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REFUGE WITH A CAUSE A PROGRAM AT AIDS PROJECT LOS ANGELES TEACHES SELF-RESPECT TO TEENS AND EMPOWERS THEM IN THE FIGHT AGAINST STDS.

Byline: Mariko Thompson Staff Writer

Just before moving to Los Angeles from a small town near Sacramento, 18-year-old Mario drew a self-portrait in his journal. In the pencil sketch, he looks lost and disconcerted. His loose-fitting shirt reads ``Pink Sheep of the Family.''

Mario drew the sketch a few months after telling his older brother he was gay. His brother didn't speak to him for six months. Mario has not yet come out to his parents.

Caught in that awkward phase between no-longer-a-kid and not-yet- an-adult, Mario looks dapper in a black polo shirt and slacks, though he still wears a Garfield necklace pendant. Mario initially came to Los Angeles for a university summer science program. He's since dropped science and enrolled in an art class at Pasadena City College.

Even as Mario casts about in his new life, the one place that anchors him is AIDS Project Los Angeles, where he meets with a support group twice a week. Called the Mpowerment program, the group is made up of gay and bisexual teens, mostly between the ages of 15 and 20. That's where Mario started keeping a journal, filled with sketches, family photographs, high-school memorabilia and magazine cutouts.

The journals serve as an outlet whenever the kids feel scared or depressed. The entries also shape the group's discussions, which more often than not revolve around issues of acceptance, not sex, says program coordinator Ray Fernandez.

``I spend very little time focusing on sex,'' Fernandez says. ``A lot of them are coming in with an entire lifetime of homophobia in their households, negative experiences in school, negative experiences in their churches, and feeling very stigmatized. How do they navigate these issues with little or no information available to them? That's what gets them behaving in a way that's sexually risky.''

Fernandez says providing a haven for these young men is a critical step toward HIV prevention. AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, increasingly afflicts the young. In the United States, one in four new cases of HIV is diagnosed in a patient under the age of 21. The demographics of the epidemic also have changed. The face of AIDS used to be a gay white male. Today it's a Latino or African-American under the federal poverty line, says Chris Fritzen, APLA's senior development officer.

``AIDS is a much different disease than it was 10 years ago,'' Fritzen says.

Alarming numbers

Adding urgency to prevention efforts, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently did a comprehensive analysis of eight sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The study found teenagers and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 account for 9.1 million - or nearly half - of STD cases, though they make up just a quarter of the sexually active population. CDC researchers estimate the lifetime medical cost at $6.5 billion.

According to youth panel recommendations released in conjunction with the study, the best way to combat STDs is through sex education that teaches both birth control and abstinence. In the report ``Our Voices, Our Lives, Our Futures,'' the youth panel emphasized the need for an ongoing dialogue with parents, teachers and doctors.

``Parents, keep the conversation going and don't make it a one-shot deal,'' says Joan Cates, the project's principal investigator from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. ``Keep talking with your young person. They said the same thing to health-care providers. Keep the conversations going.''

Neither teens nor parents should presume that only people who are promiscuous are at risk for STDs, says Dr. Coco Auerswald, assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

``Adolescents are stereotyped as hyper-sexual, as bad boys and girls in society,'' Auerswald says. ``That's not the reason why the rates are high.''

People in monogamous relationships can get infected by a partner who has not been faithful or who had previous sexual partners. Lack of access to health care and ignorance of how STDs are transmitted are other major factors, she says.

``It's easy to feel overwhelmed, but parents shouldn't feel powerless,'' Auerswald says. ``Messages about healthy decisions are influenced much more by parents than adults believe.''

Reassuring as it may be that kids really do want to talk to adults, it's no secret that many families find conversations about human sexuality to be awkward. For gay teens, fear of rejection adds another layer of discomfort. Leon, 17, of the San Fernando Valley struggled to tell his mother that he was gay, despite the fact that she had dropped repeated hints that she knew. While she was on a trip to Mexico, Leon called her and told her over the phone.

``I couldn't spit it out until she was away,'' says Leon, who attends the Mpowerment program. ``She said, 'I love you the same as before.' My mom is one of the only people to give me so much support.''

Talking to each other

At APLA, Mpowerment coordinator Fernandez plays the role of big brother, educator and mentor. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, the teens make the trek to the APLA office in Koreatown. They come from all over the Los Angeles area, from Alhambra, Encino and Compton. The boisterous group crowds into a conference room, which has been stocked with chips and salsa, cookies, horchata and other snacks.

Most meetings are a two-hour rap session led by Fernandez. But for the past two weeks, the talks have been more structured. The teens have been training to become peer health educators, so that they can make presentations and talk to other young people about STD prevention and community health resources.

Fernandez spends part of the meeting preparing them for their written test. Some of the questions are basic to sex education, like how HIV can be transmitted. But other questions apply more broadly. Fernandez has them explain the steps of assertive communication with a safe sex scenario, in which a potential partner doesn't want to use a condom. The steps include stating intentions, laying out options and then negotiating to a conclusion. When they finish with the scenario, Fernandez hits them with the life lesson.

``Does this just apply to sex?'' Fernandez says. ``What about when Mom doesn't want you to go out this weekend? The biggest issue that you bring in here are problems in the house. When you say, 'Mom's a (blank) and I hate her,' that's the option you're creating. There are two people involved in an interaction. This is where you really need to use this model.''

Fernandez gives every new Mpowerment member a composition book to use as a journal. Flipping through the pages, Mario's story emerges from the images. Mario points to a photo of himself in the second grade holding a bat. Even in elementary school, Mario knew he was different. But it wasn't until his freshman year in high school that he said the words ``I'm gay'' aloud.

He points to a photo of Amanda, his best friend, at their high school prom. She was the first person to learn about his sexual orientation. She was also the person who made him promise to stop hurting himself. Mario shows his self-inflicted wounds. His left wrist bears a cross-shaped scar. His right forearm has an oblong burn mark.

He points to a news photo of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998.

``I can identify with him because there's so much hate in the world for us,'' Mario says.

He points to a photo of a birthday party for his mother and to a picture of green grapes that reminds him of his father, a field worker. Recently he heard that someone outed him to his parents. He's going home to visit soon. While he's nervous about facing them, he's also looking forward to it. The support group has made him better equipped to have this conversation.

``Ray is a big person in my life,'' Mario says. ``I don't want to leave this program, because it has helped me a lot.''

Mariko Thompson, (818) 713-3620

mariko.thompson(at)dailynews.com

HIV 411

For more information on HIV prevention:

AIDS Project Los Angeles, (213) 201-1600, www.apla.org

UC San Francisco HIV/AIDS Web site for youth, www.whatudo.org

To read the ``Our Voices, Our Lives, Our Futures'' report from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, visit www.jomc.unc.edu/youthandSTDs/ourvoices.html

CAPTION(S):

3 photos, box

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Getting a grip on risky behavior

In face of AIDS, program helps gay teens deal honestly with their sexuality

John Lazar/Staff Photographer

(2) Mario, 18, says the Mpowerment program has helped him a great deal - to the point where he will soon talk to his parents about his sexuality for the first time.

(3) The gay and bisexual teens in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Mpowerment program keep journals that serve as creative outlets. Their entries also shape the group's discussions.

Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer

Box:

HIV 411 (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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