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Putting gay black men on safer path is their cause

It's Saturday night, and the city's young gay black men have plenty of options. A sex party is percolating in a private home, the "gyms" that have replaced bath houses are open for business, and an underground voguing competition is under way.

It's Saturday night, and the city's young gay black men have plenty of options.

A sex party is percolating in a private home, the "gyms" that have replaced bath houses are open for business, and an underground voguing competition is under way.

Noel Ramirez and Quincy Greene know where the action is and understand its allure. But they understand the danger, too.

Young gay black men are contracting HIV at twice the rate as their white and Hispanic counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And nearly half of all Americans with HIV are African Americans.

Which is why Ramirez and Greene go around to the places where unsafe sex is likely to be had, giving the gatekeepers lubricant, condoms, and contact information for organizations serving gay men.

It might seem that in 2011, 30 years after AIDS began its deadly rampage, everyone knows how to avoid getting the disease. But the bullet points from advertising campaigns and classroom lectures ricochet off many young men who feel unworthy and so engage in a dangerous impersonation of love.

Trying to capture their attention and trust, says Ramirez, is "like trying to catch water. They slip through your fingertips." An effective way to reach them, public-health studies show, is on their own turf.

In May, Greene and Ramirez opened a place where young people can spend Saturday nights safely.

They call it the Q Spot, and twice a month, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., they welcome between a dozen and a hundred gay, lesbian, and transgender youths at the Broad Street Ministry.

A graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania tutors in academic subjects. A therapist from the Council for Relationships offers advice. Certified workers provide free and confidential HIV testing.

Through contacts at a nonprofit called Foyer of Philadelphia, Ramirez and Greene help find housing for the homeless or those who have aged out of foster care. They also enlist youths to help run the Q Spot, where anyone can hang out, eat a free dinner, talk to peers, or watch TV.

Ramirez, 25, is a social worker at St. Christopher's Hospital. Greene, 32, is a program manager with Brothers United, part of an HIV-prevention health project funded by the CDC. In their day jobs, both men work with LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) young people, connecting them to services.

Greene also founded the nonprofit Educational Justice Coalition to provide educational and career opportunities for LGBTQ youths.

Most of the young men they meet (and many older ones) have been led to believe that being gay means being promiscuous, says Ramirez.

It was certainly Ramirez's experience when he was growing up as the son of Filipino immigrants in Jersey City. He helped care for his uncle, who died of AIDS.

When Ramirez came out in high school to his mother, she warned him, "You'd better not get HIV. And don't trust anyone, because they'll drug and rape you."

She meant well, he says. But "talking to young people like that, sexualizing them, assuming that their identity is clustered around that disease - it creates shame and guilt, social isolation, and unhealthy relationships. It's like Stigma 101."

He graduated fifth in his class at James J. Ferris High, where he worried more about stickups than harassment for being gay.

At the College of New Jersey, he led the gay-straight alliance and tried to include students from all over campus. His parents, a lab technician and a postal worker, could not afford tuition, so he worked as an exotic dancer to pay his bills.

Some weekends, he made as much as $2,000. But then one night, the club owner pulled him aside.

"You're smart," he recalls the man saying. "You can do better than this."

That, says Ramirez, began him thinking about social work. He's working on his second graduate degree, a master's in public health from Drexel University.

"I grew up around silence," Ramirez says. "I used school as my way of healing and learning how to communicate."

Greene, whose parents were from Guyana, was raised in New York City. Tall and dark-skinned, he says, he was bullied for looking "African." "And it didn't help that I was a nerd."

After he broke up with his girlfriend at the elite Bronx High School of Science, she outed him.

"It ruined my life," he says.

His mother, a follower of the evangelist Harold Camping, could not accept that he was gay.

"She told me, 'Reject this. It's not real. It's the devil.' "

Greene studied engineering at Drexel for two years, then at Cheyney University, where he won two internships, one at NASA and another at Harvard University.

He spent three years doing statistical analysis for clinical trials at Penn but, after launching his nonprofit, left that job for Brothers United, which gives him more flexibility to do his volunteer work.

Greene and Ramirez's shared interest in reaching out to young gay men has forged their friendship. Greene works in education and HIV prevention. Ramirez's focus is education and treatment.

The stigma of HIV keeps many people from talking about their status, even to their sex partners.

"You have to clock your T," says a young man who goes to the Q Spot to offer peer counseling. The expression, he explains, means to be honest about who you are.

Giving only his initials of D.S., the 23-year-old tells how he became homeless and HIV-positive, in large part, he says, for lack of any supportive adult.

D.S.'s parents were 13 when he was born. He bounced around among relatives until he was 16, when he was left alone in the family's Chester home. "The water was frozen in the sink, there was no electricity, the roof was collapsing, so I started moving around."

He fell in love with a man who gave him HIV, and he landed at an adult HIV clinic, where he was treated and then introduced to Ramirez, his social worker.

With Ramirez's help, he says, he has become an advocate for increased access to HIV medical care. The Q Spot, he says, gives him the chance "to meet other HIV-positive men and talk about what we're going through. . . . You need people you can relate to."

Resources for LGBT Youths

Family Planning Council's Safeguards Project and Brothers United

1700 Market St., 18th Floor

Attic Youth Center

255 S. 16th St.

Colours Organization

112 N. Broad St.

Mazzoni Center

21 S. 12th St.
215-563-0652 (main); 215-563-0658 (health center)

The Q Spot

8 p.m. Saturday to 1 a.m. Sunday
Broad Street Ministry
315 S. Broad St.