For more than 20 years, Philadelphia FIGHT has been confronting HIV on its own terms: providing not just primary care for HIV-positive folks but emotional health services, outreach to local communities—even a free library devoted to HIV/AIDS information. This year, as part of its AIDS Education Month, the organization— in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—is continuing a new tack it first tried in 2013: It’s offering free tickets to “Hip Hop for Philly,” a concert at the Trocodero featuring top-charting rapper Wale and emceed by Power 99’s Mikey Dredd.
Here’s how that works: Throughout June, teenagers and young adults aged 13 to 24 have been invited to get tested for HIV for free, at any of half a dozen locations around the city. If they do so by this Friday, June 27, they can receive tickets to the 7-to-11pm concert, which is later that night. (Get an HIV test at participating locations, and you're also automatically entered into a raffle for tickets to see Beyonce and Jay Z at Citizens Bank Park on July 5.)
Last year’s show proved a success: More than 1,200 young people were tested for HIV. This year, says Tiffany Thompson, the program director for FIGHT’s Youth Health Empowerment Project, the effort is growing more widespread. “It’s something that other cities have been doing to get young people tested,” she says. “A concert is just a great incentive. A lot of the people we tested [last year], it was the first test that they’d ever had.”
HIV incidence in young people is high and rising, she says—particularly among young people living in urban environments. “Those,” she points out, “are the individuals who listen to hip-hop.”
The way the event has been promoted, it’s specifically targeting young African American men. That’s a step in the right direction for Philadelphia HIV outreach, considering who’s statistically most at risk of contracting HIV these days.
And yet it’s impossible to avoid noting that the campaign is not specifically targeting gay or queer people. That? That’s a little more complicated.
More than 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS in the United States. Here in Philadelphia, the number is about 20,000—just over 1 percent of the city’s population. Most affected by the virus, according to the national Centers for Disease Control, are men who have sex with other men.
While the CDC says that only about 4 percent of the American population falls into that class—which it broadly labels with the clunky acronym “MSM,” including self-identified gay and bisexual men as well as others—these men make up over half of the existing HIV-positive population in the U.S. What’s more disturbing, though, is that America’s youth are the ones bearing the brunt of new infections.
Young men who have sex with other men are particularly affected by HIV. And, if you break down age groups by race, young African American men who have sex with other men are the group most affected by HIV.
The number of new infections isn’t decreasing, either. It’s consistently stayed static, or gone up, for years—despite years of simultaneous effort by activists, organizations and various levels of government to make it drop.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Thompson cites a lack of proper sexual health education among urban youth, along with socioeconomic barriers to healthcare. And that just begins to scratch the surface of an American society that neglects to properly fund public education in urban areas; an American culture that hasn’t seemed terribly invested in reflecting an honest awareness of the life experience of people of color; and an African American church culture that’s been slow to shed dogmatic homophobia.
Ernest Coston, a 37-year-old Philadelphian of color, agrees. “There’s [existing] barriers in place, sure,” he says. Because of those institutional barriers, he suggests, folks stepping up and educating themselves is key to preventing HIV.
Coston, as a hip-hop fan and an alumnus of the Philadelphia school system (he graduated from Audenreid), notes that “the hip-hop community and culture has definitely gotten to know more bout HIV and homophobia over the past three to five years.” He thinks that’s a good thing. “We have to be educated,” he says—“but even more, we have to be honest with ourselves. There are a lot of men in the black community who don’t want to get tested, or they sleep with the same sex and don’t want to tell their girlfriends, and so on.”
To Coston, honesty means getting tested and taking care of yourself—no matter what the result might be. More importantly, it really is something for everyone: gay, straight or whatever. Getting an HIV test, he says, is a no-brainer. “HIV is far from a ‘gay disease’ anymore,” he says. “If you are sexually active, then you should get tested. Period.”
Can this month’s free-Wale-concert-driven outreach campaign have a substantial impact on HIV awareness or the HIV acquisition rate? It’s too early to say. It’s clear, though, that it’s exactly the type of approach we need if we want to stop this virus from stubbornly continuing to affect Americans.
HIV/AIDS has been around for 30 years now. It will continue to be around, too, as long as we don’t talk about it enough. After all, the CDC also says that one in six Americans living with HIV/AIDS don’t even know it—because they’re not getting tested.
The only way we’re going to stop this virus is by confronting HIV on its own terms and targeting those folks most affected by its spread. Get tested, know your status, and take ownership of your health; for nobody else will. The past three decades have shown that to be true.
Step up and be counted, Philly. It’s your life.
Josh Kruger’s PW column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” recently won the state Society of Professional Journalists’ 2014 Spotlight Award for best weekly newspaper commentary. He also blogs daily at PW’s PhillyNow.com on various topics, including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and all those jawns.