This Friday is National Youth HIV & AIDS Day, a day to focus on talking, spreading awareness, and finding ways to get involved in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Getting involved extra important in 2015, because while there's been many gains against this disease in recent years, the truth is, HIV is still impacting young people at rapid rates.
“Nearly 10,000 young people were diagnosed with HIV in 2013,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a longtime activist in the fight against HIV/AIDS, told MTV News. “25% of new infections in 2010 were in young people ages 13-24. More than half of HIV positive young people do not know their status. Also, black youth accounted for 57% of all new HIV infections [in young people] in 2010. In 2013, only 85% of school health education programs covered HIV, and that’s a decline from 92% in 1997.”
24-year-old Brandon King, who is HIV positive, is part of AIDS Alabama’s ELITE Project to help gay men of color. King notes that one of the most frustrating things about the disease is that no one talks about it.
“I think it all starts with a conversation,” King told MTV News. “I think the conversation should come in a not-forceful way, but like, ‘Hey, I’m your homeboy. I’m your homegirl. I just want to watch out for you.’" Preaching, he says, isn't going to cut it.
Part of Congresswoman Lee's solution is pushing for comprehensive sex education in school. “I have legislation, H.R. 1706, and I’ve introduced it over and over again. I’m continuing to build support for it. I’d urge young people to go see their members of Congress, because we need strong grassroots support from people who can call their members of Congress and ask them to cosponsor this bill.”
King himself wasn’t thrilled with the sex education he received in school. He agrees with the Congresswoman about the need to switch up what we're doing for sex ed. “I know in our state, in Alabama, the last time I remember having sex ed class was middle school, like sixth or seventh grade,” he said. “In high school, you didn’t did get much of it unless you took the general health class. Even then all they taught you was abstinence. When I got to college, it was pretty much scare tactics from the health department.”
Part of King's job with ELITE is to find creative ways to talk to young people about HIV. "I go to the barber shop,” he said. “I’ll be in the chair and I’ll have a conversation with my barber and let him know what I do with my job and then he starts asking me questions and people overhear. The next thing you know, you’ve started a whole conversation about HIV in our community in the barber shop.”
Any conversation helps, and King says he likes seeing the media starting to take on HIV more--though many stories still aren’t be represented. He says he's noticed that many people assume that only certain groups contact HIV, which is simply not true. “I think shows like ‘How To Get Away with Murder’ and ‘Looking’ have done a great job of bringing HIV into the forefront,” he said. “I think we need more stories that cover the visibility of the spectrum, like stories of women with HIV, trans women with HIV, gay black men with HIV. If you’re trying to get the message out there, people have to relate to the message. There are so many more stories that need to be told, and I think they can start conversation and encourage people to get tested.”
“It’s important for young people to receive medically accurate and age appropriate information about HIV, and to get politically involved,” Congresswoman Lee said. “We need federal funding for a lot of these [sex ed] programs, and we’re not going to get federal funding if you don’t get your members of Congress to support the efforts of young people. I know for a fact that we want to see an AIDS-free generation. Young people can certainly get motivated and galvanized around this issue. Get people registered to vote and show up at the polls. Engage in peaceful protest. Don’t think if you voted one time, that’s it. Keep your issues in front of the Congress and local and state officials.”
King also thinks we need to get out there and take action. “I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to personally say something, even if you don’t know anybody who is positive,” he said. “Even if you reach one person, that’s a job well done.”
There's lots of misinformation going around, but you should know that HIV is treatable--it's now possible for those with HIV to live a long, healthy life. And the sooner you get to the doctor, the they'll be able to help you. There is no shame in buying condoms, getting tested, or asking your doctor for help.
For more information, visit It's Your Sex Life.