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Hub one of six sites in black male HIV study

Talia Whyte | 8/26/2009, 5:22 a.m.

In addition to free, confidential and rapid HIV testing on site, users of the center can also participate in one-on-one or group counseling sessions and workshops dealing not only with sexual health, but also other issues affecting their lives, such as mental health and drug treatment.

Shankle said that most of the staff is trained specifically to work with the gay and bisexual population, and that the MALE Center is the only agency in the state that offers HIV testing on evenings and weekends to accommodate those with hectic schedules.

Dishon Laing, the center’s outreach and education coordinator, said he spends much of his time talking to young men in Dudley Square and other areas about sexually transmitted diseases and handing out free condoms. He said he has found that going out and directly forming relationships with the men he encounters — and more importantly, especially with the younger men, earning their trust — has been key in making sure that his message of safe sex is received positively.

Although he said he has reached out to over 35,000 men in the last year alone, Laing admitted that the outreach work at times has its barriers.

“It is hard sometimes to get people to talk because men in general — gay or straight — don’t like talking about their sexual health,” Laing said. “There is also still a lot of stigma around homosexuality in the community, so there are still men who are very closeted about their sexual behavior.”

In recent years, some members of the faith-based community have led efforts to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV, AIDS and homosexuality. One such effort is Dorchester’s Healing Our Land Inc., a faith-based nondenominational nonprofit organization helmed by the Rev. Franklin Hobbs that educates clergy and congregrations about HIV/AIDS. Founded in 1998, the organization has mobilized discussions on HIV and other health-related topics and sponsored rapid HIV testing at community events, including this coming weekend’s Caribbean Carnival in Franklin Park.

Hobbs said he feels that the hurdles to effectively addressing the HIV crisis exist not only among gay black men, but in the black community as a whole. And the first steps toward leaping them, he added, will have to be made in the black church.

“It is vital that the faith community starts dealing with this problem,” Hobbs said. “When it is your brother or sister in the congregation dying from this disease, you have to think differently about it.”