Cleveland--A young man about fourteen years old gets off the 326 bus. His eyes are large and frightened as they look across the street at the foreboding building looming before him. He searches to his left and right for prying eyes before looking down at the scrap of paper he�d ripped from the resource directory of the Gay People�s Chronicle.
He double-checks the address�3615 Superior Avenue�to assure himself that he has the right location. Quickly, he rushes across the street, barely watching out for traffic. As he walks toward Tyler Industrial Park�s security gate the sound of laughter and pronoun-switching signals to him that the oasis he�d long sought was just past the security guard and two doors down the parking lot.
The guard nods, barely registering his presence, as the boy continues his journey to the small gathering of hip-hop geared, high-pitched teens leaning against the brick wall and crowding Building 31�s door. As he approaches the young black and brown faces, they look him over. He lowers his eyes as walks past them to enter the building. Their judgments about his looks, fashion, and presumed masculinity ring in his ears as he begins climbing the stairs to the second floor. He overhears one say that he�s cute, causing a smile to tease his lips.
He takes a deep breath and opens the door, seeing a bright yellow computer lab filled with civil rights memorabilia, ethnic and gay flags, teen queens, brooding homo-thugs, statuesque lipstick lesbians, and a twenty-year old corn-rolled butch girl called Daddy smiling at him.
�Whassup? I�m NaToya, welcome to Beyond Identities Community Center,� she says. He smiles at her; at last he�s found a sanctuary, a home.
Over three hundred Cleveland teens and young adults have made a similar journey since the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland opened the Beyond Identities Community Center on April 15. Most of them are Latino and African-Americans between the ages of 15 to 20 (BICC serves ages 13 to 22 during the week and 18 to 24 on Saturdays).
While the majority of youth BICC serves are male, aggressive outreach has rewarded the center with a growing number of young women and transgender teens. Partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control and the Ohio Department of Health, BICC�s primary goal is to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS infection among sexual minority youth in the Cleveland area.
HIV prevention is one of the first issues that local transgender activist and Ms. Deco 2004, TBoo Garry, approaches youth about during their initial member intake.
�Have you been tested for HIV, honey? And if so, how long has it been since your last test?� asks TBoo as she intensely watches his reaction. He tries not to gawk, but he�d never before seen a male-to-female transgender in person. He certainly couldn�t remember a time when he saw one professionally employed. He tries to avoid her gaze, staring at the double-sided intake form as he answers the question.
TBoo registers his mumbled �No, I ain�t been tested,� before proceeding with a well-rehearsed pitch.
�Well sweetie, knowing your status is very important. Knowing means no more assumptions and guesswork. If you know you�re negative we can teach you how to stay that way. If you�re positive, with today�s new treatment an early diagnosis can be the difference between a longer life and a short, painful one. If you�re ready to know your status so that you can take control of your sexual health, I can set you up with an appointment this next Wednesday. We offer free HIV testing every Wednesday from 4 to 6pm.�
He nods to let her know he�s received her message, even as his attention drifts to the music coming from the big blue room he�d glimpsed when he arrived. TBoo proceeds by offering him a menu of other youth social service options, from STD testing to youth counseling services. Cleveland�s youth unemployment rate, high drop-out rate among harassed LGBT youth and cadre of undereducated parents ready to displace their misunderstood child, results in BICC making hundreds of crisis interventions and alternative education referrals every month.
For now, the closeted fourteen-year-old doesn�t need any of these services, so he�s a little overwhelmed by TBoo�s laundry list and anxious to join the party in the blue room. Seeing his urgency, she briefly checks his intake form before leading him on a tour.
�You want something to drink? We got pop and juice. If you�re hungry, we have snacks and hot food available. Members are welcome to just go in the fridge and get their meal for the day. For some of our kids, it�s the only real meal they get,� explains TBoo as she walks him to the refrigerator.
The two continue through the computer lab where one-hour time limits, warnings against porn surfing, music downloading and pirated software are posted before every computer. Some are completing their homework. Others talk in chat rooms, while a few bunch around a computer to hoot and holler over a music video. In the midst of this noisy space, TBoo ushers the young man into BICC�s associate director of youth programs. With one firm handshake and a smile, he is quickly introduced to the taller, older black gay man.
�If you have any questions or need to talk about anything, just let me know. My door is open,� he says, instantly reminding the boy of family. �Have a good time watching the kids fall out, they only get to do it on Fridays, so enjoy!�
BICC�s newest member doesn�t get what Gipson means by �fall out,� until he sees a group of teens dancing and voguing to house music in a circle of youth clapping and chanting to the rhythmic beat. The energy, talent, and drama of it all fills him with such awe that soon the young man finds himself clapping to the rhythm as the dancers twist, twirl, and fall to the floor. He is struck by the freedom of their movements, language, and presentation, by their ability to be fully, wonderfully themselves without repercussion.
Later, Toya interrupts to make announcements about a December HIV prevention workshop series named �Many Men, Many Voices;� Hepatitis screening; anger management workshop and the semi-finals for BICC�s talent show. Once she�s done, she instructs everyone to clean up to get a bus ticket from her.
While the new member waits in a line for a ticket home, Gipson offers him a �What is Love?� poster from LifeArt�s Questions Campaign, an AIDS Taskforce HIV awareness marketing campaign targeting LGBT teens. The poster shows two young black men standing intimately close against BICC�s brick wall. He takes the poster, even though he�s not sure where he can put it once he gets back to his conservative home.
He thinks about the campaign�s tagline, �I�ve got 99 problems, is HIV one?�Knowing that he�s found a place that will help him deal with any problem, even if HIV is one of them, he feels warmed as he steps outside into the cold winter wind.
L. Michael Gipson is the assistant director of youth programs for BICC.