Tucked in the back of Amsterdam Walk, the soft glow of light from Red Chair nightclub provides the only sign of life in the early hours of a Saturday. Inside, large screens project music videos. Buff male dancers in tight boxers strut along the sleek bar. In the back room, the bass thumps and young professionals pack the dance floor. Men sway with other men and gyrate their hips.
The scene has revved up as Mike Bailey walks in, a weathered backpack in hand. He hugs a bouncer at the door and heads straight to the bathroom. He unzips the backpack and pulls out a handful of packets. Each one contains a black condom, lubricant and an info card on HIV testing. He neatly places the packets next to the sink and over the ledge of the urinals.
Bailey exits the bathroom and navigates his way through the crowded dance floor, out to the porch. He leaves more packets next to ashtrays and heads back into the bathroom.
He offers a few to some guys standing next to the stalls. "No thanks, I'm cool," one guy says as he puts his arm around a man. "I'm in a relationship." Bailey extends the packet to another dude. "I don't need that," he responds. "Who said I'm having sex?"
Bailey hears men say that a lot, but knows they're just lying to themselves. He shrugs and arranges a few more condoms on the sink. Then he leaves.
Bailey spends about 15 hours a week, in the wee hours of the morning, distributing condoms and HIV/AIDS info to popular gay clubs around Atlanta as the outreach educator for the AIDS Survival Project. He's used to men who refuse the packets, who say they've already got a stash at home, who say they like it raw, who say they have a committed boyfriend.
As he leaves Red Chair to head to another club, a young man stops him. "Can I get one of those?" he asks with a voice so soft it's almost a whisper.
Bailey smiles, hands him a packet and asks the man if he's been tested.
"Yeah, man," he replies. "I'm going to get tested real soon."
Bailey pats him on the back. He knows that's bullshit.
IT'S UNDERSTANDABLE why young people now seem so cavalier when it comes to condoms and getting tested. Cutting-edge medications allow people to live with HIV/AIDS for 10, 15 years, and longer. Emory University recently announced it's closed in on a vaccine that also may work with people who have already contracted the virus.
But the new medications that allow those with HIV/AIDS to live longer have caused an unexpected side effect – a dramatic rise in casual and unprotected sex. After years of new AIDS rates holding steady, they have now begun to creep upward, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The agency says people between the ages of 15 and 24 now account for 40 percent of new HIV infections. A study released in the September issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health showed it's not unusual for young people in committed relationships to still have sex with others, but not use condoms with their main partners.
"I'm seeing more and more 18- to 30-year-olds testing positive for HIV," says Kevin English, associate director of prevention services for the AIDS Survival Project. "The information and the messages are out there, but they're not relating to them. People keep thinking they can't get it, or won't get it. But our numbers keep climbing."
The AIDS Survival Project was formed in 1986 as both a service agency and advocacy group. The small nonprofit – which is funded by the CDC along with donations and grants – educates people about AIDS prevention, offers AIDS testing and counseling, and helps those who are HIV positive lead productive lives.
English's job is to create awareness about the virus, and to give counseling to those who seek an HIV test. Of the 150 people who come to the organization in downtown Atlanta each month to be tested, 10 to 15 of them usually test positive.
English says casual, and unprotected, sex has made a big comeback in the past five to 10 years, aided in part by the Internet. "It's the biggest sex scene," English says. "You can go underground, nobody has to know. You go online, hook up with somebody, meet up and have sex."
TWENTY YEARS AGO when English lived in Chicago, he was one of those kids who did the club scene and picked up partners for casual, unprotected sex. It was the mid-'80s, the height of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, he says, information on the virus had yet to saturate the black community. "I hadn't used condoms before," he says. "I didn't know anything about them."
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