What should we be telling young gay men about HIV testing? And more importantly, who should be telling them? The answer should be simple — parents, schools and medical professionals — the same as for all young people. But are we adequately prepared?
Is our society ready to have “the talk” with a generation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth who are coming out younger and younger? If not, how do we get prepared? The data is clearly telling us that we’re currently failing young gay and bisexual men – especially when it comes to HIV.
Last Friday on National HIV Testing Day, Metro TeenAIDS released a report of our HIV testing efforts over the last year. During the period covered by the report we found 14 new positive young people: 12 who identified as gay or bisexual; two of them under 18.
In D.C., young men who have sex with men comprise about 50 percent of the new HIV cases among young people ages 13-19. But we know that that figure might be higher as about 60 percent of HIV-positive youth don’t know their status.
In the city with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the country, we could certainly be doing more. And yet, a recent report from the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE) showed that fewer middle school students reported getting HIV/AIDS education in 2012 than in 2007.
Ideally we parents and educators would be better at sex education but the reality is that we’re not. Most of us don’t even know what good sex education looks like because those awkward health classes and parental talks generally didn’t go so well for us. And, of course, most of those talks never focused on same-sex sexual activity.
While HIV may be more “manageable” than ever before, men who have sex with men (regardless if they identify as gay/bi or not) are getting infected at higher rates than everyone else. Investing in better quality sex education is not only a cost-effective way to keep people healthy but when we can prevent disease or identify it early, rather than treating people after they get sick, we all win.
Here are a few recommendations that I hope will help.
• Sex education needs to start at home, probably by fourth grade – before sexual activity starts and while your kids still listen to you – even if they act like they don’t.
• We need to make sure that LGBTQ young people feel accepted at home. Teens who perceive that their parents are supportive and involved not only feel more satisfied with their relationship but also tend to engage in fewer sexual risk behaviors, have fewer sexual partners and report more consistent condom use. This is a quadruple bonus for parents.
• We need to make sure that LGBTQ young people feel safe and accepted at school. We need to support the work of organizations like SMYAL that are trying to change the school climate by expanding Gay/Straight Alliances. When kids feel like they have people to stand up with them and for them, they are more likely to complete their education and take care of their health.
• Finally, once young people are sexually active, we need to make sure they know about HIV and STI testing as well as birth control. We shouldn’t assume they already know.
I recognize that sex education is not easy. Despite my day job, as a father I am plenty nervous about having “the talk” when my son is old enough. So like most of parenting, we need to get informed. We parents, teachers and doctors need to seek out the skills and information we need to ensure that we can provide all youth, including LGBTQ youth, with the highest quality sex education we can.
Dr. Anthony Fauci , Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has been saying that an AIDS-Free Generation is within reach. With the scientific breakthroughs over the last few years, we have the tools we need. But with 60 percent of youth with HIV unaware of their status we’ll have problems reaching our goal.
So let’s make sure that as we work to make sex education reflect the real needs of sexual minority youth we make sure we add HIV testing to “the talk.”
Adam Tenner is executive director of Metro TeenAIDS.