Crystal and HIV activists seek to curb addiction and infections in younger men
Roughly 100 people turned out for the fifth in a series of town hall meetings on gay men, drugs and HIV with this latest event focusing on young men and safe sex practices.
“I was really pleased that the audience seemed to be composed of young gay men for the most part,” said Bruce Kellerhouse after the October 16 event. “They were our target audience.”
Kellerhouse and Dan Carlson, two community activists, organized the meetings. During his opening remarks, Kellerhouse said the inspiration for the latest meeting came during the first, held last November, when a young gay man addressed the forum and noted how few young people were in the audience.
“He told us that young gay men did not feel that they were part of the HIV prevention dialogue,” Kellerhouse said. “More distressingly, he said that many young, gay people did not feel that they were part of the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”
Two of the panelists were young gay men who opened the meeting by telling the story of how they were infected with HIV. Luis Ortiz, 32, said he was infected during his first sexual encounter with another man at age 14.
“The guy who infected me was 30 and I was 14,” he said.
Ortiz teaches at the Hetrick Martin Institute, which operates the Harvey Milk School, a school for queer teens. Ortiz is open about his HIV status at school and in the “ballroom scene,” which features drag events for queer African-Americans and Latinos.
“The ballroom scene is important to me,” Ortiz said. “It’s where I express my creativity… It’s important that I am always really open about it.”
Tommy Foster, a 27-year-old crystal addict who had not used the drug for four weeks, tied his meth use to his HIV status. Raised in North Carolina, Foster did not use drugs until he was 24 and after he arrived in New York City to pursue a career in the theater. He was introduced to meth in gay clubs.
“Why be so scared of drugs?” Foster said he asked himself after he began using ecstasy. He eventually saw his life spin out of control after losing his job.
“I started escorting to pay the bills.” Foster said. “That’s not really who I am. I want a career, I want a life partner.”
The panel also featured John Lee, 24, who is HIV-negative. Lee, who was raised in New York City, came out at 16. His Korean immigrant parents threw him out of their home.
“It became one of those classic horror stories that all gay boys are afraid of,” Lee said. “My parents disowned me.”
He tried to support himself by escorting and go-go dancing with little success. With the help of friends, Lee was able to finish high school and went on to attend Dartmouth College.
The panel, titled “Keep F*!king Safe,” included some limited information about safe sex provided by Dr. Anthony Vavasis, clinical director at the Health Outreach to Teens program at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.
“Working with young people, a lot of what I see is related to behavior and behavior is related to how we feel about ourselves,” Vavasis said.
Michael G. Brown, co-chair of Pride Month at NYU, the event co-sponsor, said the attendance was “above average” compared to similar forums held at New York University. He estimated that one-fifth of the audience members were NYU students with the remaining attendees coming from Northeast colleges and universities who were at NYU to attend a meeting of queer student leaders.
“I liked it,” Brown said. “We never do anything about safe sex.”
John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote, directed and starred in the film “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” moderated the panel.