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Working against an epidemic

Young, gay black man preaches for safe sex

Tuesday, May 15, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lamar is a young, gay black man living in Pittsburgh. For some, those modifiers are enough to make the 20-year-old a marked man. So much so that Lamar asked that his last name not be used for this story.

If black gays don't have enough to worry about with rampant shame or homophobia -- both issues that can cause a crippling stigmatization in the black community -- they now have to face a growing threat of AIDS.

According to a study released in February by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a staggering one-third of young, gay, black males in large U.S. cities are infected with HIV. The study is more alarming because, in general, except among black males, HIV infections have become less common since the height of the epidemic in the 1980s.

Lamar said he was tested on World AIDS Day in December, and the results came back negative.

He learned the importance of safe sex when he was 16, and, he said, "repressing" his sexual attraction to men. Lamar had sex with a 17-year-old girl after smoking marijuana at a party.

The girl became pregnant and later had an abortion.

"That scared me because I was so young," Lamar said. "I knew about protection, but at the time, I just didn't think."

Lamar, who's now openly gay, would go on to have three relationships with males before moving in with his 34-year-old partner in East Liberty. With each partner, he said, he practiced safe sex.

He recently joined the Seven Project Inc., a Downtown organization that offers support services for black gay males and their families. Lamar coordinates its youth agenda and tries to educate others about risky behavior.

Impressed by Seven's grass-roots approach, he was inspired to do something he could be proud of. He's especially interested in reaching young people because he has younger brothers and sisters whom he'd like to see stay healthy.

He's concerned as well for other young, gay black males, who, he says, enter casual, one-time relationships based solely on physical attraction. "They see someone who they think is cute and all this and they think they must be [disease free]. They figure [the intercourse] is just one time and no harm will come of it.

"What they don't realize," said Lamar, "is that their partner could have already been with 10 different people."

According to Lamar, younger gays are preyed on by older gay men, who want to brag that they're the first to have sex with them.

Some of these young men are more likely to have risky sex, such as anal intercourse without condoms, which the CDC study confirmed.

Many health experts worry that such behavior is putting more gay, black teens at greater risk of being infected with HIV. If infection does occur, the problem is compounded because homophobia tends to keep gay blacks in the closet and avoid testing. Furthermore, the high costs of and suspicions toward hospital care keep many from seeing a physician as readily as their white counterparts.

All of these, the study suggests, are reasons that HIV infections among young, gay blacks hover at 30 percent. Among other gay males, the rate of infection is 3 percent for Asians, 7 percent for whites, 15 percent for Hispanics.

More than half of the 40,000 new infections annually occur among blacks -- numbers that are moving beyond the gay male population and affecting more women and young people.

Lamar hopes to get the word out that blacks, and especially gay black males, must change their behavior.

"A lot of teens in gay life feel they are too young to be in a committed relationship," he said. "So they are looking for casual sex.

"I want to tell them it's risky out there."

Lamar has his work cut out for him.

A dance he planned in early May at the Lincoln Park Community Center drew only a handful of people. He had hoped to use it to talk to teens and pass out fliers and condoms.

As he regroups, he'll continue fund-raising and seeking grants to support his efforts.

"I hope they listen," he said. "Being that I'm young they won't think I'm trying to boss them around. I'm just letting them know what's out there and that they need to protect themselves."

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