Despite recent medical and social advances, HIV continues to be a serious issue in the United States and DC in particular. What we see today is that although anyone can be affected by HIV, certain populations and sub-groups continue to be affected disproportionately. According to CDC data, in 2015, Latinx people accounted for about one quarter of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States, despite representing just 18% of the population.
DC’s HIV care and prevention services are arguably the most comprehensive in the country, and yet we continue to see the rates of new infections climb in the Latinx community, particularly among youth between the ages of 13-24 and Latinx men who have sex with men (MSM). From 2011 to 2015, HIV diagnoses increased 19% among young Latinx gay and bisexual men, which begs the question: how can we serve this population better?
The Latin American Youth Center (LAYC), which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, is a DC-based organization actively making a difference. Here at LAYC, we work to empower a diverse population of youth to achieve a successful transition into adulthood through multicultural, comprehensive, and innovative programs that address youths’ social, academic, career and health needs.
We offer our HIV, STI, and pregnancy testing services within the safe and comfortable confines of our youth center. Our testing program helps many young people get a foot in the door and they appreciate being able to get their sexual health needs met in the same place they come to for after school programming. Our multicultural and bilingual counselors are all close in age to the youth we test, helping to develop a rapport with our clients. We always educate our clients about PrEP and PEP, offer free condoms, dental dams and lubricant, and of course, all of our materials and services are available in both English and Spanish.
We also recognize that the most vulnerable in our communities face additional barriers when it comes to accessing care. This is especially true among undocumented Latinx immigrants, many of whom live in the shadows, under the perpetual fear of arrest and deportation. With these challenges in mind, our outreach team makes it a priority to meet the youth where they are and to educate young people about the legal rights they are entitled to exercise when confronted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Service accessibility is a top priority for us. In the past year, we have conducted outreaches in numerous DC public schools, youth centers and even on densely populated street corners, armed with our mobile testing unit! When it comes to reaching the MSM and LGBTQ communities, our strategic partnerships with SMYAL and Empodérate have been especially impactful.
Due to these partnerships, we were able to test 1,197 young people in FY18, 34 percent of whom identified as Latinx.
HIV has always represented a moral issue because it disproportionately affects the most marginalized members of our communities. Given the impressive medical advances in the field, it is no longer HIV itself that claims lives, but rather the stigma and discrimination that accompanies the virus. Fear of HIV is strong enough to prevent people from getting tested, but not strong enough to stop people from having unprotected sex.
The fight against HIV depends upon us shifting the culture in the direction of love and acceptance, and we believe this can be achieved one conversation at a time. Our work at LAYC is focused on creating and maintaining safe spaces for youth to access the information and resources they need live happily and healthy. We aim to empower the young people we serve to move through the world with confidence, connection, and purpose, so they can become the leaders their communities need them to be.