Harlem HIV Prevention Agency Targets Straight Black Men

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An HIV/AIDS prevention agency in Harlem has launched a new campaign concentrating on a demographic that is not normally targeted: black heterosexual men. Its campaign posters can be seen throughout Central Harlem, East Harlem and the South Bronx, where its other branches are located. The poster, illustrating a brawn, black male standing poised is currently stationed at several bus shelters in the city.

The campaign is sponsored by the Iris House, a community-based organization that meets the needs of women, families and at-risk communities infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. The goal of the heterosexual male targeted campaign is to increase awareness, shared sexual responsibility, openness and honesty, according to the agency.

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Though the 8-year-old agency was established to provide care for HIV-infected minority women, in October 2010, the Iris House decided to turn its focus to what Executive Director Ingrid Floyd called a “forgotten population.” Floyd said most HIV/AIDS programs target women or gay and bisexual men, but that the agency sought to “fill that gap,” by tailoring a program for black heterosexual men.

The campaign, dubbed “Keep It 100” is named after a commonly used phrase in the black community, which means to be honest.

The idea of targeting heterosexual men came about, after the agency analyzed data on their female clientele, which revealed that 90 percent of them said that they contracted HIV/AIDS from their male partners. Floyd said the Iris House decided to analyze the data after they noticed a pattern in its clientele and the national rates of women infected by men.

“We decided in 2008 when completing our strategic plan that we had to begin providing services for the men in their lives and in the community since no other places were targeting heterosexual men,” Floyd said.

“We wanted to figure out a way to engage the men in the prevention education so that we don’t just put the responsibility on the women.”

The black and Latino populations account for the highest rate of new infections per 100,000 people in the United States, according to 2009 federal data from the Centers for Disease Control. The center also cites New York as the state with the highest number of AIDS diagnoses. Among racial and gender demographics, black men accounted for the highest new infection cases, according to Centers for Disease Control data.

Central Harlem and East Harlem, where the Iris House does most of its outreach, have the second and third highest infection rate in the city, according to 2008 data from the New York City HIV/AIDS Annual Surveillance Statistics.

Patrick Wilson, a professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods like Central Harlem and East Harlem experience high rates of HIV/AIDS infections because of a prevalence in poverty, and socioeconomic disadvantages.

“People have less access to health care and HIV testing,” he said. Wilson said many members of the black community don’t have a desire to get tested because there is still a stigma of promiscuity that is lobbed with HIV/AIDS.

Nevertheless, Wilson cautioned that the high concentration of HIV infections among black, gay and bisexual men remains an epidemic in the community.

Among black men who have sex with men, there were more new HIV infections (52%) among young black men who have sex with men aged 13–29 years, than any other racial or ethnic age group, according to CDC data.

As a result, Wilson says, the Iris House should focus on black men in general, not just heterosexual men.

“Sexual identity is very fluid,” he said. “One can be gay today, and heterosexual tomorrow.”

Wilson said non-heterosexuality remains a stigma in the community, which may cause men not to disclose their sexual identity. For this reason, Wilson questions the effectiveness such a campaign could have, for the long run, in the community.

However, the Iris House also offers a program geared toward black men who have sex with men called d-Up!, a Centers for Disease Control approved intervention program. According to the agency’s website, d-Up! is designed to change social norms and perceptions of black MSM regarding condom use.

Men, both heterosexual and homosexual, report more negative attitudes about condom use than do women, according to data from the American Psychological Association.

Floyd said the Keep It 100 campaign and the agency’s other outreach programs stress the importance of partners engaging in healthy conversations about sex and their HIV status, “before going to the bedroom.”

“It’s the only way to make sure that you are being responsible for yourself,” Floyd said. “That’s the message we want people to get.”

Men who come to the Iris House are encouraged to participate in group workshops, where they are shown videos that encourage them to avoid unprotected sex and be honest about their sexual history with their partners. The agency also provides one-on-one counseling and free testing. Floyd said the Iris House does community outreach, and supplies free condoms to local barbershops, beauty shops, and local businesses.

The agency is also using technology as a means of marketing its Keep It 100 campaign. Around the city, the campaign posters feature small bar codes that can lead smart phone users to the campaign’s website. From there, Floyd says, they can get additional information about the program and its services.

The Iris House was established in 1993, and was named after an AIDS advocate who died of the disease in the 1980s. Until recently, the agency exclusively focused on infected women and their families. Within a year, Floyd said the Iris House hopes to have 75 to 100 men participating in the Keep It 100 one-on-one and group workshops.

The Keep It 100 campaign is funded by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention.

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