First observed in 1995, National HIV Testing Day (NHTD) promotes HIV testing and encourages people to learn their HIV status. According to the Center for Disease Control, nearly 20% of all people living with HIV are unaware they have the virus, are not getting adequate medical care, and may be unknowingly exposing others to it. Among African-Americans, rates of HIV are alarming, with African-Americans being the racial/ethnic group most affected by the virus.
I had a dynamic conversation with award-winning singer-songwriter Keri Hilson and medical doctor and sexologist Dr. Rachel Ross about the importance of NHTD, and how OraQuick—the new, FDA-approved at-home HIV test—might help change the way we think of and approach HIV testing.
EBONY: Keri, how did you get involved with HIV testing awareness?
Keri Hilson: I’m always looking to lend my voice for charities I feel strongly about. I’ve done quite a few things with many different charities that support awareness and prevention. Robi Reed asked me to be an ambassador for the Reed for Hope organization. She sees me as a voice for young girls, someone they look up to and respect. I live a healthy life and she saw me on Twitter talking about health. When she asked, I immediately said “I’m in,” because I know HIV hits our community so hard. Alarmingly, it is the number one killer, especially for African-American women. And me being an African-American woman, I feel so responsible for getting this out there.
EBONY: For African-American women ages 16-34, it is the number one cause of death. This is also the primary pop culture target audience. What, if any, responsibility do artists in pop culture have when it comes to addressing this issue?
KH: I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself. I feel a huge social responsibility, especially now. Kids are having sex a lot earlier. They’re trying and experimenting with things a lot earlier. I just want to make sure that if you’re going to do it, you do it safely. Take care of your body.
EBONY: Dr. Rachel, let’s talk about why it’s important, particularly in the African-American community, that we do get tested. You’re coming from Gary, Indiana, and I’m sure you’re hearing a lot of concerns about getting tested, or people are just scared, or maybe they don’t see the value of it. What can we do to increase awareness about HIV testing in our community?
Dr. Rachel Ross: A big thing that we face in our community is denial. We’re in denial that what we’re eating isn’t right and we’re in denial that these sexual activities [put us] at risk. A recent survey asked people, “Are you at risk for HIV?” About 70% or so said, “No, I’m not at risk.” But when you really look at what’s considered “at risk,” they were, in fact, at risk. So I think we’re in denial about our sexual behaviors. It’s cultural.
I think when it comes to HIV testing, there’s the denial thing, but there’s also the lack of education and access to resources. Even though OraQuick has been out since October, I’m surprised by how many people don’t know you can take the test at home. Access to care is another big thing in our community, across the board with all health care, like diabetes and heart disease. There’s all these barriers in our lives that keep us from focusing on ourselves. And then there’s stigma. Even though so many of us have it, I think there’s still this denial and [people think] “Well, I don’t know anyone who has it.” The problem is, you don’t know anyone who looks like they have it. And if nobody looks like they have it, you think nobody has it. Until it becomes a little more discussed, I think we’re still going to be in denial as a culture. We need to get out of the dark about it and start discussing it.
EBONY: How do we do that? There’s been a slight decrease in contraction rates among Black women, but we’re seeing increases now among young Black men. How do we get people to go and get tested? How does OraQuick play into this?
KH: I think it speaks to the fact that it’s become so much easier, and it’s the awareness, like Dr. Rachel said. People in denial can be made aware by people like myself and Dr. Rachel, Dr. Robbie Reed, and other celebrities and athletes, entertainers in general, making people, especially the youth, aware. If they don’t know, they won’t do anything about it.
EBONY: Dr. Rachel, you brought up the issue of access. I went to my local drug store and saw they had OraQuick there and I also saw the cost of it. I know some people are going to feel that $40 is a lot of money. What do we do about that?
DRR: That’s an issue I face as a doctor. A lady will come into the office and she’ll have her weave freshly done and her nail are laid, and I don’t think she did them herself, but she doesn’t want to pay her copay. Asking the average Black person to come up with $40 isn’t the issue. What we’re doing is asking people to do something they’re uncomfortable with, which includes budgeting and prioritizing, not spending money on things that are frivolous.
EBONY: You mentioned the risk factor. If people don’t think they’re at risk, are they really going to spend the money on the test that they don’t think is going to come up positive?
DRR: No, they’re not. But what they might do is decide, “Hey, I’m not going to make it to the doctor any time soon, I just don’t have time to. I just heard Keri Hilson talking about it, why don’t I just pick it up and read it and try it?” So I think what it is going to do is give us a tool, which is key in HIV prevention.
KH: We all go to the drugstore. We prefer that privacy. I think that’s another thing: we’re a very proud people and I think it’s the privacy thing. I know there are a lot of entertainers who are deterred by the privacy thing and understandably so. I know the average person feels some of that too. They’re afraid. It’s fear and it’s shyness about getting tested.
EBONY: And I think it’s a fear of finding out they have it. Upwards of 20-25% of people with HIV don’t even know they have it. What would you say to people about when they need to talk about HIV testing when they’re dating and building relationships?
DRR: Half of the people that are single and dating admit that they don’t even ask about HIV status before having unprotected sex with their partners. The conversation should shift to “Let’s get tested together.” Because it’s easy to say you got tested three months ago and it was negative, but where is that paperwork? What doctor did you go to? It’s easier to say, “Well, we like each other, why don’t we go get tested? Why don’t we go to the drugstore?”
EBONY: Would you say this test is empowering for people?
KH: Absolutely. You have the power. You’re in the drugstore, you can save your money, it’s on your mind. You feel responsible and you [become] empowered.
EBONY: Anything else you want readers to know?
KH: It’s about eradicating the taboo factor and having these conversations and feeling comfortable. That’s why we’re all coming together. It’s important in our community to spark the conversations, to read the articles and talk to your friends. It’s about the knowledge. You can’t protect yourself if you’re unaware. It’s about knowing that this [test] exists and how easy it is to take. I get tested every six months, even when in a committed relationship. I take health very seriously, and I’m hoping we can encourage the youth to take health seriously. We only get one body.
DRR: It’s important to not only get tested and know your status, but to practice safer sex. Testing is a big part of this, but we also want people to be knowledgeable about safer sex practices. Prevention is a big part of this for me.
Around the country, there will be free testing options for National HIV Testing Day. Find out where you can get tested near you and learn your status. The most empowering thing you can do as a sexually active individual is to be fully aware of your HIV/ATD status, so don’t hesitate to get tested!
Feminista Jones is a sex-positive Black feminist, social worker and blogger from New York City. She writes about gender, race, politics, mental health and sexuality at FeministaJones.com. Follow her on Twitter at @FeministaJones.