Why Are African-Americans Still Afraid Of HIV/AIDS?
With June 27 being National HIV Testing Day, last weekend I had the pleasure of viewing a movie so good I had to watch it twice. “The Normal Heart” is an HBO original movie based on a 1985 play of the same name. It recalls the life of Larry Kramer and focuses on the rise of the initial HIV/AIDS disease in New York City in the gay community. As a response, a group of men form the Gay Men’s Health Alliance to raise awareness about the disease which at the time is referred to as “Gay Men’s Cancer”. At first gay men are encouraged by the few medical professionals investigating the disease to stop having sex, which much of the gay community feels is a direct insult to the sexual revolution in which their open sexuality is just beginning to be accepted among society. In the meantime many of them are witnessing their friends, partners and families helplessly succumbing to the disease.
A few days later I tuned into one of my favorite series “Our America with Lisa Ling” and this time the episode focused on the stigma and shame still associated with HIV in the African-American community namely in the South where half of all new diagnoses in the country are located. In Washington D.C. 3% of the population are infected with HIV or AIDS, a rate that is higher than some African countries.
In the beginning of the episode, Ling interviews Daphne who contracted HIV from an encounter with a man she has just began dating. Daphne says when she learned she was infected, one of her first thoughts was, “God, why me? I never prostituted. I never was in the street. I never did anything. Why is this happening to me?” And I believe that’s the root of the problem that African-American community experiences specifically. We still associate STDs and HIV with immoral or deviant behavior. We still believe marriage will protect our sexual health which another woman, Kimberly, proves is completely untrue after she was infected with the virus from an unfaithful husband.
We also continue to believe HIV is a death sentence. With awareness and treatment, I know many people that are living healthier and longer than those who are HIV negative. HIV is not synonymous with death, promiscuity, drug use or homosexuality. It’s like associating asthma with a life of weed or crack use: the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
In many ways, our community is much like the gay men of the early eighties in “The Normal Heart”. We’re so entertained and defined by our open sexuality that we foolishly believe we’re open-minded to the consequences of our behavior as well. We’re talking about sex, but we’re not really taking about sex. We still find it challenging to acknowledge homosexuality that we aren’t having conversations about the alarming rate of men who contract HIV by having sex with other men in prison. Our values and discussions are growing more and more distant from our actual behavior, which is leaving room in the gap for a whole lot of ignorance and rising rates of unplanned pregnancy, HIV and STD infections and high risk behavior.
I’ve worked in sex education for a little over 5 years and what often happens is that the more educated you become and the more comfortable you become with conversations on topics like the sexual behavior of teenagers and the commonality of HPV infections, the more you take for granted that the community as a whole is just as educated and comfortable as you are. When I talk about HPV infection like the common cold, I have clients and students who are either clueless about the virus or instantly become terrified over the myth that those infected with HPV will inevitably develop cervical cancer. People often ask me how I can talk so openly about masturbation, anal sex and herpes. It’s because those things are as much a part of our sexuality as Mimi’s moves on the shower rod or Raven Symone’s sexual preference.
We have to normalize conversations about sexual behavior and make conversations about gonorrhea and herpes as common as conversations about Kanye and Kim K. or the new Nicki Minaj single. Because of the shame and stigma associated with the disease, I’ve met people who are infected but not disclosing to their partners whom they are sexually active with. What always alarms me the most are the numbers of people who do not want to get tested or know their status because they feel like if they are positive, the knowledge of that will kill them quicker. What? That’s like saying knowing you have diabetes or blood pressure will somehow make you die faster
Some of us fear what we don’t understand. Some of us pretend to not care about things that we feel don’t affect us. I believe most of the success the LGBTQ community had with spreading HIV/AIDS awareness was that is was EVERYONE’S problem, not just those affected. Whatever the case may be we need to be honest about the fact that ignoring something won’t make it go away and that some of those most important conversations are the ones we aren’t having. I think educating ourselves about HIV and certain things about sexuality make us uncomfortable because we’re hesitant to be honest with ourselves about our own sexuality. Before we can find any cures or answers, we have to educate ourselves and stop treating the less favorable aspects of our culture and communities like such a big damn secret.
Check out a clip of “Our America: Black America’s Silent Epidemic” below:
Toya Sharee is a community health educator and parenting education coordinator who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.