It may be no coincidence that while Washington, D.C., continues to reel from news of its "generalized and severe" HIV epidemic, membership in D.C. Young Poz Socials, a networking and support group, has swelled to more than 700 gay men.
A devastating 120-page report by the district's AIDS office has revealed that at least 3% of Washingtonians older than 12 -- more than 15,000 city residents -- are HIV-positive. Actual infection rates may be as high as 5%, some experts note, and that puts D.C. on par with some hard-hit African nations.
Despite having the highest HIV prevalence of any locale in the country, stigma and discrimination run so high in D.C. that many HIVers there remain essentially closeted and isolated, afraid to reveal their serostatus to even family members and close friends.
The group is focused specifically on breaking that isolation by connecting HIV-positive gay men with each other for support, friendship, and camaraderie through social activities that include bowling nights, white-water rafting trips, and jaunts to Atlantic City, N.J.
Shawn Henderson, who has led the group since 2004, says it is vital for him and his peers, since living and working in the nation's capital poses distinct challenges for gay men.
"Everybody's connected politically," says 35-year-old Henderson, who is working for the Department of Homeland Security while pursuing studies in religion. "It's a very conservative town."
This makes the disclosure to others of one's living with HIV -- even to other gay men -- "like having to come out all over again," says Henderson, whose own grandparents severed their relationship with him upon hearing that he is HIV-positive.
Edward Cooper, who is 36 years old and a member of the group since 2004, says he finds comfort in socializing with people who also experience the same issues he deals with on a daily basis. As an example, he points to the ability to discuss with other group members the side effects of his anti-HIV medications. These sorts of connections and conversations allow young HIV-positive men to truly be themselves, says Cooper, perhaps "even more so than in their own network of friends."
For Henderson, the most meaningful moments with the social group aren't planned. Tearing up, he shares that at almost every gathering, a newly diagnosed -- and scared -- young man will break down crying, thinking that he "won't be able to continue." Henderson adds, "Within 10 minutes he's surrounded by other members and laughing."