Erik Perel  /  AP
Jonathan Perry, 27, a senior at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., talks about his experiences as an HIV-positive student during a recent campus interview. Perry, who found out he is HIV positive in 2001, spends much of his free time trying to counsel his peers about safe sex.
updated 3/22/2004 2:23:34 PM ET 2004-03-22T19:23:34

Many historically black colleges are stepping up safe-sex education in response to health researchers’ finding of a spike in HIV infection rates among black students more than 20 years into the AIDS epidemic.

Experts attribute the rise to a potent mixture of recklessness, homophobia, lack of information and denial — and colleges are increasingly looking to honest talk by students like Jonathan Perry as part of the solution.

“It’s affecting the future,” says Perry, who is openly gay and HIV positive. He speaks at campus forums on the issue, including a “Stomp Out HIV/STDs” conference this weekend sponsored by North Carolina’s 12 minority-serving schools and the state Division of Public Health.

Perry, a senior at historically black Johnson C. Smith University, understands how the infection may spread rapidly: Despite common knowledge of his own HIV-positive status, he says, men claiming to be heterosexual have sought to have unprotected sex with him.

“They feel like they’re being robbed, they’re being stripped of their masculinity” if they acknowledge that they’re not purely heterosexual, Perry says.

More HIV infections than expected
North Carolina researchers found 84 newly infected male college students over the past three years, 73 of them black — representing 20 percent of the state’s new HIV infections among 18- to 30-year-olds.

The study found HIV infection among male college students jumping from six cases in 2000 to 30 in 2003. Although the numbers are small they are worrisome because they are higher than expected.

The cases were linked to 37 North Carolina colleges; up to a dozen additional cases involving partners of the North Carolina students were found at schools in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.

This was the first documented outbreak of HIV on U.S. college campuses. The increase was first noticed in late 2002, and officials now believe it began in mid-2001 and is continuing.

The high rate of HIV infection among U.S. blacks has been one of the most striking difficulties of AIDS prevention. Making up 12 percent of the population, blacks account for 39 percent of AIDS cases and 54 percent of new HIV infections. Among black men, like whites, the leading cause of infection is sex with other men.

In the North Carolina study, 67 of the 84 HIV cases involved black men who have sex with other men, but don’t identify themselves as either gay or bisexual. Of those, 27 said they also had sex with women.

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“And more importantly, they don’t consider themselves to be at risk for HIV,” says Dr. David Jolly, an assistant professor of health education at North Carolina Central University.

He added: “We’re not getting the message to these guys in an effective way.”

Jolly and others wonder whether there is a cultural element to this outbreak. Many point to a 2002 incident at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, in which a student attacked another with a baseball bat for allegedly staring at him in the shower, as evidence of anti-gay sentiment in the black community.

“We know that it’s very hard for young, gay men — period,” says Jolly. “But it’s particularly hard for young, gay men of color to be out and be comfortable being out, being public about who they are. So it’s not terribly surprising to me that a lot of these guys do not identify as gay or bisexual. It’s not a very safe and accepting environment for many of these guys.”

Erin Bradley, a junior at Atlanta’s all-female Spelman College, says that creates a dangerous atmosphere for women because they have no idea that their boyfriends could also be having sex with men.

“Within the black community, homosexuality is not something that is welcomed or even spoken about in general,” says Bradley, who says she practices abstinence. “It’s not seen necessarily as a problem. Or if it is a problem, it’s real hush-hush.”

Dr. Peter Leone, the lead researcher on the North Carolina study, says this outbreak has implications beyond college campuses in the South. He said there could be “a resurgence of HIV in young, black men. So it’s really a wake-up call.”

Leone, HIV medical director at the state health department, says the federal government isn’t doing enough to study the phenomenon or halt its progression. The region’s black institutions are stepping in.

'This is your life'
The Morehouse School of Medicine has held HIV education sessions with black women in the Atlanta area and intends to do the same with black men. At nearby Spelman, incoming students get HIV education with their orientation from Bradley and about 40 other specially trained students who belong to SHAPE — Student Health Associates and Peer Educators.

“We try to teach everyone to just protect yourselves,” the Columbus, Ohio, native says. “Because you can ask, and they can lie. ... We focus on, ‘This is your life.”’

In North Carolina, Project Commit to Prevent was established to educate students at the minority-serving schools about the risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Students across the state have taken part in “safer sex parties” — where they eat pizza while they learn how to properly put on a condom and play games such as STD Bingo.

“Some people don’t like the name, but they’re really educational parties,” says Lorna Harris, Commit to Prevent coordinator at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.

Harris says many college freshmen, particularly blacks from conservative church congregations, are coming from backgrounds where they were taught only abstinence. They may not even know about condoms.

Johnson C. Smith University distributed 325 “safer sex packages” on Valentine’s Day. They included two condoms, lubricant, pamphlets on HIV/AIDS — and a lollipop.

Campus counseling coordinator Maya Gibbons says attitudes at the 1,500-student school have changed in light of the study. HIV 101 is now part of freshman orientation

Perry has noticed changes, too.

AIDS ravaging black communities
When he first arrived in the fall of 2000 after a two-year stint in the Air Force, being openly gay made him a target for harassment. Things started to change after 2001, when he learned he’d been infected with HIV.

In April 2002, he revealed his status during a campus forum. The following day, his dorm’s resident adviser told him the guys had had a meeting and declared their support: “We want to give you props.”

Walking along the 137-year-old campus’ magnolia- and crepe myrtle-lined footpaths, the lanky, 6-foot-2 man is greeted warmly by students and faculty. Several times a month, he says, students drop by his dorm room for a fistful of the red-, orange-, black-and blue-wrapped university-issued condoms he keeps in a drawstring sack he calls his “glad bag.”

Perry, who is doing his senior thesis on homophobia and gays in the black church, says men have confided in him that they have been having unprotected sex and haven’t informed their female partners.

Whether those people are confused or just lying to themselves, he tells them they owe it to their partners to be honest.

“Maya Angelou said, ‘When you know better, you do better,”’ Perry says.

“The way HIV-AIDS is ravaging, raping and pillaging black communities, I don’t understand why they don’t do better.”

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