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Campaign encourages youth to 'kiss and tell'

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This photo by Mike Ruiz is part of Gay Men Health Crisis' 'Kiss & Tell' campaign, which is intended to empower young black and Latino men to embrace their sexuality and talk openly about their sexual history. (Courtesy Mike Ruiz/GMHC) This photo by Mike Ruiz is part of Gay Men Health Crisis' 'Kiss & Tell' campaign, which is intended to empower young black and Latino men to embrace their sexuality and talk openly about their sexual history. (Courtesy Mike Ruiz/GMHC)
Emery Johnson (model), Sammy McPherson (model), Luna Ortiz (staff), Dexter Emmanuel (model), Jelani Stewart (model in chair), Justin Gomez (model), Cris Francisco (model) and Jaszi Alejandro (staff) enjoy a break from the "Kiss & Tell" photo shoot. (Cour Emery Johnson (model), Sammy McPherson (model), Luna Ortiz (staff), Dexter Emmanuel (model), Jelani Stewart (model in chair), Justin Gomez (model), Cris Francisco (model) and Jaszi Alejandro (staff) enjoy a break from the "Kiss & Tell" photo shoot. (Cour
A behind-the-scenes photo shows Mike Ruiz photographing "Kiss & Tell" model Justin Gomez. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC) A behind-the-scenes photo shows Mike Ruiz photographing "Kiss & Tell" model Justin Gomez. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC)
Ruiz brought along his fiancee, Martin Berusch, to the set. Berusch wore a 'Legalize Gay' shirt from American Apparel. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC) Ruiz brought along his fiancee, Martin Berusch, to the set. Berusch wore a 'Legalize Gay' shirt from American Apparel. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC)
Jelani Stewart (model), Cris Francisco (model), Merrell Hollis (make-up artist and groomer), Sammy McPherson (model), Emery Johnson (model), Dexter Emmanuel (model) and Memsor Kamarake (stylist) gather around Ruiz for shot. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC) Jelani Stewart (model), Cris Francisco (model), Merrell Hollis (make-up artist and groomer), Sammy McPherson (model), Emery Johnson (model), Dexter Emmanuel (model) and Memsor Kamarake (stylist) gather around Ruiz for shot. (Courtesy Thomas Evans/GMHC)

NEW YORK (RNN) - A new ad campaign designed to target the alarming HIV infection rates among young gay men encourages them to have conversations with their partners - the people they kiss - about their sexual histories.

"Kiss & Tell" features the work of famed celebrity photograph Mike Ruiz, whose images now line New York's subway trains and community venues. While it specifically targets black and Latino youth - the two populations most vulnerable to new infections - organizers feel the campaign's message is a universal one.

"The message of 'Kiss & Tell' shows gay youth that there are other teens who are not afraid to be who they are," said Sammie McPherson, one of the campaign's poster boys. "There are teens out there having the same thoughts and going through similar experiences."

Embracing one's health

The campaign does not instruct its target audience to participate in sexual activity. That choice is a personal one. Rather, it encourages them to make safe and educated choices if they choose to be intimate.

"To think that this campaign promotes promiscuity is ignorant. And that ignorance - plus homophobia - keeps gay men blinded from getting support," McPherson said. "If you speak about the numbers around HIV rates in the gay community, you can see how important this campaign is."

Janet Weinberg, chief operating officer of Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), highlighted the dangers facing these young men by sharing the most recent HIV statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which shows an alarming 48 percent increase in infections among young black men 13 to 29 years old between 2006 and 2009.

"What we know is if we don't talk about sex, it doesn't stop happening," she said. "It happens, and it doesn't happen safely."

No preaching: Youth help youth

While "Kiss & Tell" has Ruiz's stamp on it, the campaign was actually conceived by a group of youth ages 13 to 19 who saw the need to help their peers who are becoming HIV-infected at an early age. Each is a member of Club1319, a special youth leadership development program sponsored by GMHC.

"Thirteen to 19 year olds get it," Weinberg said. "They understand the need to kiss, they need to tell and what they're doing isn't wrong. How they do it needs to be safe."

Weinberg says that the biggest roadblock to the practice of safer sex is the continuous shame tied to gay relationships.

"Poverty, racism, sexism," Weinberg said. "It's stigma all driving this, the terrible fear of the consequences when a gay man comes out to the ones he loves."

McPherson, 23, addressed the issue of stigma in his own life.

"A few years ago, I dated another young gay man. I was out of the closet, and my partner was still in the closet. His family was strongly against homosexuality," he said. "So, instead of expressing his love for me in front of them, he would introduce me as his friend."

The relationship ended after just eight months.

A new and positive image

The law formerly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and its message of silence heavily advanced society's stigmas of gay relationships, Weinberg said. As the law's repeal was battled out in courts and in Congress, the youth in Club1319 were inspired to rise up and do the opposite: encourage others to "do" kiss and to "do" tell.

"It expresses another side of a gay relationship which is not often shown, and that is an open, honest, loving relationship," McPherson said of Club1319's campaign.

In Ruiz's photos, all common stereotypes of gay men are absent, and average men like McPherson are used in lieu of professional models.

"The bottom line is we've got to instill a sense of empowerment in them," Ruiz said of today's gay youth. "It all boils down to how they feel about themselves."

That feeling comes not just through his imagery but also through the conversations Ruiz hopes to spark from his highly-stylized photos.

"It is better to know what your partner is going through and how to protect yourself through safer sex. It is about protection," McPherson said. "When you set the boundaries, it is safer than not knowing."

'We want people to love'

When "Kiss & Tell" was launched this Valentine's Day, McPherson found himself in a completely different position than he was with his previous boyfriend. In the front row of the discussion was his partner, also Sammi but with an "I."

"It was amazing to see his enthusiasm about the campaign," McPherson said of Sammi. "It just meant the world to me."

McPherson said the campaign helped bring the pair closer together and gave him assurance of what he was capable of doing - having a loving relationship.

"We want people to love. We want people to make love, have love, feel love," Weinberg said. "We just want them to do it very safely."

Copyright 2012 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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