Community leadership should make HIV a priority
Updated: August 29, 2014 at 6:34 pm
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You’ve heard it. You’ve condemned it. You think it’s anti-gay bigotry to say it. But, I’m going to say it again, as even former National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Executive Director Matt Foreman has in the past:
HIV is a gay disease.
I didn’t stutter. I didn’t mumble. No, I’m not mistaken. Yes, I’m sober.
HIV is a gay disease.
No, no, no. I don’t mean that gay people are the only people who can contract the disease. Any thinking person knows that’s not the case. A quick look at the African continent quickly, overwhelmingly proves otherwise. But, what is absolutely and abundantly, fundamentally and unmistakably clear is that at least in the U.S., HIV is a gay disease.
HIV impacts gay men, bisexual men and men who have sex with men (MSM) more than any other demographic in this country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says MSM are about four percent of the population. Yet, in 2010, we accounted for 78 percent of new HIV infections among males and 63 percent of all new infections. In total, we represent 52 percent of all people living with HIV. And, year over year, the infection rate is rising — from 2008 through 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of new HIV infections among MSM rose by 12 percent. New research released by the CDC at the International AIDS Conference in July show that all U.S. HIV infection rates have dropped by more than a third over the past decade. Declines were seen among men, women, whites, blacks, Latinos, straight folk, drug users and almost all age groups. The only glaring exception? Gay and bisexual men.
My colleague, Michigan-based journalist Todd Heywood, has been actively reporting and researching HIV/AIDS topics since 2007. He believes there is a growing crisis facing the gay community — one he thinks the LGBT community is unprepared, or worse, unwilling, to face head on.
“HIV is endemic in MSM. I think we need to be clear about that,” Heywood tells me. “The epidemic broke in MSM and it has stayed there. It was ignored in the early ‘80s without much effective control and that resulted in allowing the disease to really become embedded in our community.”
Government policies and funding priorities are largely to blame for continued increases in MSM HIV infection rates, Heywood says. But, the community and its leadership have a role to play, too — a responsibility he says leaders are shirking.
“It all goes back to 1990 and Jesse Helms and his ‘No Promo Homo’ constructs for HIV funding,” Heywood says. “The reality is that the federal government is never going to tell gay men, bisexual men, MSM and trans women how to have anal sex. It’s just not going to happen.”
Where the government will not and refuses to act, the community should step in, Heywood says. Currently, it’s a job we’re failing.
“When I do lectures at colleges, I am still stunned that I have to teach basic anatomy to college-aged MSM,” he says. “Our community has to take it upon itself to create its own educational programs. We have to start talking about HIV and prevention and sex to our selves. We’re not doing that.”
The most at-risk group for new infections remains young MSM under 30. An entire generation of young gay men, bisexual men and MSM are staring down a future in which the majority of them are HIV positive.
Projections and estimates released by the CDC show that as many as 10 percent of current college-aged MSM are HIV-positive. In 30 years, at current trends, as many as half of those men will be HIV-positive. For African-American college-aged MSM, the numbers rise staggeringly, mind-bogglingly higher; in 30 years, as many as 70 percent of them could be living with HIV.
Those numbers aren’t just theory. They are playing out everyday in the lives of real people. In Atlanta, as recently reported by The Washington Post, one researcher estimates that as many as 43 percent of black MSM are already HIV positive. That number is just 13 percent for white MSM.
It might be tempting for older gay men to stereotype their younger counterparts as uncaring and irresponsible. But, recent research from the MAC AIDS Fund says the gap is less about personal responsibility and more about a simple lack of basic sex education. Their recent survey found that 33 percent of teenagers ages 12-17 did not even know HIV was a sexually transmitted disease. Nearly 90 percent said they didn’t think they were at risk for HIV.
Heywood believes national community leaders have a responsibility to address HIV/AIDS with a renewed sense of urgency. It must be a priority, he says.
“I’d like to see [the Human Rights Campaign’s] Chad Griffin hold a press conference addressing HIV as a crisis in our community,” Heywood asserts.
Heywood takes issue with LGBT media, too. He says we haven’t done enough to report on Truvada, other prevention methods and the rising HIV rate. In many respects, that’s true — even here at qnotes. As editor, I’ll be making sure we change that.
And, ultimately, I agree with Heywood: It’s time to stop being afraid of the “HIV is a gay disease” framework. “We still too easily dismiss the far right when they say HIV is a gay disease,” Heywood says. “It is a problem in our community and we have not embraced that reality.”
Heywood says the community should embrace all forms of prevention, including the use of Truvada, a daily drug the FDA cleared for use as another tool in preventing HIV infection. Some groups, like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, have come out against the drug. Its executive director has called it a “party drug” and the group has recently launched an advertising campaign in gay media outlets discouraging Truvada’s use. But, the FDA says daily use of Truvada can drastically reduce the chances of HIV transmission.
“At the end of the day, the MSM community is in the perfect position to end the HIV epidemic within a decade,” Heywood says. “The questions is will we do what we have to do to do that?” : :
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.