What should we be telling young gay men about HIV testing? And more importantly, who should be telling them? The answer is simple – parents, schools and medical professionals – the same as for all young people.
But this might still be a tall order, despite our shifts in acceptance of LGBTQ people. While some folks may be prepared to attend a lesbian co-worker’s wedding, is our society really ready to have “the talk” with a generation of youth who are coming out at younger and younger ages? The data is clear that we should be.
As a city we’ve done a good job of increasing HIV testing, but we can do more. In Washington, D.C., young men who have sex with men have consistently made up about 50 percent of new HIV cases (among young people ages 13-19). At Metro TeenAIDS our HIV testing efforts over the last year found 14 new positives: 12 identified as gay or bisexual; two of them were under 18.
Ideally we parents and educators would be better at these conversations but the reality is that we’re not. In fact, most of us don’t even know what good sex education looks like – especially as it relates to LGBT youth.
In the city with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the country, we should 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 than even five years ago.
I have a few recommendations that I hope will help.
• Sex education needs to start at home, probably by fourth grade. This means schools and pediatricians ought to have more resources to give to parents.
• We need to make sure that LGBT young people are accepted at home. Teens who perceive that their parents are supportive and involved are not only more satisfied with their relationships but they also tend to engage in fewer sexual risk behaviors, have fewer sexual partners and report more consistent condom use.
• We need to make sure that LGBT young people are accepted at school. We need to support the work of organizations like SMYAL, which are trying to expand Gay/Straight Alliances in schools. When kids feel like they have people to stand up with them and for them, they are more likely to stay in school.
• Finally, we need to keep the pressure on schools and the city to ensure that we have high-quality sex education that includes relevant information for LGBT youth.
Despite my day job, as a father I am already nervous about having “the talk” with my five year old. This stuff is just not that easy. That said, getting tested for HIV and STDs is certainly on the list of things to discuss.
Adam Tenner is executive director of Metro TeenAIDS.