Dionte Jerome Gill said he only remembers getting one lesson on sexual health in his educational career.
“It’s mainly like, ‘Don’t have sex. You’re going to get pregnant.’ The end. That’s it,” said the senior at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. “I wanted to know more. But I also wanted to be able to actually help other people because I know what I go through myself.”
Gill is gay and has spent the last several months working with other teens and the nonprofit Public Health Management Corporation to develop an outdoor and social-media campaign called Real Rap Philly. It targets ages 12-24.
The sexual-health initiative launched Sept. 22 with a reception at City Hall. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Dr. N. Nina Ahmad, deputy mayor for public engagement, gave their stamps of approval to the engaged youth behind the project.
Ads will run on SEPTA bus shelters for the next three months. They say things like, “Will I lose his trust if I suggest a condom? Real Rap: You won’t. Have the courage to talk about it!”
Resources for having conversations about sexual health are also available online at www.realrapphilly.com, and youth-led programs will continue throughout the year.
“Real Rap Philly takes a sex-positive, inclusive and empowering approach to prevention,” said Emmy Stup, director of Philadelphia Area Sexual Health Initiatives at the Public Health Management Corporation. “Rather than scare people out of doing something that we know they’ll do anyway, Real Rap Philly encourages youth to engage in sexual behavior if they choose, but to do so safely. We get to the heart of why making safer decisions can be challenging.”
Stup said young people want to feel free to ask questions about birth control or HIV and STI testing, and get accurate information in return, so they can make their own decisions about their health.
“Talking about issues and barriers with parents, peers and partners encourages openness and equality in relationships,” she said.
Janyah Green, another senior at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, said she had to get used to having open conversations. She used to avoid the word “sex” because it made her feel awkward. But recently, in talking with her mother, she’s even become more comfortable using anatomical terms.
“Now I love saying I’m a safe-sex advocate for the City of Philadelphia,” Green said. “People say, ‘What does that mean?’ And I’m like, ‘Let me tell you.’”
The mothers of Green and Gill were in the audience for the launch of Real Rap Philly. Both said it was important to let their kids know they could ask questions and talk to them about sexual health.
“In our day, they said, ‘You’re not having sex.’ Period. It’s like a threat,” said Shavon Green, Janyah’s mom. “As a parent, I appreciate that they opened this up for us. It makes me a little more aware.”
Denise Gill, Dionte’s mom, said she used to serve as a safe-sex advocate for Planned Parenthood when she was a teenager.
“Because he’s finally coming out with his sexuality,” she said of her son, “I really wanted to support him in his advocacy for safe sex. I wanted to show him no matter who you’re becoming, I’m going to be there at any cost. He has somebody in his corner at all times.”
Gill has begun some behind-the-scenes work on Chrome 2 Color, a video series that will share information on preventing unwanted pregnancy in the LGBT community. It’s expected to launch in May as part of the Real Rap Philly umbrella of programs.
Gill added he recently met a teen who is living with HIV. That made him want to talk to his peers about sexual health even more. He said schools in Philadelphia need to expand their education on STIs.
“Most people, they know what a condom is,” he said, “but … they don’t know that rubber is life or death. They need to know that you’re not only going to get pregnant if you don’t use one, but you could also die. It’s just that real.”
Deputy Mayor Ahmad noted communication is often what’s lacking. She recently read an article about pre-exposure prophylaxis, called PrEP, a daily pill regimen that’s shown to be effective at preventing HIV. It made the point that people don’t know about the pill, so they don’t use it.
“We’re known as the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, and we have the highest rates of STIs in the state,” Ahmad said. “Here’s my party line: We cannot have affection without protection.”