There’s been a significant increase in Milwaukee County in the number of young, African-American gay men infected with HIV. The state Division of Public Health puts the increase at 144 percent over eight years. On Monday, there was a daylong conference in town about ways of reducing infection rates among young, black men. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports on efforts already underway to educate a demographic that can be difficult to reach.
The hallways at Diverse and Resilient on Milwaukee’s north side are lined with portraits. Each bears the face of a person diagnosed with HIV. In a meeting room, Executive Director Gary Hollander is scribbling notes on a large Smart Board. He and a couple others are strategizing about how to reach more young gay, African American men, to make sure they’re aware of the risk of HIV and AIDS.
“What’s coming to mind as some logical places to be going to or what have we already thought of?” Hollander asks.
“The first thing that comes to mind is the pageants and house parties,” Allen says.
Pageants, meaning drag contests held at nightclubs.
“There’s not a lot of places you can meet African-American gay or bisexual men,” Allen says.
That’s 24-year-old Christopher Allen. He’s one of dozens of black gay men the non-profit agency is training to go into the community to advocate safe sex and testing for the virus. Allen spends much of his time scouring Facebook and other social media, looking for house parties. He says they can be popular places to reach underage young people. The group also takes its message to the bars.
I stopped in a half dozen on Milwaukee’s near south side, including Fluid. It was noisy and packed, but I did not notice the younger demographic the agency is desperate to reach. Many patrons seem 40-something, including Maurice Perry. He suspects there probably are a lot of young, African-American gay men practicing unsafe sex because they feel invincible.
“They have this ‘no fear’ attitude. In the 80s, everyone was fearful and careful with different partners or just with having sex, period. Now if you ask a young kid, it’s scary because they feel that if they get it they can just take drugs and they’ll be fine,” Perry says.
Perry says he works in the medical field and it has made strides in creating drug cocktails to keep full-blown AIDS at bay. But he believes those advancements have given people in their teens and 20s a false sense of security.
I continued my way down the strip of bars looking to find young black men, and struck out at several places. Finally, at BTW, a nightclub in the Third Ward, I met 25-year-old Mark Patrick. He told me he was not aware that HIV infections have increased significantly among African-American gay men such as him. But Patrick guesses that a lack of education might be a contributor.
“I think in a young society, it’s okay to have unprotected sex and they don’t know the value of getting tested, wearing condoms and protecting themselves as well as your partner,” Patrick says.
Patrick says he came out when he was still in high school, and is grateful he’s had the support of family members.
“At first it was hard, but after a week or two they realized I was still me. They educated me. They still preach and tell me what I should do,” Patrick says.
And Patrick says, while he hasn’t had a partner in a long time, he gets tested frequently.
“I have had relationships in the past so I think every six months you should go. Even if you’re not doing anything, every six months, go get tested,” Patrick says.
Also here tonight is the owner of BTW, Dominic Kissinger. He says he usually stocks the restrooms with condoms and safe sex literature, but the supply has run out. In July, he plans to sponsor an event, aimed largely at younger people.
“Your hormones are going to get the best of you whether in college, high school, do it smartly. Yes, you can’t get anybody pregnant but that doesn’t mean you can’t get something that will eventually affect the rest of your life,” Kissinger says.
Kissinger says he will also ask a local STD clinic to provide onsite testing. Testing will be a key to bringing down HIV numbers, according to Diverse and Resilient’s Gary Hollander.
“At Pride Fest we tested eight times the number of African-American men who got tested there. One of the fundamental pieces of reducing transmission rates is for gay and bisexual men to know their status,” Hollander says.
Because then, Hollander says, they can adjust their behavior so they don’t infect others and seek medical treatment. The Centers for Disease Control recently granted Milwaukee $4 million to continue prevention efforts. Hollander says his group eventually plans to reach out to other parts of the population, including older gay, black men.