Between friends: real talk about health, friendship & HIV
By Randevyn Pierre MBA, CBE Southern Regional Coordinator
At some point, every young person struggles with issues related o identity. It’s been said that the energy and influence of the people around us have the ability to set the stage for how we live our lives. If there’s any truth to that notion, then a person’s friendships can influence their decisions and ultimately, shape who they become.
The bond of a friendship is special, mostly because it is formed, maintained and nourished by choice. When a disconnect exists among family, a bridge of strong friendships can carry people through difficult times – especially during the exploration of same-sex attraction.
Being a same-sex attracted (SSA) man of color adds quite a twist to the journey of self-discovery, as it is layered with even more challenges. In many instances, cultural barriers impact an individual’s comfort level in breaking through the surrounding silence about sex, sexuality and personal health.
Journey to Survival
Overcoming the mental, emotional and social barriers of understanding, accepting and settling into his or her own comfort level with personal sexuality can be a significant challenge. The next hurdle is just around the corner; becoming informed about risk factors related to sex and learning to put the information into consistent practice is an ongoing struggle for many SSA men of color.
Despite the visibility that surrounds global efforts to raise awareness about human immune deficiency virus (HIV), many youth in a recent study said they “rarely” or “never” saw or read any coverage about HIV within the past year. The minority gay and bisexual men interviewed, who are most likely to be infected, were least likely to report receiving sex education in school (National Survey of Teens and Young Adults on HIV/AIDS, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2012). Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 50 percent of teens are sexually active, the majority of states that do have sex education programs primarily focus on abstinence as a prevention tool, which fails to address teens who are sexually active.
There are very few spaces that offer helpful, inspiring and credible information relevant to the relational aspects of SSA life. Some of these important lessons include building functional relationships, taking responsibility for personal health, forming positive friendships, and effectively managing other social interactions – including intimacy and sex. As a result, many men will run toward the same bridge over troubled waters that helped them confront the challenges of facing their own sexuality – friends.
Because young, black SSA men face tremendous risk for contracting HIV within their immediate and extended networks, education about the statistics of sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and how they impact their community at face value are important.
Network of Knowledge
A conversation with two young friends – Aaron Prince and Mickyel Bradford, presents a clear picture of how plugging into a positive influence can help a person to stay informed, supported and held accountable for their choices.
After meeting at Georgia State University, Aaron, a nursing major and Mickyel, a psychology major, both hooked up with the school’s black, LGBT student group, “Black Out.” Their work with the college’s student organization gradually drew them closer.
Two years later, both young men have formed what could become a life-long bond. Aaron and Mickyel, along with their extended network of friends, have highlighted the need for caring for personal health and having safer sex, holding each other accountable for sexually-risky behaviors on a regular basis.
Sex During Adolescence
Randevyn: “As a teen, did you have unprotected sexual encounters prior to knowing about HIV?”
Aaron: “There [‘ve]’s been plenty of times where [when] I tried risky things without knowing it.”
Mickyel: “Between the ages of 12 and 15…I guess I’d say [I had] lots of sex for that age, but when I talk to other people, they were doing way more than I was, so I guess not so much. It’s hard to gauge. I don’t think I had penetrative sex until like, 18, actually.”
Randevyn: “At what point after learning more about HIV did your choices about safer sex change?”
Aaron: “It changed…when I caught it. I was involved with someone who I cared for and I thought cared for me. I don’t know if there’s ever an appropriate time not to use a condom. There’s a silver lining in it. It definitely makes you more alert and aware…and it forces you to do what you should have been doing to begin with. ”
Randevyn: “Mickyel, talk to me about how you see your risk for contracting HIV as a young, black, HIV-negative, same-sex attracted man.”
Mickyel: “I almost get this feeling that it’s inevitable.”
Aaron: “I don’t want to think like that…”
Mickyel: “I know…but it’s that looming feeling, like, ‘eventually, you’re probably gonna be HIV positive.’”
Research has indicated that young, SSA men of color are having their sexual debuts earlier on in life. Many of them don’t have the information they need to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases.
Negative experiences and attitudes about healthcare in general may affect whether SSA men of color are likely to receive high-quality healthcare services, including HIV testing, treatment and other prevention services (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011).
Furthermore, the lack of cultural competency among healthcare providers may contribute to feelings of discomfort and doctor-ditching in SSA men of color.
As a result, the sources from which SSA men of color receive their information about sexual health during their youth may not always be credible. It is critical that young people know where and how to find dependable data about their sexual health in order to survive the growing HIV epidemic that exists in their proximity.
A good start to increasing HIV awareness in communities of color may be to improve the relationships between black men and their healthcare providers. Stigma, homophobia and discrimination put SSA men of all ages and ethnicities at risk for various physical and mental health problems (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011).
Randevyn: “Talk about your perception of health and wellness growing up. Did you go to the doctor a lot? Did you have physicals often? If so, is this something you still do? What are your health practices?”
Aaron: “I was always really big on going to the doctor. Anything that was wrong with me, I went to go get it checked out. Maybe because I was neurotic like that. I find that most people in my peer group and in my culture are…very skeptical about doctors.”
Mickyel: “Because it’s not fun. You grow up, and your parents don’t even like being there. I definitely don’t like it…and I don’t like talking to my doctor, either.”
Aaron: “It’s not fun but…maybe it’s because we feel like he [the doctor] judges us.”
Mickyel: “…he does!”
Aaron: “Well, I’ve found a doctor that I’m comfortable with, so I don’t think he judges me, per se.”
Randevyn: “Is it more the experience – the environment at the doctor’s office, or talking to the doctor in person that adds to your negative feelings about healthcare?”
Mickyel: “It’s all of that. Going there, waiting, not knowing all these other people, not knowing what they are there for, if you can get anything from them…and then this person who is also like – a family doctor. I don’t want to tell him too much about my life. He asks me, ‘have you had sex with men?’ Mmmm….No.”
Aaron: [LAUGHS] “You don’t tell him [the doctor]?”
Mickyel: “I don’t tell him, cause I know I can take care of my own health. I get regularly tested, and I know my facts.”
Aaron: “I had a family doctor like that and he was the one who gave me the news…very monotone when he told me. No emotion. He was like, ‘you have it – deal with it.’ The doctor he referred me to takes very good care of me and I trust him… at one point, I was interested in dating and he [new doctor] mentioned that, ‘if you want, you can bring him [the boyfriend] in, we can talk to him about what the situation is…maybe get him started on drugs [Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis] if you guys are planning on having sex.’ He [new doctor] made me feel very at home about it.”
Mickyel: “I’d prefer a black doctor.”
Aaron: “Or a black, gay doctor.”
Mickyel: “…I’d open up to a black, gay doctor about any and everything.”
Aaron: “I feel like a black, gay doctor has been there, done that. They can give it to you as a doctor [and] as a black, gay male. They’re more relatable.”
Staying Safe and Healthy
Randevyn: “Mickyel, Tell me about your plan to remain safe and HIV negative.”
Mickyel: “My plan to remain HIV negative is…to always have condoms on me, and always use those condoms. I know there are some things I need to address for myself. Sometimes, I don’t like to use condoms when I engage in oral sex, but I should probably start doing that since there is still a chance [to contract HIV].”
Randevyn: “If there is a slip-up [unprotected sex], are you two comfortable holding each other and other friends in your circle accountable about being consistent with safer sex? What is that conversation like?”
Mickyel: “Oh, yeah.”
Aaron: “There’s a look we give each other…you better watch! We look out for each other.”
Randevyn: “It sounds like you guys have good relationships, and have the privilege of being connected to people who have at least some information about the disease [HIV], and care for each other. Aaron, tell me about your plan to remain safe and healthy.”
Aaron: “Well, stop smoking – which I’ve done. Keep on with the medication, work out, and try to educate others on Jack’d – one person at a time [laughs].”
For more information on how HIV impacts your community, view this CDC Fact Sheet.
Read more about the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation’s National Survey of Teens and Young Adults on HIV/AIDS.