Situated right between large African-American and Mexican-American communities on the Southwest side of Chicago, Project VIDA, a community agency focused on HIV and AIDS services and prevention, started its program for young gay men--LINX--more than four years ago. LINX offers six-week cycles of once-a-week sessions for black and Latino men age 25 and younger who are gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning or don't self-identify but have sex with other men. The sessions are primarily facilitated by young gay men of color from the community, offering youth the opportunity to see positive role models who are gay or bisexual as well as a safe place to interact with peers and to get information about healthy sexuality.
"Young men get so many negative messages about their sexuality and struggle with feeling that their sex is normal and healthy," explains Gary Harper, PhD, who helped design LINX. "That's why we start out all of the programs with a sexual health session. We talk about varied forms of sexual expression and really normalize same-gender sexual activity."
All of the sessions are aimed at helping the young men develop coping skills to manage the stressors in their lives that could put them at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, including topics such as finding a gay-friendly doctor, depression, substance abuse, family conflict, coming-out stress, homophobia, racism and religion.
Harper and his colleagues have helped the program develop a self-evaluation system so that LINX can adapt its approach as the issues and needs of its young men change. LINX also gives the young men a way to get involved in community events, such as Latino film festivals or gay-related community events, and offers career and personal development workshops.
"A lot of gay, bisexual and questioning young men really don't have positive role models," says Harper, "So when they come to a community agency and see other young gay men who are active, educated and informed, it gets them excited about participating in LINX."