They're invisible in most school halls. Scared of being shunned by their peers, they laugh at the same jokes, put up the same posters andbrag with the rest of the guys in the locker room.
In suburban high schools, where the pressure to fit in can be overwhelming, few teen-agers openly admit they're gay. But that anonymity often is a double-edged sword. While it shields them from being taunted or beaten up by classmates, it also can lead them to take dangerous risks.
A rapidly growing number of Anne Arundel teen-agers and men in their 20s have been diagnosed with AIDS in the last year. Worried county health officials say they believe most were infected with the humanimmunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS by having unsafe sex in their adolescence.
The most recent statistics, which show that the county's AIDS rate now rivals that of major metropolitan cities like Detroit, were so alarming that health officials called a special conference to bring attention to the problem. More than 50 school counselors, ministers, social service providers and youth advocates looked at the grim figures and listened to speakers during yesterday's workshop on AIDS and adolescents at the Health Department's headquartersin Annapolis.
Dr. Linda Joe, who heads the department's communicable disease and epidemiology division, showed a map of Anne Arundel County covered with 135 dots, each representing a full-blown AIDS case, to describe the extent of the problem. From the rural southern end to the northernmost tip, no part of the county has been spared, she pointed out. Only 47 of the 135 people diagnosed with AIDS since 1981 are still living.
The overwhelming majority are men, including 27 in their early-to-late 20s, Joe said. Since it takes several years for an infected person to develop symptoms, she has concluded most of the young men picked up the virus by having unprotected sex as teen-agers.
"This is a risk that has to be addressed," she told the hushed audience. "I was shocked by (the statistics). I hope you are equally shocked by them."
Joe decided to call together a conference after noticing that eight out of every 100,000 people in the county have been diagnosed with AIDS, a rate comparable to that of large urban cities. Anne Arundel County has a higher AIDS rate than Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Gary, Ind., and Syracuse, N.Y. Though it falls far short of its neighbors -- Baltimore, Washington and Prince George's County -- the county nearly matches Detroit in its rate.
"The problem is we're always comparing ourselves to Baltimore and Washington and feeling complacent," Joe said in an interview after the workshop. "The Baltimore-Washington corridor has a tremendous AIDS problem, and we have tocome to grips with it and realize we're part of it."
Gay teen-agers often are confused and depressed about their sexual orientation, said John Hannay, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Baltimore. He told the workshop participants that many homosexual adolescents are afraid of being ostracized, unable to find anygood role models and isolated by cultural taboos.
Holding up several pamphlets on AIDS, he pointed out that even they included few images of homosexual couples. In a society that's biased in favor of heterosexuality, he said, gay teen-agers often don't get the right advice. And like other adolescents, they're likely to ignore even the mostobvious risks because they think nothing can happen to them.
William Lowry, who heads special projects for the state's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration, warned that such risk-taking is common after drinking or using drugs. Since a lot of homosexual culture revolves around bars -- the only outlet gay people had for many years -- the danger is great, he said.
"In places like Anne Arundel County, you will gravitate to larger cities and the bars," he said. "To be gay, tobe cool, you've got to drink. When you drink, your judgment is impaired."
He and the other speakers urged the workshop participants tospeak frankly with teen-agers and refer them to appropriate resources, such as the sexual minority youth program at the Harundale Youth and Family Service Center in Glen Burnie. They alsoemphasized the needto break the cultural taboos so gay teen-agers don't feel such a stigma in admitting their sexual orientation.
"We have to let people understand that it's here, it's not just something that happens in Baltimore and Washington," said Megan Davis, head of the Anne Arundel County AIDS Coalition.
"It's a danger to our kids, too.