Charles Williams is sitting at a table with two of the young men he mentors. They get together at least twice a week.
On this day, they’re talking about sex. More specifically, about protection.
“In the heat of the moment sometimes, a guy doesn't necessarily reach for a condom,” Williams tells Dwayne Jackson, 14, and Traivon Harris, 15.
The boys get bashful and chuckle at William’s blunt delivery.
But Williams said he has to talk this way about safe sex with his young men. Many young, heterosexual black men don’t consider themselves at risk for HIV/AIDS.
“The thing is people feel invincible and I think it’s extremely naive and ignorant for people to think they’re invincible,” he said.
Forty-one percent of new infections in Florida are in the black community, according to the Florida Department of Health’s data on new HIV diagnoses in 2013. And many of those getting infected are straight black men, a group observers and HIV specialists say are not being included in HIV prevention efforts.
Williams is co-director of Generational Cure, a Miami nonprofit that provides mentors for young black teens. When he talks about sex with the teens, there are no PowerPoint presentations, no pamphlets.
Williams said it’s “real talk” with teens who have their own ideas about safe sex. Jackson, the 14-year old, is a virgin.
“I think it’s okay to have unprotected sex with a girl you have been with for a long time because that girl you might know,” Jackson said.
Williams corrects him. “It’s not okay at all to have unprotected sex.”
Harris, the 15-year-old, provides his take. He recently lost his virginity.
“I thought about it before I did it. I made sure I had protection. I made sure the condom was lubricated,” Harris said. “I made sure it wasn’t expired.”
Straight, Black Men Need Information
Dr. Cheryl Holder, an internist and HIV specialist, said it’s important that community groups and other institutions in the black community talk openly and honestly about black straight men who are HIV-positive.
Holder, who works in a clinic in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood and teaches at Florida International University’s medical school, said national ad campaigns around HIV typically target gender and sexual orientation.
“I just saw an ad, it was an ad with two males and you would probably think they’re two young gay males,” she said. “I’ve seen ads on bus benches of women, but you don’t see a message, ‘Where did these women get HIV?’”
Holder said the limited messaging puts the onus on black women to protect themselves. And it doesn’t force black men to consider their part, she said.
“Definitely if the man would put the condom on and not force the woman to have to negotiate that relationship, we would see a whole lot less transmission to the women,” she said.
Holder said she feels the lack of outreach is at least partly responsible for some of the problems she sees. Many of her straight black male patients look for excuses not to take an HIV test. They think they can tell their partner’s status based on how she looks . Or they think HIV and AIDS are gay diseases, she said.
Holder tries to debunk these misconceptions. But by the time many of her straight male clients who are infected with HIV do come in for treatment, she said she finds their T-cell counts are very low and the men already are showing signs of serious infection.
The consequences are significant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, between 1988 and 2010, HIV was the leading cause of death in Florida for black people between the ages of 25 and 44.
The numbers have started to drop. HIV was the fifth leading cause of death for the black population in Florida in 2013.
“A lot of the heterosexual transmission occurred among people who had multiple partners and substance abuse,” Holder said. “It’s [sexual] activity.”
HIV’s Not a Gay Disease
Jeffrey Edwards, a Miami Gardens resident, contracted HIV in 1988. He said he was infected by having unprotected sex with a woman.
“A lot of people thought it was just that, that people with AIDS was gay,” he said. “It ain’t like that.”
Back then; Edwards said he didn’t know much about the virus. Now, he uses his personal story as a cautionary tale when talking to the young men in his neighborhood.
He said he’s surprised young men want to have unprotected sex, despite all the information that’s out there today. On the other hand, he said, they haven’t seen AIDs kill people the way it used to.
“I hear young guys say…they’re not going to use no rubber,” Edwards said. “I say, ‘You making a big mistake.’”
Williams, the mentor at Generational Cure, said straight black men can’t be invisible when talking about HIV. Young men need “real talk” about safe sex, said the man the teens call Mr. Charles.
“We want them to know that these things can actually happen,” he said.
HIV and AIDs don't get as much attention they used to, Williams said, but it is serious.
“We don’t see on the news where someone dies of HIV/AIDS,” Williams said.
Dwayne, the 14-year old Williams mentors, said he is listening.
“The reason why I thought unprotected sex was cool is that if you’re with a girl for a long time it’s OK,” he said. “I learned it’s not OK -- as Mr. Charles said.”
Williams’ hopes that message stays with Dwayne and the other young men he mentors. He’s counting on that real talk to convey the real consequences of HIV.