AIDS Activist Wilson Tailors Message to African-American Community
Today's New York Times profiles Phill Wilson, the executive director of the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute at the University of Southern California. HIV-positive himself, Wilson has worked for more than a decade on AIDS research, policy, treatment and prevention issues. In his conversation with reporter Linda Villarosa, Wilson addresses the impact that the "silence and denial" of HIV/AIDS have had on the African-American community, and discusses the future of minority groups' fight against the disease.
A "conspiracy of silence" surrounded HIV/AIDS when the disease first broke out in the African-American community, Wilson said. Many African Americans labeled the epidemic as a "white disease" and failed to perceive how the virus could affect them. Now, Wilson said, individuals with AIDS are "overwhelmingly black women, black babies and black men." He added that many organizations, such as the NAACP and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, have expressed "renewed interest" in fighting HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. Black churches have also spoken out on the need to stop the disease. However, because of the lingering stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, "[t]oo many African Americans don't know their status," Wilson said. As the stigma is lifted, more African Americans will seek testing and treatment for the disease, he added.
Not Just a 'Gay White Male' Disease
Wilson stated that HIV/AIDS was "never just a gay white male disease," although its perception as such has damaged efforts to fight the disease within the African-American community. He explained that some health and advocacy organizations that initially became involved in the issue "did so because the disease appeared to be an issue for gay white men." But as the virus increasingly becomes an issue for the African-American community, "some of these individuals and organizations are undergoing honest self-examination to assess whether they are still passionate about the work [and s]ome have decided to focus more broadly on gay and lesbian health," Wilson stated. Wilson added that while this approach is not necessarily wrong, these groups should not use HIV/AIDS resources for their work. "It's now vitally important for us to both create and strengthen organizations that are doing AIDS work in communities of color," Wilson said. To change the perception of HIV/AIDS as a gay white male disease, he said, prevention and treatment messages need to be tailored to the black community. But Wilson added that those efforts conflict with other messages being communicated by "black culture," such as the message of "hypersexuality" communicated through hip-hop music. This message "encourag[es] behavior that will put young people at risk" for HIV/AIDS, while messages from the church and other traditional black institutions "communicate a message of ... not dealing with the realities or the consequences of sex." But traditional institutions are changing, Wilson said, and new messages are being delivered that promote responsibility and communication (Villarosa, New York Times, 12/19).