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HIV Education Outside of the Queer Community

Speaking as someone who came out relatively recently and late in life, one of the things I became acutely aware of in the past year is how little I knew about the current state of HIV care and prevention. I was vaguely aware it was no longer a death sentence but I will be honest that I knew nothing more than that.

Keep in mind I became a teen in the mid 80’s – when AIDS was all over the news. And for most who caught it, it was a grim death sentence. I don’t remember ever consciously thinking that could be me. But it’s so hard to imagine how I could possibly have failed to connect the dots at the very least subconsciously. In fact, I’ve wondered sometimes if my germaphobe nature wasn’t the result of being a child in the 80’s. When HIV/AIDS first came onto the scene there was so much misinformation and confusion about how it was transmitted.

But my interest in this post is more the current day. When I came out, I knew so little and set to the task of educating myself. Sometimes being a big nerd is a positive thing. And I learned about new-to-me concepts like U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) and about PrEP and PEP. And I felt woefully uninformed. I discovered I knew so little about those living with HIV or that there was anything besides condoms to stop the spread. I felt incredibly out of date. At first I chalked it up to my own shortcomings that I was so out of touch.

But then I started to realize it was more a reflection of the community I lived in. I remember listening to a Podcast where someone mentioned that they learned about PrEP from someone on a dating app only in the months after he had come out. And another man who around the time he came out had gone in for HIV testing despite never having had sex with anyone – as if HIV lurked in the air hunting gay men. And it might sound absurd but I think it says more about the state of HIV education outside of the queer community. Now I haven’t been in a school house in a million years but I recall seeing a lot of advertising about HIV and condoms in my youth and there seems to be little public health messaging about what constitutes safe sex practices these days? Is it just me? It’s as if in 1996 when there was finally a viable treatment HIV/AIDS fell out of sight for anyone outside the queer community. Because that was literally the scope of what I knew before sitting down to learn more.

And what really nudged me forward writing this was a recent news article about a young man who committed suicide due in some part to constant bullying by his peers in rural Arkansas.

She (his mother) explained: “He began to withdraw and late at night he started to hurt himself even to the point to go to the E.R.” Adding to Ethan’s stress “the local farm boys would say hateful things, they’d call him faggot, they’d stay away telling him he was gonna give them AIDS or die from it.,” she said. The rejection and bullying got so bad at the school that staff stepped in and put an end to it. “The school was so supportive, they even gave in-school suspensions, but then those boys, others, went on line and it got worse,” she told the Blade.

Excerpt from an article by Brody Levesque for the Los Angeles Blade

By no means am I suggesting that better HIV education would have been the thing that stopped the bullying. Education aimed at inclusivity would help but is sadly a bridge too far still in some places. But I did feel this sad story clearly illustrated that there’s a big void in what these kids know. That’s the sort of taunt a queer kid could have received 30+ years ago and it’s so out of place today. And it makes me wonder how many little gay boys growing up in unaccepting places fear the same things? I hope the internet has leveled the playing field a bit. It didn’t exist in my youth. There was no way to connect with others or learn anything that hadn’t made its way into books and popular media. How many depend on learning about PrEP, PEP, etc. from word of mouth from slightly more experienced queer youth?

And knowing how much trouble there is getting even basic straight sex education into schools in some places, I’m not sure this can be combatted locally. It feels like the sort of thing that needs public service messaging where today’s youth would see it. But I also think it belong in front of adults so that the ones who are willing to learn will not let their kids believe HIV is what it was in decades past.

In fact I dug up a couple of statistics that suggests it would benefit our straight counterparts as well.

What is already known about this topic?

Heterosexual sex accounts for 23% of new HIV diagnoses annually. Heterosexual adults are underrepresented in preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) research and campaigns. Increasing PrEP awareness and use in this population is needed to prevent HIV transmission and end the HIV epidemic in the United States.

What is added by this report?

PrEP awareness (32.3%) and use (<1%) among heterosexually active adults in high-prevalence cities is low, especially among Hispanic or Latino men and women (19.5% and 17.6%, respectively) and persons residing in Puerto Rico (5.8%).

From This 2019 CDC Report

So I was right that relatively few straight people are aware that PrEP exists. Yet at the same time a quarter of new diagnoses of HIV are among their ranks. So it would help us all if this information was more widely known.

I wish I could conclude with a great suggestion or some wise solution but mainly I wanted to highlight that as a newly out member of the queer/gay community I recognize that there’s a need for better HIV education not just for young gay men but for us all. Not only should young gays not be taunted with AIDS anymore it shouldn’t be necessary for every person living with HIV to educate the people they meet about the current state of things.

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