging from general medical care and physical exams to HIV testing and counseling to cross-gender hormone therapy. Since teens are unable, or reluctant, to make it to the program’s dedicated facility at Callen-Lorde, the “HOTT Medical Van” travels to youth hangout spots in lower and mid-Manhattan to bring health care and education to their doorsteps.
Sirois said the problem comes back to people’s perceptions of LGBT youth as immediately sexualized — more so than other groups of teens. “People don’t realize when you’re talking about ‘gay,’ you’re not always talking about sex,” he said. Even with pregnant women, Sirois said, “we don’t see her and immediately think about how she got that way.”
Part of properly educating LGBT youth, said Sirois, lies in training their educators. His experiences tell him that there people still think a person’s sexual orientation is a choice.
“If people think it’s a choice, then if you talk about it you’re encouraging kids to be gay,” said Sirois.
The key is to consistently challenge the perceptions teachers and administrators have about LGBT students. “The truth is that a student who identifies as gay, as lesbian or bisexual or who is transgender is a student first,” said Sirois, “is a human being.”
Paige Rentz is a reporter for a chain of community newspapers in Westchester County. As a part-time M.S. student at Columbia, she is covering Educational Neglect and LGBT student issues in the New York City school system and is embedded in Urban Academy, a transfer high school in the Julia Richman Educational Complex. She graduated in 2007 with her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literature and creative writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.