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Give young MSM the education they deserve

Tom Perry
20th March 2015

Last week we published the results of a nationwide survey of young men who are attracted to other men. The results are stark and telling of the current situation which many young gay men find themselves in: bullied at school; a curriculum which does not or did not meet their needs; and a poor understanding of HIV. All these factors add up to a fertile environment for HIV transmission-risk behavior.

As a society we continue to ignore the health and well-being needs of LGBT people, and this is no more obvious that in the education system. The survey found that of those who had ever been bullied of treated differently because of their sexual orientation, 99% had experienced this from a pupil and nearly a third from a teacher or another adult at school.

On top of this, the survey found that a majority of respondents reported not receiving basic information about HIV in SRE. Over a third reported not receiving any information about HIV transmission and safer sex, with more than two thirds reported receiving no information about HIV testing. In addition to this, three-quarters of respondents reported not receiving any information about same-sex relationships. We also found significant gaps in knowledge: amazingly, a third did not know or were not sure that you cannot contract HIV through kissing.

These are basic facts, which aren’t difficult to deliver, but it seems that many schools are still failing to do so. SRE is now expected to be much broader than it was before, covering issues such as consent and pornography. This is a great thing, but we can’t loose sight of the ABC in safer sex – transmission, prevention and testing.

Several SRE teachers have said to me that they struggle to explain how HIV is still relevant to the lives of the young people they teach. With no public awareness campaigns since the 1980’s, and a lack of mainstream media coverage, it is understandable that young people might believe HIV isn’t a serious issue in the UK anymore. But, with 1 in 17 gay men living with HIV in the UK, the ramifications of this are particularly serious for young MSM. If they leave school without understanding how HIV is relevant to them, how do we expect them to make informed decisions about their sexual health?

Three things need to happen if we are to see change. If we expect gay men to make positive choices about their sexual health we must first provide them with a good HIV education. Second, we must provide an education system, which values young LGBT people as equals and includes their needs within the curriculum. And finally, we must challenge homophobic bullying and provide the right kind of support so that LGBT young people can leave school feeling good about themselves and with the resilience they require to face the world as adults.

Is this really too much to ask? We urgently need to start addressing these issues within holistic responses, which recognize how these issues can interconnect. With the right guidance and joined up working with local government and other professionals, schools can and should rise to the occasion and play their part.

For a full set of recommendations for schools and improving HIV knowledge among young MSM, see recommendations 4 to 8, 12, and 16-17 in our report

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