Take the trouble to read this report by Charles Stevens on the White House conference that was convened to look at the issues behind the runaway spread of HIV among young black gay men.
While it is gratifying to see that this matter is gaining such prominence, and Stevens makes the same observation, some of the conclusions reached leave one wondering how a set of grown up experts can be so cowardly in the face of their own overwhelming evidence.
Take this conclusion which was reached at the Morehouse School of Medicine conference:
Homophobia must frame how we think about the devastating impact of HIV. This was a key insight to the entire conference. Anti-gay stigma, HIV stigma, and environments that dehumanize and demean sexual minorities and gender-nonconforming people create a perfect storm for HIV and other public health disparities. Young, black MSM and transgender people are vulnerable in a variety of ways, including to physical and psychic homophobic violence, familial and community rejection, discrimination, and a litany of other kinds of social stigma. These vulnerabilities fuel health disparities, particularly with regard to HIV. As Dr. Patrick Sullivan, an Emory University professor and researcher, stated, “homophobia is a public health hazard.” In this sense, the scientific and social, negative health outcomes and human rights and, by extension, sexual rights, are not separate spheres but are intricately connected within a wider spectrum of issues we must work on together, and not separately.
While homophobia plays a role (mostly in Africa where social and political regimes are still at a loss about how to deal with the gay question itself), it is a stretch to blame homophobia for the rampant spread of HIV in the black American population in 2012 if you set aside the cases of rape, sexual violence, down low conduct and other practices that may be against the will of the participants.
These young black men in urban America who constitute the highest numbers of new HIV cases are not ill-educated or put upon. They have a multitude of choices: free condoms, non-penetrative sex, abstinence, masturbation all of which they know about. Now, if we were talking about sub-Saharan Africa, one might understand the argument about lack of information but that kind of argument is silly in America today.
In Washington, DC (for instance) where the spread of HIV in the black gay community seems totally out of control, being gay is the new black. Yes, to be gay in DC is so old hat that people are more surprised when anyone gets away with looking at a gay man or woman in a way that might be construed as remotely homophobic.
Condoms can be picked up free of charge in any gay bar in DC, including predominantly black gay bars that our boys frequent. Yes, the family, pastor or community might be homophobic but how does homophobia prevent these young men from picking up free condoms as they leave The Fireplace or the Bachelors’ Mill (DC) and, more pertinently, using them? ? At what point during the sexual encounter does homophobia rear its ugly head to make bareback sex the preferred form of sexual gratification when condoms and lube were available where the hook-up happened? It would be interesting to hear the answer to that.
Homophobia is a convenient scapegoat because these “experts” are totally frightened of admitting that the HIV battle in the black community is lost largely due to personal volition.The “experts” are afraid of saying this openly because of the obvious racial hornets’ nest it would stir up. If homophobia were the main culprit, there is more homophobia in Idaho than in Washington, DC or Atlanta, Georgia which is where every gay man runs to find himself. But the incidences of HIV infection in Idaho are far below those in the respective cities mentioned. Why is that?
The truth lies in a combination of factors of course, but the chief ones must be the following:
We black people are traditionally very secretive about sex, sexuality and sexual conduct, much more so than white folks who are not as prudish about sexual matters. So, even when we know the risks, we throw caution to the wind in greater numbers than our white counterparts because the of the level of furtiveness in how we conduct ourselves sexually. It is not for nothing that the term Down Low (DL) was coined with black men in mind.
Overbearing Catholicism explains why the spread among the Latino gay population is on a firm upward trajectory, too; religion makes Latino young men hide from uncomfortable truths about the need for safe sex because they will not want to talk condoms when they are still grappling with the significance of having homosexual sex. But the condoms are available in shopping mall dispensers (which of course don’t ask you who you are going to have sex with), straight and gay bars as well as in specialized centers all over major cities. Yet the spread of HIV/Aids is greatest in these same cities where, rather ironically, we are always told, one can be anonymous and be oneself.
Secondly the battle to stem the tide of new HIV cases getting out of control has been lost because HIV/Aids no longer carries the stigma it did 20-25 years ago. In this article by The Atlantic.com, they grasped the nettle and touched on this thorny subject. Black boys are not picking up the condoms provided because they don’t give a damn about HIV/Aids anymore. The conclusion from the ‘experts’ interviewed’ was/is that there is no other solution to check the spread of HIV short of finding a cure.
Their conclusion makes sense.
Young people didn’t witness the devastation that HIV/Aids wreaked upon the world in the late 80s and early 90s so they don’t really relate to the HIV/Aids is a scourge message. Well, one might argue, how about white young men who are not catching HIV in the same numbers?
My guess is that white folks have an inbuilt advantage over blacks and Latinos because they are not as prudish about sex and sexuality. So, they tackle these subjects openly from when their children can talk, remove the stigma about sex and create an atmosphere where STDs and how to avoid them are dinner topics. HIV/Aids and its impact is thus all too familiar with white people who, let’s face it, are more circumspect about how illnesses like that might affect their long-term outlook, economic prospects and cost of health care. Black people on the other hand shun such discussions (homophobia can rightly be blamed here) and their children find out through trial and error even when there are parents to guide them through the landmines of unprotected sex.
That means, in my mind, that the spread of HIV/Aids is out of control in the black and latino populations due to racial reasons. Homophobia has a small role to play, especially when and how we discuss sex and sexuality, but our racial attitudes towards matters sexual are more to blame than the idea that haters are preventing us from picking up a condom and putting it on when we have sex with whoever. That is manifestly not true in the United States where information, condoms, testing and medication are as accessible to gay men as they are to heterosexuals especially in urban areas where the spread of HIV is highest.
Yes, I am suggesting that even when we black people know how HIV spreads, we are hamstrung by our own laissez-faire, live and let live, attitudes towards sex which makes us throw caution to the wind far too quickly, which makes us act in sexually reckless ways despite knowing what the consequences might be, which makes us go for testing far too late, and which renders us mute even when the truth about the rate at which we are catching chronic but preventable diseases is staring us in the face. We are great at talking about HIV/Aids (there goes the argument that we don’t have the information) but are terrible at following up on our talk because … that is the way we are about matters sexual.
Homophobia is still the number one culprit in the spread of HIV/Aids in the gay populations of sub-Saharan Africa – see this report from Uganda’s New Vision which says that 18,000 men who have sex with men were ignored in the provision of HIV/Aids services in 2011. Twenty years hence, arguing that homophobia is also the culprit in the United States is plain, simple refusal to face the uncomfortable truth.
African-Americans are disproportionately catching HIV because of the same reasons African-Americans are having unplanned babies at such a high rate despite the information overload: young black people are ignoring the ‘safe sex’ messages and carrying on regardless.
That is why finding a cure is the only solution to the HIV/Aids crisis in America. The message is well-known but not many people in the black population are paying it, will pay it any attention – unless, we again begin to see our friends, neighbors and lovers popping off like fire flies in agonizing deaths. In other words, the return of stigma (fear) towards HIV/Aids might halt its spread. Short of that, a cure is the only solution.