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Billboard confronts parents of black gays with HIV

The billboard towers over the busy intersection of Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea Avenue, the gateway to West Hollywood. In bold white letters against an all-black background, it offers a startling L.A. county statistic: "One in three black gay men are infected with HIV."

Then, in even bigger letters, it asks: "IS HE YOUR SON?"

The billboard is an effort by a local nonprofit to spark a conversation that it says African-Americans – and especially black parents -- too often sweep under the rug, with dire consequences. While HIV infection rates have stabilized or improved for most demographic groups, for young black men who have sex with men, they are getting worse.

"One in three gay black men. That’s the reality, based on the data that’s captured here in L.A. county," said Jeffrey King, the man responsible for the billboard. He directs In the Meantime Men, a nonprofit that works with young black gays in an effort to lower their high rate of infection.

King said he chose the West Hollywood location for the billboard because more and more young African-American gays are frequenting that city's clubs and bars.

Experts say there are many factors conspiring to make gay and bisexual black youth the new face of the HIV epidemic, from poverty to lack of healthcare to the scarcity of prevention programs targeting African-Americans. But King and other experts say another big factor is the huge stigma that being gay carries in the black community.

Many black youth are afraid to come out to their parents, and parents often sweep the issue under the rug, King said.

"With parents, the challenge is often that they can’t get past, 'my child is gay,'" King said. That makes it more likely their kids will engage in unsafe sex, contract HIV, hide their status and delay or forego treatment, he said. And those factors make it more likely they’ll pass the virus on. King said he sees this all the time.

"They’re living at home. They’re living with HIV. And no one even knows it. No one is even having that conversation," he said.

Gay and bisexual black men are a tiny percentage of the U.S. population. But they account for close to one fourth of the nation’s roughly 50,000 new HIV infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those, nearly half are teens and young adults, and their share is growing each year.

King said that’s why his billboard addresses black parents directly: to encourage those with children they know or suspect to be gay or bisexual to talk about HIV and safe sex.

But his billboard’s message is so direct that others who work to stem HIV in L.A. fear it could backfire.

"I understand the message and the in-your-face approach, but I felt that it just set us back," said Armond Anderson-Bell, a mentor with the Ovahness Young Men's Leadership Program at Reach LA, another nonprofit that works with young black gay men. "Because not everyone is up to speed."

Many young black gays have been kicked out of their homes by intolerant parents, Anderson-Bell said. And he fears the billboard’s emphasis on such a grim statistic without any context about the problem or how black parents can address it could help perpetuate, rather break down, the stigma.

"You’re trying to start the conversation, but then what is the aftermath? Because you’re not there when this person gets kicked out of their home," he said.

Ricky Rosales, the city of L.A.’s AIDS coordinator, said he agrees that including more information could have improved the billboard.

"So that people don’t just see this and are like, 'so what do I do now? Should I have a conversation with my son and ask him if he’s gay? Or ask him if he has HIV?'" Rosales said.

But Aaron Howard, a 26-year-old African-American man who has been HIV positive for five years, said he appreciates the billboard. He said the first time he drove by it, he was shocked to see such a sensitive issue laid bare.

Before his diagnosis, Howard's said his homosexuality had been a touchy issue in his family, and until he was infected, they never talked about HIV, even though his aunt had died of complications from AIDS. He didn’t tell his mother about his own diagnosis for three months.

But Howard said he recently showed her the billboard.

"She said she wished she would have saw it before, so therefore she would’ve been able to have an effective conversation with me," he said.

Howard - who has gotten his HIV under control with medication - wonders whether he could have avoided becoming infected in the first place if his family had been more open about how AIDS had killed his aunt.

Howard's interaction with his mother is the kind of change in family dynamics Jeffrey King is hoping his billboard will make.

"The norm should be, 'Mom, I’m sick.' And mom should say, 'Well baby, let’s get together and go to the hospital,'" King said. And if the doctor diagnoses HIV, "Mom should say, 'doctor, what do we need to do to take care of this?' That should be the norm if some kid should find himself in that type of situation."

And more young gay black men are finding themselves in that situation all the time, King said.

This report was produced as part of a Community Health Reporting Fellowship sponsored by the International Center for Journalists and supported by a grant from the Hearst Foundations.