Even on Black AIDS Awareness Day, black gay men remain on the margins
by Diana Scholl, Housing Works
Individuals and organizations across the nation marked National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Judging by many of the articles, press releases and events commemorating the day, however, you might never guess that the highest percentage of new HIV infections in 2006 was among black gay men.
Why, even on a day dedicated to black AIDS awareness, do black gay men remain a footnote?
“It’s symptomatic of the problem we face of ridding our community of HIV in order to break the back of the epidemic,” said Ernest Hopkins, policy director of the Black Gay Advocacy Coalition. “The most heavily impacted population by percentages is black gay men. If you want to talk about this epidemic you have to start there, and then move very quickly to black women, or you’re not doing your job.”
Two events that got advocates talking were the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA)’s forums in New York and in Washington, D.C. (the latter included black ministers from the D.C. area).
The New York forum extensively covered women, incarceration and drug use, while gay men and homosexuality were mentioned in passing and only as they related to women being infected by men who have sex with men. The theme of the BLCA event was “HIV/AIDS and Black Women,” but the question remains why, on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, one of the highest profile African-American groups failed to address the most-affected black demographic.
“A lot of us left the session angry and we weren’t sure why,” said Kristin Goodwin, Housing Works Director of New York Policy and Organzing. “There was nothing wrong on the surface, but it was distressing the way the event made women seem like victims and didn’t even account for gay men who don’t have sex with women.”
NBLCA President C. Virginia Fields told the Update that her speech at the event was intended to be broad-based. “I was focused on the community. I think when you talk about the disease, you talk about all people,” she said, adding that there was particular focus on women and children because “that’s the population I find often does not get mentioned.” Fields also said that “it’s crucial that black gay men be part of the conversation not just around AIDS, but making homophobia unacceptable.”
Another Black AIDS Day dust-up involved Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which solicited its board member, ER star Gloria Reuben, to write an op-ed for Huffington post about AIDS in the black community and the need for comprehensive sex education.
People were upset because Reuben didn’t mention gay men, or men period, in her piece.
“HIV/AIDS in this country is a man’s disease – about ¾ of the epidemic – most of which is among gay men of all races, and particularly among gay black men and gay Latino men. Not mentioning this fact in one sentence, or even a phrase, is absolutely unacceptable,” Jim Pickett of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago wrote in a message to the Federal AIDS Policy Partnership (FAPP) listserv.
SIECUS Vice President of Policy Bill Smith responded to the feedback that Reuben couldn’t be expected to speak for everyone, particularly in one 800 word op-ed. “She does mention homophobia specifically as a major issue. As per usual, we cannot and should not rely on a single voice to carry every angle of every message so we hope others can add their voices as well to these very important matters,” Smith wrote in a message on the FAPP listserv.
By the numbers
Black gay men and black heterosexual women are at greatest risk for getting HIV. According to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), of the 27,107 reported HIV infections among African-Americans in 2006, 42 percent were among men who have sex with men and 26 percent were among women who have sex with men. (The remaining third was intravenous drug users and men who have sex with women).
Things were worse for black gay men than for gay men of other races, too. In 2006, black men between the ages of 13 and 29 accounted for more new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men than any other race or age group (young gay and bisexual men is the only category where new infections continue to rise).
“Given the news of 2008, HIV among black gay men is all we should have heard about on Black AIDS Awareness Day,” said Kai Wright, publications editor for the Black AIDS Institute. The Institute released a report on Black AIDS Awareness Day with a section dedicated to black gay men called “Black Gays in Urgent Need.”
All these stats are not to suggest that the epidemic among black women does not deserve urgent attention. While it is crucial to talk about black women being infected, many say that this is done at the expense of talking about gay men who are not having sex with women.
Charles Long, an advocate with the New York City AIDS Housing Network, said that on Black AIDS Awareness Day—and every day—when talking about AIDS in the black community, he often sees “homophobia addressed very generally.” He says this general approach to homophobia happens in many black churches and homes but is particularly distressing when organizations that purport to address the issue won’t explicitly talk about helping black gay men.
“Even this community that claims to be doing something is still not talking about black gay men,” Long said. “We’re willing to mention them but we always want to swing the conversation back to women. We need black men to confront institutions that need to analyze how they confront program efforts and treatment efforts.”
Kenyon Farrow, national public education director at Queers for Economic Justice and policy fellow at the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, agreed.
He said, as an example, that when the Black AIDS Institute was presenting its report on AIDS in Black America at the International AIDS Conference in August, journalist after journalist prefaced questions in regard to men who have sex with men with the phrase, “I’m not talking about gay and bisexual men.”
“There is sort of an inability and a resistance to talk specifically about black gay men and trans women,” Farrow said.
This inability only compounds the problems of homophobia affecting black gay men that lead to HIV and other problems. “People gloss over gay men period. That’s one of the driving factors in this epidemic. Anything considered gay is considered white. The underlining factors really are social factors. Someone who feels they don’t exist will do things that people do when they feel invisible,” said Toku Osubu, executive director of Gay Men of African Descent.
What’s being done
There are numerous efforts nationwide to stop HIV in the black gay community. Gay Men of African Descent has a campaign to address stigma and discrimination, and are working with service providers to confront homophobia among black gay men.
Hopkins said that his group, founded in 2006 by longtime gay black advocates, has been working with public officials at the CDC, Substance and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health to promote research into what fuels the AIDS epidemic among black gay men.
The Black AIDS Institute’s next major report is going to be about black gay men. One of the problems is that research takes a while to spurn action. “A lot of the work that needs to be done to get on the ground now would have been had to be done by the NIH ten years ago,” Hopkins said.
Long and other younger advocates are working to try to build leadership opportunities for young black gay men, so they have more opportunities to have voices in this discussion.
“There’s no real transition of power to young men of color,” Long said.