Commentary Sexual Health

On National Youth HIV and AIDS Day, the Boston College ‘Troublemakers’ Speak

Lizzie Jekanowski

Our crime has made national news: We’re giving out condoms. At a Catholic University.

To commemorate the first annual National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day, April 10, this blog is part of a series recognizing young people as key partners in the fight against HIV and AIDS and calls on leaders to fully invest in young people so we can reach an AIDS-free generation.

Published in partnership with Advocates for Youth.

See all our coverage of National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day here.

Lately we’ve been having some trouble at school. Our grades are fine. We’re not vandalizing the campus. We’re not part of a cheating scandal. But our crime has made national news. You might have heard about it.

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We’re giving out condoms.

And we’re giving out information about how to use condoms to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy.

At Boston College (BC), a Catholic university.

For this, we’ve been told by the dean that we’ll be disciplined if we don’t stop.

This is all happening just in time for Wednedsay’s National Youth HIV and AIDS Day (NYHAAD), a day when youth activists around the nation are gathering together to promote HIV testing, fight stigma, and hold our leaders accountable for helping create an AIDS-free generation. This is what we’re doing today: holding BC accountable.

BC promotes abstinence until marriage as the only acceptable means of protection from STIs and pregnancy. Abstinence is a great choice for individuals who choose it. But by age 19, 70 percent of people have already had sex, and 95 percent of people have sex before they are married. What about those students’ lives and futures? Doesn’t BC want everyone to have all the tools they need to be healthy and productive? Why would the college withhold vital information and supplies from its students, and instead promote silence and shame?

For people who are sexually active, condoms are highly effective at preventing HIV. It’s common sense that being able to get condoms nearby and for free makes students likelier to use them. That’s why the Great American Condom Campaign was founded: to make it easier for college students to get protection before they need it. That’s why, on this day dedicated to prioritizing young people in the fight against HIV and AIDS, we refuse to stop providing condoms on our campus.

Boston College is not alone in creating obstacles to ending the AIDS epidemic. Many campuses ban condom distribution. Many school districts don’t provide comprehensive information about contraception and condoms. Most college and high school students have never been tested for HIV. There is still a lot of work to be done to become a sexually healthy nation.

We do this work because we are dedicated to keeping our fellow students and their partners safer and healthier. We have the right to work to make our campus community healthier.

On NYHAAD, we’re standing with thousands of students around the country. We need to ensure access to safer sex materials, resources, and information. All of us need and have a right to comprehensive information and services, and a voice in decisions that affect us.

We’re leading the fight to get to an AIDS-free generation. We’re not backing down.

And, trouble or not, we’re still handing out condoms!

Commentary Sexual Health

Fewer Teens Are Having Sex, But Don’t Pop the Champagne Yet

Martha Kempner

The number of teens having sex may be less important than the number having protected sex. And according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, condom use is dropping among young people.

Every two years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (CDC-DASH) surveys high school students to gauge how often they engage in perceived risky behaviors. The national Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS) is wide ranging: It asks about violence, guns, alcohol, drugs, seat belts, bicycle safety, and nutrition. It also asks questions about “sexual intercourse” (which it doesn’t define as a specific act) and sexual behaviors.

Started in 1991, this long-running study can provide both a picture of what high school students are doing right now and a historical perspective of how things have changed. But for more than a decade, the story it has told about sexual risk has been the virtually the same. Risk behaviors continually declined between 1991 and 2001, with fewer high school students having sex and more of them using condoms and contraception. But after the first 10 years, there has been little change in youth sexual risk behaviors. And, with each new release of almost unchanging data, I’ve reminded us that no news isn’t necessarily good news.

This year, there is news and it looks good—at least on the surface. The survey showed some significant changes between 2013 and 2015; fewer kids have ever had sex, are currently sexually active, or became sexually active at a young age. More teens are relying on IUDs and implants, which are virtually error-proof in preventing pregnancy.

In 2015, 41 percent of high school students reported ever having had sexual intercourse compared to 47 percent in 2013. The researchers say this is a statistically significant decrease, which adds to the decreases seen since 1991, when 54 percent of teens reported ever having had sexual intercourse.

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Another change is in the percentage of students who had sex for the first time before age 13. In 2015, 4 percent of high school students reported this compared to almost 6 percent in 2013. This is down from a full 10 percent in 1991. As for number of overall partners, that is down as well, with only 12 percent of students reporting four or more partners during their lifetime compared to 15 percent in 2013 and 19 percent in 1991. Finally, the percentage of students who are currently sexually active also decreased significantly between 2013 (34 percent) and 2015 (30 percent).

These are all positive developments. Delaying sex can often help prevent (at least temporarily) the risk of pregnancy or STIs. Having fewer partners, especially fewer concurrent partners, is frequently important for reducing STI risk. And those teens who are not currently having sex are not currently at risk for those things.

While I want to congratulate all teens who took fewer risks this year, I’m not ready to celebrate those statistics alone—because the number of teens having sex is less important to me than the percentage of teens having sex that is protected from both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. And that number is lower than it once was.

Among sexually active teens, there were no significant positive changes in measures of safer sex other than an increase in the number of sexually active high school students using the IUD or implant (up to 4 percent from 2 percent in 2013).

Moreover, some results indicate that today’s teens are using less protection than those who were teens a decade ago. The most telling finding might be the percentage of teens who used no method of contraception the last time they had sex. This decreased between 1991 and 2007 (from 17 percent to 12 percent), inched up to 14 percent in 2013, and stayed the same in 2015 (14 percent). There was also little to no change in the percentage of high school students who say that either they or their partner used birth control pills between 2013 (19 percent) and 2015 (18 percent) or those who say they used the contraceptive shot, patch, or ring (5 percent in 2013 and 2015).

For me, however, the most distressing finding is the backward progress we continue to see in condom use. The prevalence of high school students who used a condom at last sex went up from 45 percent in 1991 to 63 percent in 2003. But then it started to drop. In 2015, only 57 percent of sexually active high school students used condoms the last time they had sex, less than in 2013, when 59 percent said they used condoms.

It’s not surprising that teens use condoms less frequently than they did a decade ago. In the 1990s, the HIV epidemic was still front and center, and condoms were heavily promoted as a way to avoid infection. As this threat waned—thanks to treatment advances that now also serve as prevention—discussions of the importance of condoms diminished as well. The rise of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs may have also affected condom use, because these programs often include misinformation suggesting condoms are unreliable at best.

Unfortunately, some of the negative messages about condoms inadvertently came from public health experts themselves, whether they were promoting emergency contraception with ads that said “oops, the condom broke”; encouraging the development of new condoms with articles suggesting that current condoms are no fun; or focusing on teen pregnancy and the use of highly effective contraceptive methods such as long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC). The end result is that condoms have been undersold to today’s teenagers.

We have to turn these condom trends around, because despite the decreases in sexual activity, young people continue to contract STIs at an alarming rate. In 2014, for example, there were nearly 950,000 reported cases of chlamydia among young people ages 15 to 24. In fact, young people in this age group represented 66 percent of all reported chlamydia cases. Similarly, in 2014, young women ages 15 to 19 had the second-highest rate of gonorrhea infection of any age group (400 cases per 100,000 women in the age group), exceeded only by those 20 to 24 (489 cases per 100,000 women).

While we can be pleased that fewer young people are having sex right now, we can’t fool ourselves into believing that this is enough or that our prevention messages are truly working. We should certainly praise teens for taking fewer risks and use this survey as a reminder that teens can and do make good decisions. But while we’re shaking a young person’s hand, we should be slipping a condom into it. Because someday soon (before high school ends, for more than half of them), that teenager will have sex—and when they do, they need to protect themselves from both pregnancy and STIs.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

How One Couple Is Putting Bathroom Safety on the Map

Ryan Thomas

Like the Negro Motorist Green Book, the Safe Bathrooms map is not so much a novelty but a vital resource to protect the safety of its users at a time when history is repeating itself in a way that is marginalizing an already vulnerable population.

This piece was published in collaboration with Generation Progress.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) seems to think it’s a governor’s duty to classify which men and women are the “real” ones and which aren’t. Because of this, he has put the lives of all of North Carolina’s trans residents at risk by signing HB 2 into law.

Last week state legislators proposed changes to HB 2, but those changes do nothing to mitigate an unabashed blastoma of transphobia that is now lawfully spreading at a vicious pace.

In response to HB 2, droves of businesses and musicians have boycotted the state in hopes of stopping this unmitigated discrimination toward trans people from moving any further.

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People have banded together to show their support for the trans community, and businesses across the state and country have declared themselves safe havens for trans-identifying individuals by submitting to the Safe Bathrooms map.

The map’s creators—River William Luck, a trans community activist, and his partner (and as of recently, fiancée), web design specialist Emily Rae Waggoner—both live in Boston, but the fight to protect trans rights affects them on a deeply personal level: They’re both from North Carolina.

When HB 2 was signed into law, Luck says, “I was on guard, because I’ve been told I’m in the wrong bathroom my entire life as a masculine-presenting female for more than 30 years.”

Now his home state has become one big ”Do Not Enter” sign for him and his friends still there. Luck’s reaction, however, was not one of helplessness. His instinct, which he learned to follow after years of experiencing and bearing witness to bigotry, was to bind the community and help strengthen it through tangible acts of love and support.

One Reddit commenter likened the map to the Negro Motorist Green Book of the 1930s to 1960s, which was published to help Black travelers in the United States find safe passage in times when racial persecution was legal. Like the Negro Motorist Green Book, the bathrooms’ map is not so much a novelty but a vital resource to protect the safety of its users at a time when history is repeating itself in a way that is marginalizing an already vulnerable population.

Before the Safe Bathrooms map, Luck started mailing hundreds of buttons from the #IllGoWithYou campaign to friends and family back home. The #IllGoWithYou campaign was developed as a means for allies to offer solidarity and protection to transgender and non-binary individuals. By wearing a button, participants pledge to stand up and speak up during instances of harassment and physical endangerment.

“This is my way of paying it forward,” Luck says. “What I’ve done is buy a shit ton of buttons and if someone wants one, I send them one. If they can’t afford it, I send them one. If they want to know more about it, I write them a note and ask people to pick up more.”

His reasoning is simple: “I would have given anything to have seen one of these when I was in North Carolina.”

Luck’s meaningful gestures extends to the clothes he wears, as he frequently can be found sporting a t-shirt that says “No Hate in Our State” or a tank top with the words “Proud Transman” printed in bold. River models several lines of what he refers to as “activism wear,” as a product ambassador a variety of labels including a Greensboro, North Carolina-based company called Deconstructing Gender, and another called Proud Animals.

It’s actually the former that planted the seed for the Safe Bathrooms map, as Luck and Waggoner were inspired by the photos of gender-neutral bathrooms posted on the company’s Instagram account. While the two were talking to Deconstructing Gender’s founder and CEO Avery Dickerson, who was transitioning at the time, Waggoner said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a map of safe bathrooms where trans people could go without hassle?”

And so with Waggoner’s web design expertise and Luck’s social media skills, the Safe Bathrooms map came to life as a child of both necessity and wishful thinking. As they built it, the people came in droves: businesses, affected community members, and media alike.

With over 200 businesses included to date, the two have put together a functioning survival guide for trans residents and travelers who also possess bladders.

Waggoner shared one email with Rewire that she received from a man who owns an architecture firm in Maine, who requested to have his business be included on the map:

I, therefore this business, stand for equality, acceptance, and kindness to all. As a gay man, and one living with HIV for 30 years now, I know too well that indifference to discrimination, condoned cruelty, and legalized oppression are terminal illnesses. These behaviors killed the dreams, and injured the very souls of our young, and further darkened the roads the rest of us continue to travel. It must stop.

To be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, businesses need simply fill out this form and verify their trans-friendliness with a photo of a gender-neutral bathroom placard or other clear form of expression. Upon approval, businesses are represented on the map as a roll of toilet paper. For those lacking, the Safe Bathrooms website goes one step further and shows businesses where they can obtain gender-neutral bathroom signs for their private spaces.

Waggoner and Luck know personally how useful such a map can be. Waggoner says she’s had to stake out bathrooms to make sure the coast is clear, like a Secret Service member. One time, she says, “We were in a restaurant waiting to use the bathroom. We could feel the tension in the air and feel the stares. And it became very uncomfortable because people at the bar were openly just watching which bathroom River was going to go into. And we feared for his safety and our safety.”

Luck continues, “We ended up having to leave and go to a friend’s house so I could use the bathroom and detoured the whole evening plans so I could pee safe.”

Clearly the problem won’t end once HB 2 and other anti-trans laws like it are repealed. The attitudes that brought these policies into being still exist and must be dealt with. But, as Luck attests, there is a definite support system of love and acceptance in North Carolina. He found it in Greensboro as a music teacher at New Garden Friends School, a Quaker school. “They were so open and embraced diversity that I could be an out lesbian,” says Luck.

Greensboro has very distinct pockets of support, which is where a lot of the safe bathrooms appear on the map. But even in places less supportive deeper south, Waggoner notes there are still good friends to be found: “It’s been cool to see some of the small-business owners in some of the more rural towns popping up. Like in Salisbury, North Carolina. It’s really brave of them to do that—to be the first in their town to speak up and say something, and be the first on the map.”

The outpouring of support may be having an effect: University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings recently gave a statement saying that she would not enforce HB 2 or change any of the school’s current provisions. Spellings did originally plan to enforce HB 2. It wasn’t until U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declared the state in violation of civil rights and threatened to cut up to $4.8 billion in federal funding to the school that Spellings changed her position (and McCrory sued the federal government).

Before Spellings changed her decision, students from various on-campus alliance groups held loud protests outside of buildings in which she was attending meetings, in efforts to sway her judgment. Students at schools across the state affected by the law are making their opposition known.

On a K-12 level, there are organizational efforts through nonprofit Gay-Straight Alliance groups such as Time Out Youth, which offers resources and aid to LGBTQ minors living in inclusive North Carolina and South Carolina school districts. Its website lists student rights, including the rights to gender expression, confidentiality, and respective pronoun usage, as well the right to attend school functions and report on instances of bullying (which state public schools are required by law to deal with).

Luck has spent most of his life traveling against the grain of society’s intolerance–from a misunderstood kid living with his grandparents, to a determined and proud trans man working hard to end the ritual persecution of his fellow person.

Growing up in North Carolina in a conservative Baptist household, Luck remembers being called a “tomboy” and being told “not to act like a boy” as young as 3 years old. Luck attended and was eventually kicked out of a Christian high school for identifying as a “lesbian” (this was before he identified as trans). Luck says he’s been working steadily since he was 13, when his first job was at a Chick-fil-A.

In college, Luck had a psychology professor who taught that homosexuality was a disorder.

“I remember sitting in the class waiting for someone to say something, because I didn’t want to say anything,” Luck says.

After going to the head of the psych department, and then the head of the school, Luck managed to get the homophobic lesson pulled from the syllabus.

“That was a time in my life where I realized if I didn’t say something, no one would. And so I had to. That’s when my activism really started,” Luck says.

Coming to Boston for grad school, Luck found his new home to be much less critical of his outward gender appearance, and found true love in his partner. Luck says Waggoner accepted and supported his transition every step of the way—from coming out (a second time) as transgender, to life-affirming surgeries and ongoing treatments, to his sweeping romantic proposal involving a trip to New York City, a rare Harry Potter book, and a cleverly inserted engagement ring.

Luck and Waggoner hope to expand upon all the ground they’ve covered in North Carolina and take their Safe Bathrooms map to national and international levels.

Luck says he wants to ultimately see the whole state of North Carolina become “a giant roll of toilet paper.”

“We’d [also] love for it to grow to be an international thing, especially given all the anti-LGBT sentiments in other countries. Because we’re everywhere. And everybody needs to have that access,” he says.

The two do have an app in the works to accompany their Safe Bathrooms map, which they hope to give a Yelp-like interface to allow community members to find safe bathrooms on the go, and review and share their own individual bathroom experiences.

All of this work points to a very simple goal: to make it so trans people don’t have to endure daily humiliation exercises to find a toilet that comes with no strings attached.

“The bottom line is … I’m a human being who happens to be trans. But before I would label myself trans, I would say I’m an activist, an actor, a student, an artist, a musician, a good partner, a good relative … All these other qualities that define me that have so much more weight,” says Luck.

To show support for the trans community and be included on the Safe Bathrooms map, visit SafeBathrooms.club.