The eye-catching signs are hard to miss in subway stations across New York City. Headline "I Love My Boo," they show young Black and Latino men "booed up," or embracing their significant other -- in this case, another young brotha or papi. The campaign, developed by the GMHC, fights homophobia, increases visibility of gay men of color and encourages safe sex.
"It's about being responsible, getting tested, knowing your status, talking to your partner," says Francisco Roque, GMHC's director of community health.
Younger Black MSM Are Hit Hard -- and Often Unaware of Status
The messaging is timely. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study tested 8,153 gay and bisexual men -- men who have sex with men, or MSM, in public health jargon -- in 21 cities participating in the 2008 National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System. Nearly one in five tested HIV positive, and nearly half did not know their status.
Among African American MSM, the rates are much higher: 28 percent tested HIV positive, compared with 18 percent of Latino and 16 percent of white gay and bisexual men. Black MSM were also least likely to know that they had HIV: 59 percent were unaware, versus 46 percent of Latino MSM and 26 percent of white MSM. Lack of awareness among younger HIV-positive Black MSM was particularly startling. Under age 30, 71 percent of Blacks were unaware that they were infected.
In New York City, the overall HIV incidence among MSM was 10 percentage points above average, at 29 percent. And recent studies show HIV spreading there at three times the national average, with Black MSM "particularly at risk."
"There Are Brothas Who Wear Condoms -- and There Are Those Who Don't"
"We want to celebrate [the] community and find ways to empower Black and Latino men," says Roque of the latest "I Love My Boo" messaging (there was a previous campaign in 2008). "It's a social marketing campaign, tied into Facebook, and men can post pictures of their boos, to make it interactive. ... That's how we encourage testing and conversations about HIV/AIDS and sexual health."
Many challenges exist.
"This is what it boils down to: There are brothas who wear condoms, and there are those who don't," says New York City-based radio host and activist DJ Baker. Baker, who has been positive for 17 years, is well connected in the city's gay hip-hop scene and often discusses HIV/AIDS issues on his popular Da Doo-Dirty Show. "Many dudes are starting to develop reputations for preferring to do it raw," he adds, using slang for unprotected sex. "From what guys are saying, more brothas are getting tested. But many still are not. And many will not share their status if it's a hookup [not a relationship]. That means you have to have 'the conversation' and be responsible."
"I Love My Boo" poster model Derrick Briggs, a 29-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., activist and promoter, agrees. "Young men of color still have difficulty having that difficult conversation with strangers and/or lovers. More brothas are aware of the consequences but aren't always practicing safer sex."
"We're still uncomfortable discussing testing and our status, even when the other partner is HIV positive," Baker says. "It's the stigma."
Going Beyond Testing
"We need to start thinking more holistically," says Kirk Grisham, a 25-year-old researcher at Columbia University who is also an HIV/AIDS activist and writer. "We need to go beyond testing and provide tools and knowledge so that gay youth will act appropriately." Grisham tested positive in July 2009 and wrote an essay for ColorLines that has caused a buzz: "I Am HIV Positive and I Don't Blame Anybody -- Including Myself."
Just telling young gay and bisexual men to use condoms "isn't working," Grisham says. "And new research shows that Black men are using condoms," he adds. "Sure, we need to talk about concepts such as 'risk and safety' -- but also domestic violence, racism, poverty and self-esteem -- to empower young Black gay and bi men."
Briggs says the decision to pose for the campaign was not easy: "But I wanted youth to know they're not in this fight alone. And it's important to see a campaign displaying two regular-looking men loving each other."
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting and analysis have appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, ColorLines and other media.