On National Black HIV/AIDS Day, we find ourselves deep into conversations about what disproportionately put us at risk for the disease; the importance of reducing stigma and misinformation; and why increased access to health is crucial in reducing new infections and more people linked to care.
While we make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population, we account for almost half of all new HIV infections each year. And this year, like last year, the dialogue on African-Americans and HIV was heavily focused on men who have sex with men (MSM) and heterosexual women. Granted, these two groups have the highest HIV/AIDS rates rates in our community, but I’m always perplexed as to how little we include heterosexual Black men into the conversation about HIV/AIDS.
What’s up with that?
The science has told us time and time again that Down-Low IS NOT fueling HIV among Black women. It’s also told us that 87 percent of Black women who contract HIV did so through heterosexual sex. So it seems obvious that it's not exactly a leap to say that straight Black men have HIV too.
The risk factor for men contracting HIV from women is lower than women contracting it from men, but it’s not impossible. That’s partially due to other factors as all that make straight men vulnerable to HIV infection: High rates of undiagnosed and untreated STDs; disproportionate poverty and poor health; the complete disconnect that many Black men have with the health care system; IV drug use; and mass incarceration of Black men, which takes significant numbers of brothers out of the community, leaving the men on the outside to share the same female partners.
The numbers, which we often overlook, don’t lie. When it comes to ranking the specific demographics impacted by HIV, Black heterosexual rank number five (Black women are fourth.) In 2010, more than 2700 Black heterosexual men were given an HIV diagnosis (compared to 5300 Black women,) according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If those numbers stays the roughly the same in the next five years, we could see a total of more than 13,000 newly diagnosed heterosexual Black men and in ten years, 27,000 men. And these numbers only reflect the men who have gotten tested. I shudder to think how many more straight Black men with HIV will fall through the testing cracks, completely unaware of their status because they believing that HIV is not their issue.
This is especially worrisome especially given that research shows that heterosexual men are more likely to control condom use in their sexual relationships.
And yet, there is silence.
Our community's homophobia and stigmatization of HIV/AIDS is partially to blame. When the epidemic first hit in the early ‘80s, AIDS was a "white gay man’s disease." In time, the face of AIDS morphed into a Black and Brown epidemic, but mostly one that comprised of gay men of color and women. Not to mention, we allowed ourselves to be bamboozled by the Down-Low myth, only creating more stigma around the disease, which only pushes more straight Black men living with HIV to hide in the shadows and not publicly speak out about the disease. (Do we really believe that in all this time, Magic Johnson is the only straight Black man to have HIV?
But we can’t take all the blame. AIDS Inc. and the public health realm, the same institutions that set the tone on awareness and education, are guilty as well for this gross oversight.
Now there are AIDS activists doing amazing work around straight Black men, but that work is far and few between, given the difficulty of getting funding for research on these particular projects. And it's a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy: You can only get funded if you have data, you can only get data if you have funding.
Also, despite thirty plus years into this epidemic both the CDC and Big Pharm have no programs and/or campaigns geared toward Black straight men. Not a one. Even worse: President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy doesn’t truly address the specific needs of heterosexual Black men in the same ways that it does Black MSM and Black women. And yet, each year we are bombarded with the same stale messages about how plausible it is to “get to zero” infections in our community. How will that happen if everyone's not invited to the table? Or if Black straight men are not forced to confront this disease the same way that Black women and Black MSM have?
If you ask me, getting to zero infections without educating straight Black men seems impossible.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, The Root, Glamour, Al Jazeera, The Body and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @kelleent