Versus the Virus: Part 1

hiv ribbon( — Forgiveness was the day’s Word of Wisdom, and Elery George sat next in line. “I forgave the person that gave it to me,” he said, “My boyfriend at the time. He was 30 and I was 19.”

The group looked on, silent as Elery paused to gather himself, taking the hand of his close friend Andre, whose earrings and lipgloss sparkled in the setting afternoon sun.  A handful of the tense young men had already shared their stories, seated around the room’s perimeter in black folding chairs. “Every day I think about it, but I’m not what I used to be. I used to cry about it all day long, but I’m stronger now,” said the 24-year-old, holding back his tears, lifting his head a little to reveal a wide smile. A silver and gold medallion hung from a chain around his neck, spelling out SWAG, for Sexy With A Goal, like an inner city badge of honor. All but recent additions to the eponymous support group wear the necklace. It matches their stylish haircuts and manicured fingernails, their posh clothing and the gems on their earlobes. Yet for Elery and most of the other young men in the room, this membership comes with a lifelong fee: the HIV virus.

SWAG is one of several new groups in the city providing a peer-to-peer forum on sexual health for a community of young gay men badly in need of help. During the worst periods of the HIV epidemic in the late 1980s, intravenous drug users and gay white men led rates of infection and diagnosis, before improved testing and needle exchange programs cut transmissions through drug use by 80 percent. Today, men who have sex with men – or MSM – still make up a majority of the newly infected, but over the past several years, a significant shift in the demographic most at risk has heaped growing pressure on the youngest generation of the gay community.

For the first time, new HIV transmissions among Black MSM have outpaced those of gay whites, the most recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Among gay men in New York City, Black men aged 13-29 lead all other demographics in new infections, according to New York Department of Health statistics released in 2010.

As funding cutbacks loom in a post-recession economy, health officials are struggling to build programs that encourage testing and prevention in the tough neighborhoods the youth call home. In the boroughs hardest hit, some HIV prevention specialists will soon be forced to reduce their outreach services. Cuts to the state budget could meanwhile cut the number of beds in New York City shelters for LGBT adolescents and young adults by a third. The young men at SWAG have banded together to educate their peers and bridge the HIV/AIDS awareness gap within Generation Y. They return to their neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, empowered with the tools to erase the stigma of being young, Black and gay in the epicenter of the epidemic.