Homelessness, poverty, homophobia. It can be a deadly trifecta and for a growing group of young gay and bisexual men these are the chief reasons behind a sudden rise in HIV infection rates.
“If we are not willing to provide housing to our homeless LGBT youth then we are consenting that they will be infected with HIV,” said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center in New York.
Siciliano’s blunt statement was one of several observations made on the current state of affairs by a panel brought together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The discussion titled, “Combatting a Resurgence of HIV among Young Gay Men,” featured Siciliano, Jeff Krehely of the Human Rights Campaign, Daniel Driffin from the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition and Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS. It was moderated by MSNBC anchorman Thomas Roberts.
"In recent years there seems to be a decline in the sense of urgency, but the threat remains real,” said Mermin.
According to the CDC, gay and bisexual men ages 18-24 represent nearly one-third new HIV infections in all gay and bisexual men. That’s a 22 percent increase in new infections for the age group in recent years.
Krehely, whose organization has been successful in fighting for marriage equality across the country, said it was time to recommit to fighting HIV/AIDS.
“We really have to start paying attention to this issue again,” said Krehely.
Blacks represent the largest number of new infections, 55 percent overall. Driffin said race, religion and drug use are key factors in the young gay black male community.
“Young black men take more risks,” he said. “The amount of drug use is ridiculous. It’s an escape for them from the hard part of their life.”
That hard part, Driffin said, often comes from a church that does not accept a young man’s sexuality.
“Everything, especially in the rural south, has a level of religion and spirituality to it,” Driffin said. “A lot of people still believe (homosexuality) is a sin and there’s no fixing it.”
During the course of the hour and half discussion, the panelists agreed more resources needed to be committed to testing, counseling and other efforts to fight poverty. Siciliano was by far the most passionate in making his case to bring LGBT youth off the streets.
“The biggest thing that impacts substance abuse is housing,” said Siciliano, who estimated 20 percent of the homeless LGBT youth in New York are HIV Positive. “When these kids are on the streets they are self-medicating to battle depression and having survival sex.”