Changing the (Dis)Course of HIV/AIDS in the Black Community

Have you ever heard the saying, ‘When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you’? Sure you have. We all have. But a quick survey of our dialogue around the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community will reveal that a lot of us missed the message.  Rather than tackle the epidemic head-on, we’ve been focused on evading personal responsibility and blaming those most in need of our support.

It’s no secret that HIV/AIDS disproportionately impacts our community. In 2009, African Americans made up 14% of the U.S. population but accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for Black women was more than 15 times as high as the rate for White women. Black men, on the other hand, had an estimated rate of new HIV infections more than six and a half times as high as that of their White counterparts. Instead of owning up to our part in these alarming numbers, many of us misdirect our frustrations and anxieties.

The biggest indication is our fixation on the so-called “Down Low” – a phenomenon that assumes closeted men only exist in the Black community and discounts why some people might be uncomfortable with being open about who they love. In other words, we demonize people for what is often driven by legitimate concern (did you know that in 29 states people can still be fired for being openly gay?) as opposed to proactively creating safe and inclusive spaces in our homes, schools, churches, and workplaces.

Statistics certainly do indicate that our young Black gay and bisexual brothers are especially at risk for HIV infection. In 2009, Black gay and bisexual men made up 73% of new infections among all Black men, and 37% among all gay and bisexual men. In addition, new HIV infections among young Black gay and bisexual men increased by 48% from 2006–2009. But the hysteria around the so-called “Down Low” ignores the fact that HIV transmission is tied to specific high-risk behaviors that are not exclusive to any one sexual orientation. It also ignores that Black people in general—and Black women in particular—are disproportionately impacted by a number of health disparities.

"Are closeted gay and bisexual men giving Black women heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as well?” asks Charles Stephens, Southern Regional Organizer at AIDS United. "The question is why are Black women so vulnerable and at risk for so many poor health outcomes across the spectrum."

Health professionals also point out that Black bisexual men account for a very small proportion of the overall Black male population in the United States and that risk factors such as straight men with multiple sexual partners are much more prevalent in the community.

While it might be tempting to shift the fault from closeted gay and bisexual brothers to straight Black men with multiple partners, Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, advises that that is also a “losing battle.”

We need to move away from blame and shame and move towards accountability,” he explains. “It takes two people to transmit HIV but it takes one person to stop transmission. No one can give it to you without implicit or explicit permission.”

Wilson emphasizes that Black men and women, regardless of their sexual orientation, are all responsible. “We shouldn’t be scapegoating anyone,” he says. “We each need to take ownership.”

Stephens agrees that making Black men culpable isn't going to address the larger systematic and social challenges we face: "It's the lack of innovative sexual health education, disempowerment around assertive sexual communication and negotiation that put women at risk for HIV and the stigma that makes it difficult for all of us to talk openly and honestly about sexuality."

At the end of the day, the only thing blame does is fuel stigma. And stigma kills. According to the CDC, stigma is one of the driving causes of the high HIV/AIDS rates in the Black community. Many who are at risk for HIV infection fear stigma more than they want to know their status, choosing to hide their high-risk behavior rather than seek counseling and testing.

So instead of pointing fingers at who we think is perpetuating the problem, let’s each become a part of the solution. We can start by talking without judgment about testing, treatment and prevention.

Let’s change the course of HIV/AIDS by changing the conservation.