Where are the Youth Voices in the AIDS Fight?

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It was fifth grade sex education class during the mid-1980s where I first learned about straight sex. It was day one of our seven-day special "sex ed" program. After all the slips had been signed by our parents -- and our teacher made clear that only the reproductive function of sexuality, not the pleasurable side, would be discussed -- my teacher told us about the "birds and the bees." It was on day three that they showed us a video on AIDS. Our class was the first to receive information on the relatively new disease. On day five, in a question and answer period, a student asked about how gay men have sex. It was then that I learned about the kind of sex that was the kind I wanted to have.

For my generation of queer men, AIDS has been an integral part of our sexuality from the very realization of that sexuality. We came out and came into a community where a great portion of a generation of our peers had perished and perish still. Our newspapers are filled with articles about it, our movies and plays are preoccupied with it, and it is so common for the first response to young gay men when they come out to be, "you better have safe sex."

If our identity is made in part by our community's history then AIDS is a part of us all, HIV-positive and --negative alike. One would think that we would be a generation of activists but this, sadly, is not the case.

Last year at the AIDS Candlelight Vigil I remember looking out into the crowd, searching to find young faces and seeing so few there. Unlike the candlelight vigils I attended for the September 11 victims or the anti-war protests that followed, the AIDS vigil seemed overwhelmingly lacking in youth.

Young people are commonly leaders in the areas of activism. Sadly enough, however, AIDS activism seems to be lacking in youth.
If our identity is made in part by our community's history then AIDS is a part of us all, HIV-positive and --negative alike. One would think that we would be a generation of activists but this, sadly, is not the case.

This disease is clearly not isolated to older people. Young people are still contracting the virus at alarming high rates. Study after study has shown this. Perhaps it is the fact that many young people who contract HIV don't know that they have, and often HIV does not develop into AIDS until they are beyond youth.

Some youth might be under the wrong impression that AIDS is not something that affects us. Part of the reasoning could even be that we have grown up in a world where AIDS is so very prevalent. Perhaps young people have become desensitized.

Truly I am unsure what the real cause is. But the fact is that AIDS is still here and still predominantly queer. Studies show that in San Francisco roughly 80 percent of new HIV cases occur in men who have sex with men.

Queer youth, positive and negative alike, have a responsibility to do something about it.

What is perhaps most frightening is that without youth active in AIDS work, the ideas of youth will not be heard. The problems of young people who are positive will not be considered. Prevention strategies will be based on ideas that are not our own and therefore will be unsuccessful. As young people we have our own experiences and culture, one that is markedly different than the generation before us. Perhaps this lack of voice within AIDS activism is in part the reason why the disease is spreading so swiftly among us. It is therefore equally important that adults involved with AIDS education and activism listen and give value to those opinions and experiences of young queer men.
What is perhaps most frightening is that without youth active in AIDS work, the ideas of youth will not be heard.

The lack of youth activism is in no part due to a lack of programs with which young people can get involved. There are many wonderful ways for young people to get involved with AIDS activism. Bay Area Young Positives is a service providing peer-based support for HIV individuals 26 and under. You can contact BAY Positives at (415) 487-1616. LBGTQQ youth 23 and under can also get involved in LYRIC's peer health educator program. The program works to help queer youth develop health workshops for other youth. Interested individuals should contact Joe Ereneta at Joe@Lyric.org. The Stop AIDS Project runs an AIDS education program called Q Action for youth 26 and under. For information on this call (415) 575-0164.

One of the best ways to get involved with AIDS action is simply to pick among the many AIDS organizations in the city and begin volunteering. No matter what your interests, from helping to take care of pets to staffing a phone hotline, there most likely is an AIDS organization that is perfect for you. A great way to find out about volunteering for these organizations is to go to the Coalition of AIDS Volunteer Managers Web site at http://www.cavmbayarea.org.

As rates of HIV infection amongst queer youth climb, now is the time for resurgence in AIDS activism within the same group. Now is the time to act.

Ned Howey is 23 years old. He is the volunteer/outreach coordinator of PAWS and the coordinating committee director of Q-Force. Generation Q is a weekly colum in the Bay Area Reporter written by LBGTIQQ youth.
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