[Ed. Note — This short piece is an online-only exclusive published as a part of our series, Gay Youth’s New Burden, exploring HIV infection among young people. Part two of our three part series was to be published in our Jan. 18 print edition. However, due to space constraints and other production schedule requirements, the second part of our series will instead be published in our Feb. 1 print edition. Part three will follow on Feb. 15. We regret any inconvenience to our readers. You can follow the series and its special online-only exclusives like this short piece below at goqnotes.com/newburden/.]
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For Ra’Shawn Barlow-Flourney, pastor of ReBirth Church Charlotte, everyday is about lessons. When he’s leading his flock in Charlotte, he teaches about God, faith and healthy living. His professional career helps when it comes to talking about health and sexuality. In addition to pastoring, Barlow-Flourney works as the prevention coordinator and outreach specialist for AID Upstate in Greenville, S.C.
As reported Jan. 4 in the first of our three-part series, Gay Youth’s New Burden, new rates of HIV infection are taking their toll on young people. Gay and bisexual men ages 13-24 saw a 22 percent increase in new infection rates between 2008 and 2010. Black gay and bisexual men, as well as other men who have sex with men (MSM) but may not identify as gay, were among the most at-risk subgroups. According to the CDC, they account for more new infections than any other group, coming in near 10 percent — about 4,800 individual cases — of the total number of 47,500 new infections in 2010.
“To see the rate [increasing] has been devastating for me,” Barlow-Flourney says.
At the root are issues of rejection and they are playing a crucial role in the increase.
“One of the things that I really get hurt by is that when you are rejected by family, rejected from the church, from community, work and society altogether, it’s already hard enough that you are black man,” he says. “Adding gay is adds a whole other spectrum as well.”
At work, many of Barlow-Flourney’s clients tell a familiar story.
“One of the things I’ve seen as challenging is that a lot of my clients that come to me, they end up not loving themselves,” he says. “I put myself in that situation, too. I didn’t feel loved or appreciated, so when someone showed me just the slightest bit of attention, everything went out the window — prevention and all those things went out the window — which could have cost me my life or could have cost me being infected with HIV.”
Such stories are becoming increasingly more common, as more and more young people tell HIV prevention workers that they associate “bare backing,” slang for anal intercourse without the use of condoms, as a form of sexual intimacy linked to love and commitment. Such a cultural trend is alarming, especially considering that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 60 percent of young people infected with HIV have no knowledge that they are HIV-positive.
Testing alone won’t solve the problem, but Barlow-Flourney does what he can. A certified phlebotomist, the pastor says he has held free HIV testing for his church’s members.
“I said, ‘Let’s get tested,'” he says. “I wanted to show my congregation how important it is to be tested.”
In addition to lessons on health and well being, Barlow-Flourney says he aims to keep messages of love and self-worth at the forefront of his work, whether at church or the clinic.
“I stress it all the time, that you have to learn to love yourself and appreciate yourself, know who you are in God and know who you are in yourself, that you can be able to go into a situation and say, ‘I’m better than that, I can use protection to protect myself,'” he says. “A lot of times, what happens is that we throw everything out of the window because somebody gave us just that little bit of attention.”
Barlow-Flourney says consistent messages of affirmation and acceptance will help to stem the tide of rising HIV infection rates. Education, too, will play a role.
“It’s about providing the training opportunities and the space where you can begin to educate,” he says.
In February, Barlow-Flourney’s church will host a couples conference that will include a special component for singles.
“There will be a huge portion on loving self and what that is to be black, what it is to be gay and what it is to be Christian,” he says.
The lessons he’ll teach during the conference are drawn from personal experience. Barlow-Flourney says his partner of three years, whom he legally married in May 2011 in Washington, D.C., taught him many important personal lessons about love and intimacy.
“I thought having sex with him would show that I loved him or he loved me,” he says of the relationship when it began. “We went a couple months, three months with no sex at all, just communication. Even today, it has been the solid foundation of our relationship.”
He adds, “I’m just so thankful that he did that, because during those months I was able to evaluate myself and reconnect with myself and love myself, so that I could love him.”