The program has four main goals: increase access to HIV prevention programs for gay and bisexual men; increase linkage to care and other supportive services to gay men living with HIV; increase individual awareness of the urgency of HIV/AIDS through social marketing; and increase partnerships for community mobilization with non-profits, faith-based organizations and for-profit businesses.
At a Sept. 24 town hall forum to launch the “Taking Control” program that was emceed by Melissa Carter, lesbian co-host of Q-100’s The Bert Show, panelists discussed some of the reasons why gay and bisexual men of color are at highest risk for contracting HIV.
For example, black gay men tend to have smaller social networks and have sex with men within this smaller group, said Rashad Burgess of the Capacity Building Branch of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD & TB Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. And if one person is infected in this smaller network, it is easier for the virus to spread, he explained.
One attendee noted that the religious leadership in the African American community oftentimes condemns homosexuality, which leads to a self-hatred and an attitude of “I’m going to hell anyway” so there is no reason to be safe or get tested for HIV.
In rural parts of the state, being openly gay is still frowned upon, said Isaac Kelly, president of Augusta Pride, who has been HIV positive for five years. At Augusta’s first Gay Pride this year, Kelly said many LGBT people he knew did not attend because of fear.
Latinos are often left out of the conversation of HIV prevention, said Giovanni Nieves, a gay Latino activist.
“Why don’t they come to the Latino community? We have festivals and events but I have never seen [HIV prevention advocates] there. We have a lot of ignorance in our community,” Nieves said.
First for state
While the numbers should not be surprising or shocking to people who follow HIV/AIDS data in Georgia, the fact the state is funding a program that directly addresses the issue among gay and bisexual men is a major step.
“I do applaud the folks in the HIV section for stepping forward on this. Having been here for 20 years working on this, this is the first time I can recall the state of Georgia has focused a campaign where it actually talked about gay men as gay men,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.
“I hope the leadership in the state will continue to support them so they can be effective. And I hope all of us see this as a beginning and not a one-time opportunity.”
Greg Bautista of the DCH HIV Unit said the program is intended to shine a spotlight on the urgency of finding ways to eliminate new infections and to speak directly to gay and bisexual men in a language they understand.
“We are now embracing the urgency as well as the optimism of what we can do,” he said. “And we also want to address the reality of approaching strategically in a way that resonates with gay and bisexual men.”
This includes going to bath houses and online sex chat rooms, and using terms like barebacking and cruising.
“Our response is to be non-judgmental and listen to the broad spectrum of preferences gay men have and tailor our programs to them,” Bautista added.
HIV and AIDS cases in Georgia
The CDC reports HIV infection rates among gay men are more than 44 times higher than among heterosexual men.
• In 2008, there were nearly 3,000 new HIV infections in Georgia.
• In 2007, Georgia ranked eighth in the nation for cumulative AIDS cases. A year later, the state jumped to sixth place for cumulative AIDS cases with 38,300 (cases reported since data started being tracked in the early 1980s).
• 55-61 percent of all new HIV or AIDS cases reported in Georgia are among men who have sex with men (MSM).
• African-American gay and bisexual men account for 63 percent of HIV and AIDS cases in Georgia while African Americans comprise only 28 percent of the state’s population.
Source: Georgia Department of Community Health
Top photo: HIV activists (from left) Mark Colomb of My Brother’s Keeper, Terrance Moore of the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors and Rashad Burgess of the CDC, participate in a panel as part of the state Department of Community Health’s new initiative, ‘Taking Control.’ (by Dyana Bagby)