The statistics are scary. In places like Washington, D.C., and 19 of the largest U.S. cities, the facts and figures take on new meaning, as more and more people contract HIV and are left to live with the disease, the cultural and institutional stigma and health disparities.
Like many epidemics, HIV/AIDS has hit minorities the hardest. In the 1980s, the disease hit gay men and intravenous drug users. There’s no doubt many of the men and women first affected by the AIDS crisis were also either ethnic minorities or poor; perhaps they were both.
But, now it is clear: the face of HIV/AIDS has changed drastically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 49 percent of all people living with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis in 2005 were African-American. Among black men with HIV, 48 percent had contracted the disease through male-to-male sexual contact; 22 percent through heterosexual contact. Among black women with HIV, almost three-quarters had contracted the disease through heterosexual contact.
Nationwide, male-to-male sexual contact accounts for more than half of all HIV/AIDS transmissions. And, just this year, the CDC announced new study results showing 20 percent of all gay men in the nation’s largest 20 cities have HIV.
At the Creating Change conference in January 2008, Matt Foreman, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, took heat after he proclaimed, “HIV is a gay disease.” I understand what he was trying to do. Transmission rates continue to rise among gay men and other men who have sex with men. In a Bill Cosby-like moment, Foreman was simply attempting to deliver a wake-up call, no different from the 2006 “Own It. End It.” public service advertisements produced by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
In an interview following his controversial remarks, Foreman told Between the Line‘s Todd Heywood that his comments were only meant to refocus the LGBT community’s attention.
“HIV isn’t just a gay disease, but it is a gay disease in the United States,” Foreman told the Michigan LGBT newspaper. “I would agree that we have separated HIV from the gay community over the last 15 years. That is why HIV/AIDS is not a priority for the vast majority of LBGT (lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender) national, state and local organizations.”
Some people agreed with Foreman’s tactics; others didn’t.
Unfortunately, Foreman’s main message got lost in the heat of debate:
“Over the last 15 years as people have lived longer and the epidemic moved predominately to effecting people of color, we have lost our anger,” Foreman said. “Of course this is not just HIV among gay black men. It’s other African-American health issues not being addressed at large … the system is racist.”
He added, “I don’t blame our community for the fact that MSM [men who have sex with men] still account for nearly three quarters of men living with HIV. I hold our government accountable.”
“The system is racist.” And, so are far too many LGBT people.
In the fall of 2007, Carolina Celebration, a long-running fundraising group in Charlotte, shuttered its doors. Their move effectively turned off the annual faucet that delivered tens of thousands of dollars to the now closed Metrolina AIDS Project (MAP).
Beneath several layers of controversy, hearsay and he said-she said accusations, a kernel of truth slipped out from one of the Carolina Celebration’s board members.
“We decided about two months ago to discontinue servicing the Dennis Fund and go with something else,” Ed DePasquale told me as I interviewed him for a Feb. 23, 2008 article in qnotes. “We were going to go through with changing the bylaws [and have the money go to a different organization]. Personally, I said the best thing to do is shut it down and start something else later down the road.”
DePasquale told me how he remembered the LGBT community rallying to confront the AIDS epidemic in the early days of the crisis. He said he hadn’t seen the same level of involvement or commitment from communities of color. “Why should the gay community give their money to something when it isn’t going to help the gay community?” he asked.
Ann White, then executive director of MAP, responded sharply, “How can you put a color on somebody’s pain?”
It’s hard to miss the inherent racism in DePasquale’s statements. It is reprehensible that a group of primarily white fundraisers would pull their funds from an AIDS service organization simply because of the skin color of its clients.
But the “-isms” cut both ways. For the same article, Bob Oltz, a former MAP associate director, said, “Ironically, the African-American community accuses us of being nothing but a gay organization.”
Unfortunately, I fear that racism — whether realized or unconscious — is doing damage to the LGBT community’s continued fight against HIV/AIDS. Instead of seeing the human person in need of aid and healthcare, many see skin color. At the same time, some folks inside communities of color aren’t seeing past sex, letting homophobia and heterosexism — whether realized or unconscious — cloud their view of HIV/AIDS and who it affects.
When we allow ourselves to give into racism and homophobia, we prove to be no better than the absent federal government officials of the 1980s, who ignored AIDS because it primarily affected gay men. What are people who are LGBT and of color to do? These divisions hurt them, and in the long run make everyone a loser.
DePasquale couldn’t see past MAP’s clients’ skin. In doing so, he whitewashed the LGBT community, failing to recognize the countless African-American, Latino and other communities of color who combine to create our community’s rainbow of diversity.
The racism like that exhibited by DePasquale and homophobia from communities of color are as much to blame for the continued HIV/AIDS crisis as substance abuse, abstinence-only sex education and the lack of safer sex practices. Why is that the two communities most affected by HIV/AIDS can’t seem to find common ground and fight the disease together?
Rounds of applause are due to the countless LGBT, African-American and Latino leaders, visionaries, community non-profits and health organizations that saw us through the 1980s and 1990s. Much of their work continues today, under the leadership of hundreds of HIV/AIDS service organizations in cities and towns across the country. Many of them have taken bold and courageous steps to reach out to communities of color, building trust and bridging the racial divide that still exists in gay communities.
But, our community needs to reawaken the sense of urgency, anger and emotion we felt during the 1980s and 1990s. We need to push more of our community institutions to speak out and take action on AIDS, racism, healthcare disparities and poverty. We need to push our elected officials to provide more funding for HIV/AIDS research, testing, education and prevention. We need to hold government institutions like the CDC accountable; they need to know that they can no longer ignore LGBT people and people of color.
HIV is not a gay disease. Rather, HIV is a disease that disproportionately affects LGBT people and people of color. It is a disease that kills us, taking away our chance to enjoy the freedoms and equality we gain each day. It is a disease that wreaks havoc on the already maligned, impoverished and institutionally underserved, underprivileged communities of color in cities like Washington, D.C.
Our community’s leaders and mentors need to once again instill in our youth a sense of responsibility and seriousness. Safe sex and condom use, testing and education need to be messages LGBT youth and youth of color hear on a regular basis. Unfortunately, LGBT youth and youth of color don’t hear these all-important, life-saving messages in gay-inclusive and gay-positive tones from parents, schools or society. Our government and society has proven itself to be utterly ineffective at combating HIV/AIDS and reaching out to the minorities overwhelmingly affected by it.
So, in the face of government failure, it becomes our responsibility to stop HIV/AIDS. It is up to us to continue and increase our discussions about issues and problems like substance abuse, sexuality health education, safe sex, homophobia and racism. HIV/AIDS may not be a “gay disease,” just like it isn’t a “black disease” or a “Latino disease.” But, whether we like it or not, LGBT people (specifically men) and communities of color do bear its greatest burden. HIV/AIDS is our responsibility, and we shouldn’t forget it. : :
— An older version of this commentary was published on Matt Comer’s blog, InterstateQ.com, on May 8, 2009. Read it and other installments from Comer’s 2009 “Fessing Up” series at interstateq.com/archives/tag/fessing-up/.