The fight to reduce the disproportionate rate of HIV infections among young black men can come down to two solutions: reducing stigma and improving sex education. Those were the issues discussed at a forum in St. Louis over the weekend.
A 2014 documentary called “deepsouth” sparked a lot of the conversation among the public health care providers and HIV advocates who attended the forum.
The film features Joshua Alexander’s experience living with HIV in Mississippi and showed how societal expectations and health disparities rooted in poverty can contribute to the infection rate.
Alexander, who’s now an outreach specialist with Places for People in St. Louis, answered questions after the documentary was shown. He said his goal for the forum was to start breaking down homophobia.
“I want our educators, I want our politicians, I want our providers, doctors, nurses, to just do away with the biases,” Alexander said. “To understand how much of a problem it is to not get the proper education as children, to come into a society where you don’t know anything about condoms, you don’t know anything about STIs. That is a dangerous spot to put children in. And then after they’re infected with something, want to blame them for not having the education.”
Alexander said in some ways St. Louis is worse than Mississippi because, even though there are resources for HIV, the stigma against the virus is still strong.
“After we get the resources, we have to go back to the same state, the same drama, the same dilemmas that we were facing in the beginning, which means that really we’re in the same space but now we just have medication to deal with it,” Alexander said.
About 80 people took part in the forum, which was organized by Williams and Associates, an agency dedicated to eliminating minority health disparities.
Erise Williams, CEO and president of the agency, said the ideas raised at the forum will be compiled into a strategic plan.
“We are intricately involved in the Missouri state planning committee,” Williams said. “So we’ll share with our colleagues what we learned today and make that part of our state prevention plan.”
About 30 people took part in a youth track at the forum.
Youth track organizer Darius Rucker said it can be hard to get access to schools, so his agency felt it was important to include educators, parents and students in the forum.
“We’ve found in some of the schools there are not comprehensive sex education programs, where they’re actually able to understand what an STI is or understand what HIV is, or even how it can be contracted. I spoke to a couple of students a couple of months ago and [they said], ‘Oh, you can get it from kissing, right?’” Rucker said. “Kids internalize messages from adults, and so a lot of times those conversations aren’t had.”
Even though some St. Louis schools do an excellent job with sexual education and have active LGBT clubs, Rucker said that bullying and disproportionate school discipline can also be a problem.
“We want to unpack the reason for that, and what that looks like, and a lot of times it’s because of the homophobic systems that we have set up,” Rucker said.
According to a 2014 survey compiled by the Missouri Department of Education, less than 70 percent of Missouri middle schools teach students how people become infected with HIV. That’s down from 85 percent in 2008. The number jumps up to 93 percent by the time students reach high school.
Insufficient sexual education is also a problem among teenagers in East St. Louis, according to Montrelle Day, who works as an outreach specialist with the agency Writers, Planners and Trainers.
“They’re not learning (it) in schools, the parents are a whole other generation, they’re not teaching them at home, so they really don’t know anything. So, they’re coming into the world and all they know is sex. And they don’t know the safer parts about it,” Day said, adding that a lot of what he does is hand out condoms and explain what safe sex is.
An estimated 6,000 people are living with HIV on the Missouri side of the St. Louis region. That’s according to a 2014 report from the Missouri Health Department. Continuing the trend of the past few years, the vast majority of the newly diagnosed were black men.
The number of young people between the ages of 19 and 24 diagnosed with HIV went down slightly in 2014 to 62.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.