Recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding new estimates on yearly HIV infections and transmissions should spark action in the Carolinas’ LGBT communities.
As reported in this issue (see story), the CDC estimates that among the more than 56,000 new HIV infections each year, African-American gay and bisexual men and men who have sex with men (MSM) ages 13-29 are at the highest risk of contracting HIV. Infection rates for white gays, bisexuals and MSMs are just as alarming; among them, white men in their 30s and 40s are at the highest risk.
When the CDC released its revised yearly estimate for new HIV infections in August, it was revealed the epidemic had been and continues to be far worse than Americans ever realized. The old estimate of 40,000 new infections each year actually hovers around 56,300. Of those infections, 53 percent occur in the gay, bisexual and MSM communities.
Imagine for a second there were no new HIV infections among gays, bisexuals and MSMs. If it were so, the yearly infection rate of 56,300 would drop to somewhere around 26,500. Whether we like it or not, the gay community is going to have to own this disease — it’s ours. It is time for men — of all sexual orientations, but specifically gay and bi men — to start making wiser choices about their sexual behaviors and the health of themselves and their partners. It is time for the LGBT community as a whole to do more to support its gay and bi brothers who still find themselves at the crux of this disease.
Most importantly, it is time for the LGBT community to reach out to those men who do not identify as gay or bi, but who still have sexual relations with other men. I don’t quite know how that sort of outreach will be achieved, but I certainly know of a few good places we can start.
One place to start might be the African-American church. As in many evangelical churches, discussions about any sort of sexual relations — much less gay people and their sexual health — are off-limits, ignored and swept under the rug. Here, homophobia runs rampant. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that homophobia and closetedness run hand-in-hand. The more homophobia and outright anti-gay attitudes surrounding gay communities, the further in the closet those gays and lesbians will go.
African-American church leaders need to finally realize that in order to save our gay, bi and MSM brothers, as well as heterosexual women, they need to let go of their religiously-motivated prejudice and hate. They also need to realize that HIV is not only a gay problem and that homosexuality is not a “white man’s disease.” Young men living “on the down low” and inside their own closets aren’t getting the messages or support they need to be honest with themselves, their female partners and their communities.
Another good place to start: the South. Just as in the African-American church, homophobia and hate find a nice, cozy home embedded in the traditional, conservative airs of the American South. Southerners are also pretty good at ignoring the very part of life all humans have in common: sex. What goes on in the bedroom isn’t polite conversation in Southern society and definitely not a topic at church. In needs to be; as pious as everyone seems sitting in their church pews, there’s still a lot of premarital sex and extramarital sex going on.
“The hypocrisy crosses gender and sexual orientation,” blogger Pam Spaulding told me, as she added, “Racism and the lack of frank education has allowed HIV/AIDS to proliferate.”
Spaulding hits the nail right on the head: HIV infection rates in the South are soaring higher than ever. Religious leaders and politicians use their understanding of religion to keep LGBT people quiet and hidden. In so doing, they encourage living in the closet and provide no refuge for men to live honest, responsible and healthy lives. Southern civic, political, religious and social leaders need to put their sexual ignorance and anti-gay prejudice aside and take up their moral obligation to help “the least of these.”
And, perhaps, the most important place to start: The LGBT community itself. We should start recognizing that our own racism and prejudice drive away gay and bi men of color and push them into a closet that neither the straight nor gay communities want to see opened. It is time for us to take a long, deep look into how we treat our brothers and sisters and how we respond to the minorities within our own.
From queer men and women who need to hold each other accountable for their actions, to Southern politicians and religious leaders who need a good, honest lesson in what it might really mean to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” we must all take a bigger responsibility for ensuring the end of HIV/AIDS.
But at the end of the day, HIV/AIDS prevention can be made easier by recognizing the simplest of all principles: Responsibility for self. It is time that we demand all people start taking responsibility for their own bodies and their own behavior. Practicing safe sex, being honest with our partners and getting regular HIV tests is on us, not anyone else. Only we can control what we do with our bodies. Only we can decide if we respect our partners enough to inform them of our HIV statuses. Unfortunately, I fear this message has been lost on many gay, bi and MSM men.
The ball’s in our court now. Start playing safe. Start playing smart. Wrap it up and be honest. This simple strategies will help end this epidemic.
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