A new generation—young, smart, and above all compassionate— steps up to the plate.
Nearly every day in Detroit, someone gets an unexpected diagnosis. The words may vary, but the impact doesn’t. You have HIV. Much of the time, the person hearing those words is a young man or transgender individual, often a teenager, who may not know where to turn.
It’s one thing to talk in abstract terms about the high rates of sexually transmitted infections among young men who have sex with men—a population more gravely affected by STIs, including HIV, than any other in the country, and certainly in Michigan.
It’s another to imagine being young and vulnerable, and learning you have HIV, and
feeling you can’t confide in anyone because you’re terrified of being judged, but
at the same time having no idea where to go for treatment or how to keep from spreading
the virus or how to survive into your twenties, let alone the rest of adulthood.
That’s why a new project, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and aimed at lowering the spread of HIV and other STIs in southeast Michigan, has recruited six young members of the region’s LGBT community to serve as its Youth Advisory Board. They remind academic researchers and community partners what it’s like to be young. They help point out where, when, and how to intervene.
By definition, says Emily Pingel, MPH ’09, project director of U-M’s SexLab, the administrative home for the project, the Youth Advisory Board is “like the White House. They have veto power over the decision-making of the whole coalition.”
Following are snapshots of three board members—all in their early twenties, all native Detroiters. Like the city where they live and grew up, they’ve faced adversity and are resilient. They’re also passionate about creating change, both in the city they love and within the LGBT community they call home.
The CDC has one name for the project: “Community Approaches to Reducing STIs.” But the Youth Advisory Board has another: “Michigan Forward in Enhancing Research and Community Equity,” or “MFierce.” The name says as much about the board as it does about the project.
By his own reckoning, Curtis Collins, 24, was a rebellious child. He wasn’t angry at anyone—“I just wanted to do things my own way, ’til I learned the hard way.” He flashes a bright smile. By the time he was 16, he’d joined Detroit’s LGBT community and was hanging out at Palmer Park, a public space designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted, near Six Mile and Woodward. He saw others having fun, Curtis says, and he wanted “to see what this lifestyle is about.”
Palmer Park was the center for “everything,” he adds. He made friends there, and for a time even lived at the park. In summertime it was “the hangout spot. Everybody parked their cars out there, do drinks, whatever, just have fun. But it wasn’t just us over there.” Commercial sex workers worked the alleys around the park. It was often dangerous, “real dangerous.”
One night Curtis watched a friend go off in the woods with a man to “make a little money.” He waited for his friend to come back so they could go for a drink, but his friend didn’t show. Then Curtis heard a strange voice. Suddenly his friend staggered onto the street and collapsed. “It was like blood coming from everywhere,” Curtis remembers, “like someone just maliciously hit him with some type of metal pole.” Curtis phoned 911, but his friend never regained consciousness and died later that evening.
At 6’5”, Curtis knows how to defend himself, and he’s not afraid. It’s part of the street smarts that make him who he is—and make him invaluable to MFierce. Thanks to what he calls his “street-cred experience,” Curtis is able to take MFierce’s academic partners “behind the scenes,” as he puts it, “and show them where and how things happen in Detroit, how people from the LGBT community live their life, what they gotta do to make their ends meet.” He describes it as giving researchers “the rated-R version more so than the rated-G version.” The “rated-G version” is what goes into a published paper, he explains. “But you need the rated-R if you’re going to make a difference.”
He’s known that he’s gay as long as he can remember. Unlike a lot of young men his age, he’s never had problems at home. His mother, with whom until recently he shared a house in downtown Detroit, doesn’t care how he lives his life, as long as he goes to school and does what he’s “supposed to do,” meaning be a good and productive citizen. Curtis graduated from high school in 2010 and currently holds down two jobs in the hospitality industry. “The only person I’m scared of,” he says with a grin, “is my mama …and God himself.”
MFierce allows him to be of service to both the academic and the LGBT communities, and Curtis is grateful. He’s especially keen to help young men with HIV cope by putting them in touch with resources and reminding them that HIV is not a death sentence. He’s one of a handful of people, he says, “that don’t mind being that extra ear or extra voice to help you get through whatever you gotta get through.”
Telling his father he had HIV was bad enough. But telling his new boyfriend was worse. “I was so terrified … so terrified,” remembers D’Angelo Kea. He could scarcely bring himself to speak. The diagnosis had revived his deepest fears—who would love him now? At 18, D’Angelo couldn’t imagine.
But when he finally mustered the courage to speak, his boyfriend of a few weeks, Dasean Walters, didn’t seem worried. “Live your life,” Dasean told D’Angelo. “Stay healthy. You’re not going to die from this.” And then he said the words D’Angelo had despaired of hearing: “I’m still here. I’m not going to leave you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Today, D’Angelo, 25, and Dasean, 26, are engaged to be married.
For D’Angelo, being gay isn’t an issue. He knew from the time he was a kid that he was attracted to men. His parents have each been in gay relationships for years. They split when D’Angelo was five, but they remain close. When he went to Henry Ford’s HIV clinic to learn about treatment options after his diagnosis, his mother and father both went with him. The three of them wept together.
D’Angelo knows that, relatively speaking, he’s lucky. He’s able to control his HIV with medications. As a member of the Youth Advisory Board for MFierce, he’s employed by the University of Michigan. He’s got loving parents and a doting fiancé who reminds him to take care of himself and encourages him to pursue his dream of becoming a video-game developer, and maybe using those same skills in the health field.
There are plenty of young Detroit kids who are struggling with their sexual identity
but who have no support system, and D’Angelo wants to help them. Maybe their parents
have kicked them out. Maybe they’ve got an STI, but they’re too afraid to tell anyone
for fear of being rejected. Maybe they just don’t know where to turn.
D’Angelo hopes he can show them “a brighter side.” By sharing his own story with Detroit’s LGBT community, and by serving on the MFierce advisory board, where he contributes to decisions about new HIV and STI prevention and treatment strategies, he hopes to “make an impact in the world” and help the gay community. Perhaps he can even help someone younger “prevent getting HIV.” For the first time in his life, he says, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.”
When his adoptive mother found out Dasean Walters was gay, she didn’t like it. A deeply religious woman, she’d worked hard to shield Dasean from “everything,” he says. She wouldn’t let him have friends over, or ride his bike, or go on sleepovers. “I hated feeling closed in,” he remembers. So he ran away. He kept running away, “getting in trouble.” He went to Minnesota and Atlanta. He spent a year and a half in Wayne County’s juvenile jail “for doing stuff.” After he got out, he went into therapy, but when he learned his adoptive mother still didn’t want him back, he got angry. And hurt. Shuffled into foster care as a young child, deprived of siblings and friends, Dasean wrestled with what he calls his “attachment issues.” Would anyone ever accept him?
As a kid he’d hated gays. Even though he had inklings that he “liked boys,” he’d repressed those feelings and instead “beat up on gay people. I used to bash them and talk about them bad. I was like, ‘You fag.’”
It wasn’t until years later, living in Detroit as a young adult, that Dasean realized who he really was. Now 26, he’s devoting his life to helping other young men accept themselves and their sexuality—and find the resources they need to live positive, fulfilling, healthy lives.
As a member of MFierce’s Youth Advisory Board and a former volunteer for several community organizations, including AIDS Partnership Michigan and Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center, Dasean knows he can make a difference in young lives. “I’ve always wanted to help people … always wanted to help people,” he says.
But it was the health status of his fiancé, D’Angelo Kea, that pushed Dasean into the field of HIV prevention. Not long after D’Angelo’s diagnosis in 2009, Dasean enrolled in a program to become a certified HIV test counselor. Some day he hopes to open his own clinic and youth program in Detroit. “We don’t have a lot of those here—especially free clinics or safe-space programs that focus on the individual’s needs.”
Being affiliated with MFierce is a “game-changer,” Dasean says. “When I tell people, hey, I work for the University of Michigan, it’s, like, they have a different respect.” As a Youth Advisory Board member, he relishes the very real power he has to offer ideas and opinions and to vote “yea or nay” on plans. “We can go far with this,” he says of himself and his fellow board members.
At his most ambitious, Dasean dreams of being “the mayor of a city, or a United States ambassador, or Secretary of State, or President. I always see myself as a leader.” But for now he’s happy being “an ambassador for young LGBT individuals and couples.” More than anything, he wants to help others find the love and support that eluded him for so much of his young life.
He also relishes his role in helping Detroit grow. “The city is slowly but surely opening up itself to LGBT individuals,” he says, “and so taking a part in this great project, in this great initiative, it’s helping me guide the city to a more open policy.” And that makes Dasean Walters very happy.
Portrait photos by Rebecca Minch
A Comprehensive, Efficient, and Culturally Sensitive Approach
When the once-booming American auto industry collapsed in the last decades of the 20th century, southeast Michigan took a huge economic hit—especially in the vast, racially diverse metropolitan areas of Flint and Detroit. Health outcomes and behaviors in the region took a second hit, with unprecedented increases in conditions such as obesity, violence, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
Today the state of Michigan has the nation’s seventh highest cumulative gonorrhea infection rates and 14th highest cumulative chlamydia infection rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The devastating impact of these infections is most keenly felt in the Detroit and Flint metro areas among young men who have sex with men—a population that also suffers disproportionate rates of HIV. When stratified by race and ethnicity, it’s clear that within this group, young black and Latino men who have sex with men bear the brunt of Michigan’s STIs.
How to reduce these disparities? Jose Bauermeister, the John G. Searle Assistant Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the School of Public Health, thinks the solution lies in a community-based approach focused on structural factors.
“We know that these disparities are forcibly molded by dominant structural forces like racism, economic disadvantage, residential segregation, and homophobia,” says Bauermeister, who directs the U-M Center for Sexuality & Health Disparities (SexLab). “And we know that those same forces limit the development of safe spaces where young gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men and transgender people can express their sexuality and gender, and find both the support and opportunities they need.”
Bauermeister is lead scientist for a new three-year, one-million dollar project, “Community Approaches to Reducing STIs”—or “MFierce,” as the project’s six-member Youth Advisory Board has dubbed it—aimed at reducing STIs among young gay and bisexual men and transgender women in southeast Michigan. Launched in Detroit last fall in partnership with community members and organizations throughout the region, the CDC-funded project supports the planning, implementation, and evaluation of interdisciplinary interventions aimed at both the treatment and prevention of STIs.
“If we can improve one area of the system, it has the potential to ripple throughout and spark much needed community mobilization and change,” Bauermeister says.
He and his fellow researchers and community partners have spent the first year of the project working to heighten awareness of the problem as it affects young men and transgender women, to identify new avenues for STI prevention and treatment within this population, and to provide greater access to culturally sensitive services. Bauermeister and his colleagues plan to devote years two and three of the project to the implementation and evaluation of strategies for reducing STI disparities. Ideally, their work will prove effective enough to be adopted nationwide.
Partners for Health
- AIDS Partnership Michigan
- Community Health Awareness Group
- Connect to Protect
- Corner Health
- Detroit Central City Health Center
- Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion
- Genesee County Health Department
- HIV/AIDS Resource Center
- The Horizons Project, Wayne State University
- KICK (The Agency for LGBT African Americans)
- Michigan AIDS Coalition
- Michigan Department of Community Health
- Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health
- Planned Parenthood Detroit
- Planned Parenthood of Southeast Michigan
- Ruth Ellis Center
- SexLab, University of Michigan
- Teen Hype
- University of Michigan Health System
- University of Michigan Hospital Systems Community Programs and Services
- University of Michigan School of Public Health
- Washtenaw County Public Health Department
- Wayne State University School of Medicine
- Wellness Services
Ghosts of Tuskegee
As part of a 1974 legal settlement with the study participants and their families, the U.S. government established the Tuskegee Health Benefit Program, which today provides lifetime medical and health benefits and burial services to all living participants, their wives, widows, and offspring. The CDC administers the program.
In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton issued a formal apology for the Tuskegee study
on behalf of the nation. Five of the study’s sole survivors, all of them over age
85, attended the White House ceremony. “The United States government did something
that was wrong, deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton told them. “To the survivors,
to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you
know: no power on earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years
of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the
For more visit cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm.
With a two-year, $250,000 grant from the Herb Ritts Foundation, U-M’s SexLab is developing an online intervention that helps young gay and bisexual men and transgender women navigate health and social services resources in southeast Michigan. The project, iCON, is designed “to empower young gay or bisexual men and transgender women to be able to make positive changes in their life by identifying and setting goals for service use through a web app,” say Jose Bauermeister and U-M Professor of Nursing Rob Stephenson, co-directors of SexLab. If the web app is successful, Bauermeister and Stephenson hope to expand its reach nationwide. The Herb Ritts Foundation supports organizations advocating continued awareness, prevention, care, and research of HIV/AIDS.