‘Sexual Secrets’ Frustrate AIDS Efforts Among African-American Men
Many outreach workers were "alarmed" by a CDC study released last month indicating that one-third of urban African-American gay men are HIV-positive, although they were not "surprised" by the findings, as they say that gay black men and the African-American community maintain a " stigma" and a "sense of denial" surrounding the disease, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Thirty percent of gay black men are HIV-positive, compared with 12% of gay men of other races, the study found. This disparity has triggered many theories about why HIV infection rates, which until recently have been declining, are rising in this sub-population. Some believe that many gay black men feel "marginalized" by society as a whole and by their own community. According to Tyrone Smith, a consultant at the Philadelphia AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, the African-American community was "slow" to acknowledge gay members and "never made us feel that we could fully be ourselves" (Ollison, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/20). The black community associates a "heightened negative stigma" with being gay, Dr. David Malebranche of the New York City Department of Health said. That stigma has led many black men who engage in homosexual activity not to identify themselves as "gay," instead using terms such as "men who have sex with men," "same-gender loving" and "man of leisure," he added (Grondahl, Albany Times Union, 3/19).
Need for New Messages
This lack of identification has frustrated prevention and education efforts, the Inquirer reports. Black men tend to associate being gay and having AIDS with being white because white gay men were the first group hit by the epidemic and the first to mobilize a support network. But HIV prevention messages targeted at gay white men have been lost among the gay black community. "If you see something that doesn't look like you, reflect you, touch you, you're not going to look at it or heed the message," Dorena Kearney, executive director of Colours, a Philadelphia outreach program for minorities, said (Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/20). Black men in general are also distrustful of the medical establishment because of the Tuskegee experiment, in which the federal government studied but did not treat syphilis in black men to determine how the disease affected blacks and whites differently, Malebranche said (Albany Times Union, 3/19). For example, Tracy Kokayi Gibson, vice president of Adodi Philadelphia, a national support group for gay and bisexual black men, called AIDS a "conspiracy" and noted that "some really important people" believe HIV was "designed" in a lab to disproportionately affect gays and minorities while leaving "white straight people" largely unaffected (Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/20).
Where Do We Go From Here?
"There is a need for demystification of sexuality in the black community," Gibson said, adding, "We don't know how to talk about it." Kearney said there is a "strong need" for "more direct" sexual education in the community. Vince Austin-Cole, director of Open Door, a program for gay and transgendered people, said that "loneliness" is at the root of the problem. Discrimination and social stigmas isolate gay and bisexual minorities, so when they have a chance at intimacy, they would "rather compromise [their] health than be alone," he said (Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/20). Some people in the black community are looking to mobilize as white gay organizations did in the early years of the epidemic. The Capital District African-American Coalition on AIDS in Albany, N.Y., for example, recently received an annual grant from the state's AIDS Institute of $133,000, which is renewable for four years. But Executive Director Arthur Butler said that his organization and others like it are meeting with "resistance" from older more established groups who are worried about resources being directed away from them. "[W]e need the money targeted directly to us to level the playing field," he said. The older agencies "mobilized very well against AIDS," he added, "But they're not effective in the black community." Malebranche said that while targeted education and prevention campaigns are needed, "We've all got to work on this together. It's very complicated and everything is interrelated." The "rumblings" and in-fighting between groups will not "help" the situation, he said (Albany Times Union, 3/19).