In the fight for YMSM lives, will we help – or hurt?
A CDC report released today shatters the myth that young men of color are irresponsible with sexual health. The report, which examined the HIV risk behaviors of young men who have sex with men (YMSM), found that YMSM of color showed fewer risk behaviors than white YMSM. YMSM of color are less likely to be using drugs or alcohol, and more likely to use condoms, than young white men.
Even though many Black YMSM are being responsible for their individual health, they face the highest risk of HIV and account for the majority of HIV cases among YMSM. Because of higher rates in Black communities, the potential partners of Black YMSM are more likely to be HIV positive. Further, Black men who are HIV positive are less likely afford insurance coverage and therefore have less access to treatment – which can not only put their health at risk, but make them more likely to transmit the virus. Lower income and higher rates of unemployment and incarceration also contribute to the HIV epidemic among Black MSM.
Sexual health is inextricably entwined with social, economic, and educational opportunities. Young men who have sex with men face challenges in a world that continues to ignore their needs. YMSM of color carry the additional burden of the oppression and disparity wrought by racism. While many clearly are doing their best to protect themselves from HIV and STIs, they can’t do it on their own. They need our help.
Ending the HIV epidemic among YMSM will take an all-hands-on-deck approach. Sexuality education that includes information for YMSM is vital. Programs must go beyond simple messaging; they must build interpersonal and concrete skills like condom use and talking about HIV with a partner. These programs must not stigmatize young gay and bi-sexual men, but must affirm them and address their real-life experiences and challenges.
Health care, including HIV testing, prevention, and treatment, must be accessible and affordable to all. And YMSM must be safe – safe in schools, in homes, in communities. Homophobia, stigma and other forms of discrimination endured by YMSM of color further exacerbate the sexual health risks they face.
We must stand alongside YMSM of color as they take steps to protect their health and lives.