Gender and Sexuality Column

Gov. Cuomo’s HIV/AIDS legislation empowers, educates youth

/ The Daily Orange

Though it’s been about four decades since the U.S.’s major epidemic, addressing HIV/AIDS is still crucial in this day and age. And in light of the misconceptions and stigma attached to AIDS, any program that can offer treatment or education for people living with HIV/AIDS should be commended.

A prime example of a program that pushes back on the negative attention HIV/AIDS receives is New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recently passed legislation that gives minors the freedom to get treatment without parental consent. In particular, the bill advances minor access to PrEP, which is a pharmaceutical one-a-day HIV/AIDS preventive.

The bill is crucial because it provides sexual health resources and discussions that are more comprehensive than what kids get inside the classroom. Combined with the generally weak sex education in schools across the board, the stigma attached to anything to do with the LGBT community though HIV/AIDS is no longer just a “gay thing” — has created resistance to conversations about fighting HIV/AIDS.

And with youth aged 13-24 making up 26 percent of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., it’s clear that Cuomo’s willingness to speak up for New York’s young people is much-needed and much appreciated. First introduced this past May, Cuomo’s legislation permits health care providers to test, diagnose and treat illnesses related to HIV/AIDS to all persons under 18. Previously, minors were still allowed to be tested for STDs without consent from parents, but HIV was exempt from that list. And PrEP wasn’t accessible to youth either.

As Cuomo said himself when he announced plans for the bill, New York “has taken a holistic approach to ending the AIDS epidemic” in breaking down the barriers to treatment. This expanded health outreach is a great step toward demanding a more knowledgeable, accepting society — especially when it comes to LGBT and AIDS-affected youth.

In this vein, McGill University professor Mark Wainberg, who has specialized in microbiology behind HIV/AIDS’s effect on the immune system since 1982, emphasized the importance of sexual resources without having to wait for parents’ approval. As our culture becomes more accepting, young men who have sex with men are more willing to be sexually active than in previous decades. So any move toward making these resources more readily available is welcome.

Take increased access to PrEP, for example. Allowing at-risk minors access to the leading prevention drug is the least state governments can do.

“PrEP is a great idea and it has come a long way,” said Wainberg. “The adolescent population may need far more counseling on staying adherent to PrEP, which may not be the case for older people.”

Ultimately, the ability to receive testing without parental consent is freeing for LGBT youth who may not have come out yet or do not feel comfortable discussing their concerns with their parents. Still, Wainberg recognized the key role that parents can and do play.

“I’m sympathetic to parents’ rights. And the fact that there are probably a majority of parents — and even parents of LGBT children — who will be thoughtful and kind, and could be hurt if they weren’t included,” Wainberg said.

When it comes to this progress in New York state, HIV/AIDS prevention has been in the works for two years now. As outlined on the NY State Department of Health’s website, Cuomo has been working to end the NY state aids epidemic by the year 2020 since 2014.  This echoes the campaign #EndAIDS2020, which was started by the American Foundation for AIDS Research around the same time.

But what makes Cuomo’s initiative so important is it making all the difference to HIV-positive and AIDS-positive young people across New York. Especially when all of New York state’s AIDS resources seem to be centralized in New York City, this bill is remarkable because it addresses the issue throughout the rest of the state.

It is one thing to read about HIV/AIDS or watch “Dallas Buyers Club,” but it is another thing entirely to actually be a part of the fight. While we can’t all donate billions, we can volunteer, attend health courses and advocate for legislation like the kind that Cuomo has put in place.

There are many cultural and social revolutions that are happening in our lifetime, but the concept of contributing to a healthy and sex-positive society is an opportunity that shouldn’t go to waste. And on the uphill struggle of AIDS-affected communities, it’s clear that Cuomo is leading the way for New York.

Myelle Lansat is a junior magazine journalism major and policy studies minor. She can be reached at malansat@syr.edu.

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