Fear of Stigma Among African-American Gay Men Drives HIV Rate Up in South Carolina
Fear of discrimination is helping to fuel the spread of HIV among South Carolina's gay African-American males, the Columbia State reports. In this "conservative, Bible Belt state," gay men believe "they have no choice but to hide their sexuality on the job, from their friends and even from their families." This cloaking has created a denial in the gay African-American population, whose members either do not disclose their HIV status to their sexual partners or lie about it when asked. The Columbia metropolitan area has the fourth-highest rate of AIDS in the United States, trailing only Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New York. And while African-Americans constitute 30% of South Carolina's population, they account for 71% of its HIV cases. The double fear of racism and sexual orientation bias is what drives most blacks to hide their HIV status, thus putting the larger population at greater risk. "Racism is still so prevalent in South Carolina. To be black and gay is just so much harder," one gay black man, who asked to remain anonymous, said. Many "unsuspecting" black women who think they are in a monogamous heterosexual relationship have been infected through unprotected sex by partners who engage in sex with other men. Of the state's infected women, 3,505 are black and 645 are white. African-American men also contract HIV in South Carolina jails, as they make up the majority of the state's male prison population, which does not have access to condoms. The lack of a "gay community" in Columbia makes it more difficult for gays to feel "safe and accepted," which leads to "riskier" and more clandestine sexual behavior, the State reports. Outreach Difficulties The under-the-radar behavior of many African-American homosexuals makes prevention efforts difficult, the State reports. Lynda Kettinger, director of the STD/HIV division at the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, said, "If people aren't coming forward (for education and treatment) because of fear of stigma, it's hard to reach them." African Americans also are reluctant to attend support group meetings for HIV-positive individuals because they are primarily led and attended by whites. According to Bert Easter, president of the South Carolina Gay and Lesbian Pride Movement, whites make up 90% of those who attend the group's meeting. Terry Wright, an African-American who is heterosexual and married, attributed the success of whites in slowing the epidemic to greater political support and research funding. "In the gay white community, when AIDS hit, there was a whole lot of education and their numbers have gone steadily down. Our numbers have gone steadily up," he said. The lack of community outreach leads to a greater ignorance in the African-American community about HIV prevention and treatment, the State reports. Carmen Julius, director of Columbia's Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services, said that the state government should promote television ads in regions where blacks are likely to view them. Several gay black men interviewed by the State said that African-American churches and leaders need to focus more on HIV prevention and safe sex instead of abstinence. The State concludes: "[U]ntil South Carolina increases its HIV-prevention education efforts, and until South Carolinians work to eradicate the stigma of being black and gay, the virus will continue to plague the black community in this state (Winiarski, Columbia State, 11/12).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.