WASHINGTON – No one can creditably deny the burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Black community. Although Blacks represent only 12 percent or the U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections. Black women accounted for 57 percent of all new HIV infections among women and 64 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses among women.
In 2010, 85 percent of Black women were infected through heterosexual activities and Black men who have sex with men (MSMs) stand a one in four chance of being infected with HIV before their 25th birthdays and 60 percent chance of being infected by the time they reach age 40.
In the mountain of stats and programs, the impact of the AIDS epidemic on straight Black men is often overlooked.
“We were never properly introduced to the epidemic and who it was infecting,” said Larry Bryant, the director of national advocacy organizing at Housing Works, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending homelessness and AIDS. “First we were told by the CDC that it was a White gay male disease. Then, we were told it was a disease of White gay males and injection drug users then we were told it was a disease of White gay males injection drug users and Haitian immigrants.”
Other activists cite the lack of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment messages that focus on the unique needs of heterosexual males as one of the reasons that many straight Black men ignore the epidemic overtaking their neighborhoods.
“We have national campaigns and national initiatives around women, for men who have sex with men and for injecting drug users,” said Terrence Young, manager of testing and field operations for the Community Education Group, an organization dedicated to stemming the flow of AIDS by training local health workers and increasing AIDS awareness among vulnerable populations. Young said that at he’s often felt invisible at AIDS conferences and in work groups that seem to target every population accept for straight Black men.
“If I’m not directing any messages to you, if I’m not developing any interventions for you, if I’m telling you this isn’t your problem, “Young said. “What do you expect to happen?”
Young noted that CDC-funded Diffusion of Effective Behavioral Interventions (DEBI) Project list 30 individual programs and of those, only one that targets the needs of straight Black men.
“The way things have been looking over the last 30 years, there will be initiatives for purple people on the moon before there’s an initiative for heterosexual Black men,” he said.
In 2010, Young co-founded the Heterosexual Men of Color Coalition, believed to be the is the only national organization in the United States dedicated exclusively to addressing the AIDS epidemic from the heterosexual Black male point of view. Young worked with Dwayne Morrow of the AIDS Foundation of Houston to launch HMOCC to ensure that straight Black men have a voice and a seat at the table when it comes to pulling the ears of key policymakers associated with the AIDS epidemic.
“What we don’t want 10 years from now, if there is a still an HIV/AIDS epidemic, we don’t want to find heterosexual Black men in facing the same epidemic that White gay men were in the 80s,” said Morrow co-founder of the Heterosexual Men of Color Coalition.
First, AIDS experts have to reach a population that has largely turned a deaf ear to the epidemic.
When straight Black men don’t get the message, it creates a perpetual cycle. The population of straight Black men see drug users, gays and women plastered across billboards on the highway and posters screaming HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment messages hanging in health clinics and doctor offices.
When heterosexual men don’t see themselves on those same billboards and posters they tune out and the data gap swells making it difficult for researchers to define the scope of the crisis, experts say.
This data gap also limits the pool of straight Black men available to participate in clinical trials.
“Minority individuals are under-represented when it comes to being involved in clinical trials,” said Luther Virgil chief executive officer and chief medical officer of National Minority Clinical Research Association.
AIDS activist and civil rights leader Tony Wafford said that it’s going to take more than Black leaders staging drive-by HIV testing photo-ops in the community on National Black HIV/AIDS Day (February 7) World AIDS Day (December 1) for Black men and women, en masse to take the epidemic more seriously.
“Until we get our equivalent to David Geffen, until we get our equivalent to Elton John, until we get our equivalent to Barney Frank, who is going to raise the volume?”
Many thought that the omnipresent Oprah Winfrey would fit that bill perfectly, but when she rolled out author J.L. King on a 2004 episode of her talk show dramatizing the dangers of the “down low brother” and their role in the startling jump in new infections of Black women, many activists on the ground in the Black community believed that she missed the mark.
“Focusing “Down Low: Bisexual Black Men, HIV Risk and Heterosexual Transmission,” published in the Journal of the National Medical Association in July 2005 showed that Black women were at a much greater risk for contracting HIV from men who identified as gay or bisexual than MSMs that identified as straight (aka men on the down low).
Heterosexual men who engaged in high-risk behavior (i.e. IDU, and multiple sex partners) also posed a bigger thereat to the health of Black women than Oprah’s sensationalized, undercover lover. The study also found that Black men who identify as bisexual only make up 2 percent of the total population, further limiting the likelihood of that group rampantly infecting Black women.
Even though the 2005 paper debunked the myth of the “down low brother,” Oprah’s original 2004 show and a follow up in 2010 aided in reinforcing homophobia and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and stymied open conversations between men and women in the Black community.
Virgil said that validating the risk of HIV/AIDS among straight Black male community will take men like Larry Bryant putting a familiar face on the AIDS epidemic.
Not only is Bryant a fierce advocate for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, he is also a straight Black man living with HIV. In 1986, Bryant contracted HIV as an 18 year-old student at Norfolk State University
“When you talk about the history and the face of AIDS, I would qualify, but no one would ever associate me with that,” Bryant said.
Bryant said that it’s impossible to talk about the impact of HIV/AIDS on Black men without talking about homelessness, poverty, and incarceration.
“Black men in particular have been on the wrong end of disparities in health, in education and in economics for decades,” said Bryant. “The epidemic of AIDS is more of a symptom of those bigger issues. If we address those things infection rates go down.”
Most activists agree that preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and beating the epidemic in the Black community will take critical, uncomfortable conversations about sexuality, homophobia and the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Conversations that must begin in the schools, barbershops and beauty salons, and in the church.
“We have to approach this like adults and not like children,” said HIV/AIDS activist Tony Wafford. “And until we get mature enough to have an adult conversation and agree to disagree on some things and still love each other like brothers and sisters we’re going to have this problem.”
By Freddie Allen