Versus The Virus: Part 2

A man holding a red HIV/AIDS ribbon( — In late 2010, activists at the AIDS Service Center NYC (ASCNYC) realized that their support services for gay men with HIV were not doing enough. The center’s programs effectively taught middle-aged men–those who had lived with the virus for years and sometimes decades–how to cope with the side effects of their medicine regimens and prepare for visits to their doctors, as well as what to eat to avoid sickness. Meanwhile, young adults came to ASCNYC needing a different kind of support: a safe space where they could be themselves and come to terms with their newly HIV-positive status among understanding peers.

As a peer educator and mentor, Gary Sneed, 42, worked with both the older and younger men and saw the need for programs designed specifically for each group. With a handful of the young, male patients of color, Sneed founded Sexy With a Goal (SWAG) in October 2010. Within months, the program had grown to more than 70 members through word of mouth and social networking.

Many members of the group sport a silver-and-gold SWAG medallion on a chain around their neck, symbolizing the goals of empowerment and education. The original sits over Sneed’s broad chest as his voice booms through the small room in Manhattan’s East Village that SWAG calls home. Of those who attend the support groups, “not all are HIV positive,” Sneed said, “but all take it seriously. We all go through troubles in life, and sometimes you just want to vent. Talking to your peers works.”

SWAG’s support extends far beyond its East Village meeting room. Sneed tends to the young community through Facebook, text messages and safe parties across the city as much as he does through the in-person group sessions. He even hired some of the young members to facilitate SWAG’s thrice-weekly group meetings. After each session, Sneed hands out $4.50 MetroCards to those who need help getting home to distant parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx, where the subway tracks often end.

The outer boroughs are where the epidemic is spreading the fastest, say health officials. “The epidemic follows the A and C subway lines,” says Jeffrey Birnbaum, M.D., M.P.H., who founded and directs the Brooklyn-based HIV-prevention organization Health & Education Alternatives for Teens (HEAT). Those trains run through Brookyln neighborhoods that are home to large and culturally influential African American communities. “East New York, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville. That’s just where they live,” Dr. Birnbaum said.

In the past two or three years, young, gay men of color have displaced all other at-risk groups that HEAT treats. Dr. Birnbaum believes that HIV is spreading among young MSM of color for a number of complex reasons, one being the stigma associated with being Black and gay, a barrier that discourages many from getting tested. “Just walking in for care is a big issue. The issues around being Black and gay are very different than being white and gay,” he says.

Devon Boyd, a 23-year-old SWAG member, knows those issues well. East New York born and raised, Boyd was awaiting his HIV test results when Gary Sneed walked into the exam room, introduced himself and talked Devon into visiting SWAG. Devon’s HIV test was ultimately negative, but he still made the group a part of his life. “I make it to every meeting now. I feel more comfortable around them than I do with practically my own family,” said the accounting-and-finance student.

Nearly all of Devon’s friends are HIV positive. “Every time I turn around, a friend calls me and says, ‘Oh, I tested positive.’ And I’m like, what? We’ve just been through this.” He is worried most by the youngest generation of MSM, those like his 21-year-old brother, who walks in the ballroom voguing scene. These balls combine dance and homemade runway fashion–and offer one of the best opportunities for HIV-prevention specialists to promote 20-minute rapid HIV tests. “I see, like, 18-, 19-year-olds, and they have HIV, and I’m like, how? You’re so young. You haven’t even lived a full life yet,” he says.

Devon interprets the stigma around HIV testing and gay sexuality as a community’s way of dealing with racism and adversity, passed down through generations. “We are taught to be strong. You don’t talk about things like that; you internalize it. Our mothers and grandmothers were taught that anything like that, you just push it aside.”