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Hub one of six sites in black male HIV study

Talia Whyte

African Americans continue to be hit the hardest by the AIDS epidemic nationwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks account for almost half of all Americans living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and they make up nearly half of new infections every year. Roughly one in 16 black men and one in 30 black women will be infected at some point in their lives.

However, health advocates are growing increasingly concerned about one specific high-risk group that research has shown to be most severely impacted by HIV — black men who have sex with men, or MSM. (The term “MSM” is used to broadly identify men who consider themselves gay or bisexual, as well as those who do sleep with men but don’t identify themselves as either, according to researchers.)

Seeking to target that group, The Fenway Institute and the Multicultural AIDS Coalition recently launched the Boston site for Project S.O.S. (Saving Our Selves), which will be part of a national study aimed at examining ways to address the high rates of HIV incidence among black MSM.

“We want to look at the reasons [why the rate of] HIV is so high among black men who have sex with men,” said Ben Perkins, director of the Project S.O.S. initiative at The Fenway Institute. “The hope is that the study will find innovative strategies to reach out to this group, while addressing a variety of needs.”

In addition to Boston, five other cities will participate in the study: New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Boston arm of the study will be conducted over the next two years by the HIV Prevention Trials Network, and is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

In Boston, 400 black MSM will be recruited for the study to identify better strategies related HIV testing, counseling, referrals and peer health navigation. Perkins also said that the study will take a holistic look at the lives and experiences of black MSM, and will encourage the men to also refer their sexual partners to participate in the study.

A December 2008 report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommended that the state step up its fight against HIV, especially among gay and bisexual men. The report showed that more than half of HIV infections diagnosed in the state between 2004 and 2006 came in this population, although less than 10 percent of men in Massachusetts admitted to having sex with other men in public health surveys.

For the last five years, the Men’s Action Life Empowerment (MALE) Center, a program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, has been a community resource for gay and bisexual men in Boston. Located on Columbus Avenue in the South End, the MALE Center offers information about sexual health, as well as a place where people can seek companionship.

“We wanted to have a storefront center where men could have a sense of community,” said Michael Shankle, the center’s director. “Many of the men who come here may feel isolated in their own communities, so many of them come here needing a social space outside of the bars and clubs. We have found that men don’t have many places to talk about issues affecting them in a nonjudgmental environment.”

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.”