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City of SecretsChristopher Myers

City of Secrets (continued)

Looking back, Vinson says his support system was cobbled together almost serendipitously. There was a relative born with hepatitis C who made sure to get regular liver biopsies, refrained from drinking and told potential partners that he had the infection. “Before he had sex he always told his partners. So if he could handle it, I figured I could.” And there was the older female teacher who, learning of Vinson’s status, said, ‘Baby, I’ve got diabetes. You gotta take care of yourself, I’ve gotta take care of myself, otherwise we’re both gonna die!’”

Now, Vinson has turned his poetry into conversations with concerned youth. His favorite part? Breaking down myths about what the “face” of HIV looks like. In the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, he’ll suddenly turn serious and warn the audience that he’s about to show them what someone with HIV looks like. “I’ll say, ‘Now, if your stomach is weak you should probably leave.’” Then Vinson hits the button, and there’s his handsome, smiling, healthy-looking face, eating an ice cream cone. “Cracks ’em up every time,” he laughs.

Keith Holt has used his grin to reach at-risk MSM as well. It can be seen on posters for the campaign the 26-year-old helped come up with, “Have Balls, Get Tested,” a Baltimore City Health Department outreach effort aimed at the city’s ballroom community, of which Holt is a part.

To Holt, the idea of a community-gathering spot in Baltimore for young gay African-Americans is a key toward building a safer, healthier community. “When I came out at 17, I realized right then there was no support, no place for me to go. There was Project Olympus, part of HERO [the Health Education Resource Organization, which lost its funding]. I’d like to start something like that again. Some place people know they could come, chill, afterward put on some music and vogue, get to know your peers, and talk about what you’re going through. It’s amazing there’s no place like that here now. You know, the world is coming along in accepting people and their sexuality. I would think the support here would have increased versus decreased.”

“They’re not worried about testing. They’re worried about … ‘Where am I staying at tomorrow? Will I have something to eat?’ With HIV, it’s not something you think is affecting you right in the here and now, even though it is.”
—Keith Holt

For Adrian Ross, activism was triggered by simple observation. “I saw people I was hanging out with all coming up positive. A dear friend became positive, and he never knew until he had full-blown AIDS. It changed my life, and got me out in the community to get people tested,” says Ross. He admits that it was only a few years earlier that he knew nothing about HIV. “They don’t speak of HIV in health classes,” he says of his high school education in Anne Arundel County. “They talk about ways for you not to get people pregnant. It should be mandatory that you take ‘HIV 101’ in high school.”

Ross has found his message is best conveyed through Facebook, where he receives at least two or three messages a week from scared youth seeking education, support and testing information. Ross, who has worked for several Baltimore HIV initiatives, says that many organizations are out of touch with how youth truly interact with social media. “They need to change or they won’t reach who they want to target,” he says. He’s also been shocked to find that some federally funded city HIV-testing programs he’s worked with have turned their back on the MSM community, perhaps looking for other HIV at-risk groups more willing to be tested. “In this city, with this kind of [MSM] work, a lot of people aren’t really dedicated, in my opinion. The last organization I worked at … I was told ‘I’m sick of you targeting the MSM community,’ even though MSMs have the highest risk.”

Taken as a group, these young MSM advocates hit on some common themes: Show commitment. Build trust. Have compassion. Give us professionals who can relate to our world.

It is a message folks such as Danielle German, Karin Tobin, Carl Latkin and Anthony Morgan are hearing loud and clear. By identifying and engaging young, well-connected advocates—think of it as finding the tipping point for MSM at risk for HIV—Karin Tobin says the prevention message can spread organically, from within the community. “We are all embedded within naturally occurring social networks; we are not only influenced by everybody we know, but we are influencing them,” says Tobin. “And so if we can train anybody within this network to educate others, they’re going to influence somebody else; it may well have a broader impact.”

Comments

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  • Mary M. Thomas

    Sch. of Public Health 10/03/2012 10:14:47 AM

    Well written and very informative. This is an mind opening article.

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