Chicago’s Latino gay outreach groups are up against some alarming statistics.
Centers for Disease Control data says 1 in 36 Latino males will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime – that’s 2.5 times the rate for whites.
The CDC in December funded Vida/SIDA’s Generation L project, a new gay empowerment group for 18-to-24-year-old Latinos in Humboldt Park. The project follows data that cites Puerto Ricans are more likely than any other Latino group to contract HIV via injection drug use.
By comparison, sexual contact with other men is the chief cause of the spread of HIV in the Mexican community. Groups in Chicago’s predominately Mexican Little Village neighborhood are working to address those statistics by further promoting safer sex and HIV prevention.
A health educator in Little Village underscored the importance: “If we don’t educate our youth, if we don’t stop the cycle, it will continue.”
That effort comes through CRU – “Committed, Responsible, United” – which serves gay, bisexual, questioning and curious Latinos and African Americans 13 to 24 years old. The group holds weekly support meetings and offers one-on-one counseling, according to its website.
Alberto Barragan, the health educator, has worked at Project Vida, an outreach group in Little Village, for four years. CRU is part of Project Vida.
He said while staff was cut because of the recession, they're still able to serve the gay Latino community and have plans for the future. And the group still offers free HIV testing on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
So, why are so many Latinos at risk for HIV?
Barragan said more Latinos contract STDs because their pride and machismo prevents them from asking for help.
He said an 18-year-old sexually active man once came to Project Vida to get tested for STDs and confessed he didn’t know how to use a condom.
“[He said], ‘I’m 18 years old and I’m a man and people assumed that I know how to use them,” Barragan said.
“They have that stereotype and believe in that ignorance that this couldn’t happen to me,” Barragan said.
And for the CRU, educating young men about safe sex and risk prevention starts in high schools, where volunteers speak to area students.
Marsha Buford, HIV coordinator at the Crossroads program for gay Latinos at the Pilsen-Little Village Community Mental Health Center, said she isn’t sure how parents would react if her group approached high schoolers about sex.
“We would be interested in targeting a specific age group,” she said, speaking of future plans. “Right now, we're doing outreach with the local [gay] bars from 26th [Street].”
But Barragan said his organization has actually been approached by families looking for guidance.
“We recently had an influx of parents coming saying 'Can you talk to my kid?'" Barragan said.
The demand has inspired the CRU to collaborate with 30 area churches to provide coaching for parents and other workshops.
“I think there’s a lot of barriers to it, but I think they're more open to having the conversations about HIV [and] about safe sex,” Barragan said of the area churches. “I think we'll continue pushing until they let us in.”
The group had a strategy meeting last month with group members, researchers and area master’s interns to discuss plans with the churches. Barragan said the CRU envisions a program for parents, another for their children, then ultimately a joint project where they can talk together – and more candidly – about sex.
Barragan said it's important the CRU not only be a sounding board for parents but also help them learn how to talk to their children.
"Unless you’re taught how to communicate that advice, you can still do it wrong,” he said.