By Colin Robinson
When we talk about the complexities of African American homophobia, we’ve grown used to commenting about how Gay men’s participation in key roles in the Black church is such a public secret, notwithstanding the Bible-thumping sermon about sex and Sodom that remains a Sunday morning staple. But those of us who work in the AIDS industrial complex have got another public secret, something we all know is true, but that our programs and organizations and policy work don’t really address – that homophobia causes AIDS. I’ll say it again: Homophobia causes AIDS.
I’m tired of having to always qualify this statement when I make it, of having to respond to blinkered arguments that: It’s unsafe sexual behavior regardless of sexual orientation, that’s responsible for HIV infection. That it's not who you are but what you do. I'm tired of sticking to our one-size-fits-all-across-the-board-public-health messages about unprotected sex.
What’s even more tiring are the "Says who?" and "Prove it" schools -- those who seem to require a randomized, double-blind, peer-reviewed study as evidence. Yeah, I know there are better research methods, but go Google “HIV,” “homophobia,” and “Black.” No, seriously: stop reading now and go do it.
If you do it, you’ll find USA Today quoting Coretta Scott King saying homophobia’s one of the most formidable obstacles to AIDS education; former Surgeon General David Satcher apologizing for the inexcusable ways in which homophobia has marginalized gay men and lesbians within the US healthcare system; folks founding a New York City organization to deal with heterosexual Black and Latino folks attributing the rise of HIV among straight folks to homophobia.
All of this was there long before Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Cynthia Tucker’s widely discussed but problematic 2005 column, "Homophobia among Blacks fuels HIV/AIDS crisis." All before the Rev. Al Sharpton’s August announcement to a room of politicians and white and Latino gay folks that he was launching a campaign against Black homophobia, especially among Black clergy, in part because of its role in fueling HIV. So go ask Mrs. King, Dr. Satcher and Rev. Al for a study.
I’m tired of having to justify what I mean, of folks staring at me like I have two heads, like I’m some sort of Thabo Mbeki figure -- the South African president who, while trying to make the case that poverty causes AIDS, was cavorting with HIV denialists and withholding anti-retroviral treatment from pregnant women.
I’m not advocating that we must dismantle everything we’re currently doing in HIV prevention in order to work on homophobia, as others have begun to argue more loudly in the wake of the 46% study. (Though on a good day, it does cross my mind.) I do, however, want the idea that homophobia causes AIDS to move to the center of how we think about and respond to HIV and HIV risk in the US and in Black communities – in how we set government policy for funding and services, in how we run our organizations, in what we do in our families and communities, in how we live our own lives.
I’m tired, especially, of folks responding to me saying that homophobia causes AIDS with a "Yeah, so?" shrug. So there’s a big pink elephant in the middle of the floor, they seem to say, tell me something I don’t know. I do understand this reaction. It appears homophobia, not unlike racism, has simply grown acceptable, normative, one of those not-something-that-will-end-in-my-lifetime kind of things. But I’m troubled when young men I talk to suggest that -- just like people doing drugs on the corner, public schools that won’t improve, and George Bush being reelected -- that maybe we should just get used to HIV infection as one of those things that’s going to happen. That we should just normalize it, instead of doing this Chicken Little thing every time a new study comes out saying the sky is falling -- again.
I’ve seen the idea that poverty does cause – or, more politely, fuel – AIDS move more and more to the center of thinking in the international development field. And I’ve seen Hurricane Katrina make the leader of one of the most ideological and partisan conservative administrations in years utter the words "persistent poverty" in a primetime speech. So I’m hopeful that the renewed attention to HIV infection among Black men who have sex with men resulting from the 46% statistic will open up a new dialogue about persistent homophobia and make the idea that homophobia causes AIDS not just a foregone conclusion, but a point of departure for our work.
Ever since I went to work for Gay Men of African Descent as its first director 10 years ago, my notion of what we need to do to stop HIV has been to promote homosexuality -- our own culturally specific experiences and expressions of it -- and to battle homophobia. We need to change the conditions under which Black men who have sex with men make decisions about sex and risk. But, equally important, we need to change the ways in which we are imagined by and incorporated into community and society and, therefore, the ways we imagine ourselves, our worth and our options.
There are three key ways in which homophobia undermines everything we are trying to do in HIV prevention. First is safety. How can we ask folks to have safer sex when they don’t feel safe in the rest of their lives? When the intimacy and vibrancy that sex provides is often the only place they feel alive? In New York, we read in the papers every few weeks of another Gay victim of violence. And I know some folks who never made the paper.
Second is value. As Joe Beam put it back in the ’80s, long before I could grasp the largeness of what he meant, we must know that “we are worth wanting.” What is the meaning of HIV prevention, of telling someone to use a condom in order to live, when as Black gay folks our worth is challenged daily in school, in the media, on the street, from the pulpit, and by our families? HIV prevention doesn’t work when the social value of the lives of the people we are trying to keep alive is in question.
Lastly, there is the thorny question of identity -- and the horribly muddled and wrongheaded public debate about the “down low” and the role, if any, that Black men who have sex with men play in HIV transmission to Black women. What’s missing from the DL debate is an understanding that homophobia limits the choices that Black men can make about their same-sex desire, constrains their expressions of that desire, and ultimately exacts a price for whatever choices and expressions are made. As Kanye West illustrated so poignantly, even Black men who aren’t gay find their choices about masculinity limiting, and a price attached.
But homophobia is also entailed in how we as out Gay men engage in the down-low debate. On the one hand, we are complicit in the demonization of the DL brother as bogeyman – though I have no idea why we think this does us any good. On the other hand, we repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the real pain and experiences of women infected or deceived by DL men, because the inequality homophobia imposes on all gay-straight relationships makes us prudently ask each time: What do we get in exchange? And so we lose powerful opportunities to build relationships with women that help challenge homophobia. Ultimately, I’m not sure any HIV prevention work in Black communities advances until we take the risks necessary to dismantle the DL hoax and unmask its profiteers. Only then can we confront the double standard that normalizes Black teenage pregnancy but holds Gay men morally responsible for their HIV infection.
There’s a tiresome twosome of resistance to the idea that homophobia causes AIDS. First is the false contest between this idea and the fact that race also plays a powerful role in fueling the HIV epidemic. Half of the folks with HIV in the U.S. are Black. But half of the Black men getting HIV have sex with men. This is not a question of either/or, but both.
And, of course, next there’s the tired debate over terminology -- and the acknowledged reality that homophobia is, well, not a phobia. As someone who grew up in the “West Indies,” I know all too well that (no less than our endless debates over the terms Black and gay themselves) homophobia is as inexact, problematic and Eurocentric a word as any other. And it often distorts the meaning of the very thing we are trying to name. But it is shorthand for something we know we are naming, even as we misname it. I certainly pack into homophobia the bigger bag of Black masculinity that I believe is at the core of the DL and of heterosexual HIV transmission. I don’t have a more resonant word to make myself understood, but I hope that increasing public discourse about this thing will help us better name it. So please do a global search-and-replace with whatever more nuanced expression(s) may better articulate the point.
I want to propel us from the shrugging acceptance of saying “Homophobia causes AIDS. So what?” to the shocked realization of “Homophobia causes 46% of us to have HIV? What?!” Let’s move this idea to the front and center of what we’re doing in HIV prevention and community organizing. There are many, many ways for this work to happen. It can unfold both within the AIDS industrial complex and outside of it. Bringing funding, professionalism and the lessons of social science and evaluation to such work is critical if it is to succeed, and if we are to make the best use of resources that will always be scarce. But I do come down on the side of the HIV-prevention-has-failed critics when I see how, in too many places, HIV prevention has given up its earlier grassroots mission for a newer legitimacy, and become accountable not to our community’s welfare but to other interests.
If Black homophobia is at the root of the alarming disparities in HIV infection between Black men who have sex with men and Black men who don’t, and of similar disparities between Black men who have sex with men and all other MSM, and if on some level we know this in our hearts, why aren’t all of us doing as much about it as we can? If indeed anywhere close to 46% of Black gay men in some major cities is likely to be infected, shouldn’t that make the case -- more compellingly than the murders and suicides and violence and depression and denied opportunity and everything else bad we know homophobia does to us -- that homophobia is one of our most important battlegrounds? Shouldn’t it prompt us to reinvent how we do HIV prevention for many (and, I’ll admit, maybe not all) Black men who have sex with men, in a way that tackles head-on the big pink elephant in the room? And shouldn’t some of us be willing to say over and over again, Homophobia causes AIDS -- even if we risk sounding like Thabo Mbeki, or paying a similar political price? Psst!! Do I still have your attention? Help me pass it on: Homophobia causes AIDS.
Colin Robinson is executive director of the New York State Black Gay Network.
STATEMENT: The President's World AIDS Day Rhetoric
The Deadly Gap Between Words and Deed in the White House's Record on AIDS
President Bush marked World AIDS Day yesterday with a moving and remarkable speech. “At the start of this century,” the President offered, “AIDS causes suffering from remote villages of Africa to the heart of America's big cities. This danger is multiplied by indifference and complacency. This danger will be overcome by compassion, honesty, and decisive action.”
Unfortunately, those words articulate a clarity of vision and purpose that we are sorely lacking in Washington, D.C., today.
In the speech, President Bush ticked off his administration’s domestic achievements in fighting AIDS. He described “funding that brings life-saving drugs and treatment to hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans” and has turned AIDS into “a long-term illness like heart disease or diabetes.”
Yet, Congress is right now finalizing a budget – shoved through by this White House – that will transfer the costs of our state-run public health insurance programs onto the desperately poor families those programs were intended to help.
The Medicaid budget recently passed by the House would cut tens of millions of dollars out of the program by removing federal regulations that limit how much states may force beneficiaries to put up in co-pays and premiums, among other “savings” taken out of consumers’ pockets. Worse, analysts predict that the savings will come not from the actual co- pays but by discouraging people in the program from actually seeking care.
Medicaid is the nation’s largest payer for AIDS treatment.
Meanwhile, the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which funds anti-HIV drugs for uninsured people with HIV/AIDS, continues to teeter on the brink of collapse – the victim of malign neglect on behalf of federal purse-holders. As of September 2005, 2,187 Americans were on waiting lists to get medication through ADAP. A little over 1,300 of those people were getting medication through an emergency funding program that will expire in March. Why? Because year after year Congress and the White House have worked together to drastically underfund the ADAP program.
Meanwhile, our community is being disproportionately killed by AIDS -- much like we are by the President’s examples of heart disease and diabetes. African Americans – who rely far more heavily on public insurance programs for AIDS care -- remain seven times more likely to die from an HIV infection once they get it than whites.
The President also rightly reminded us all that HIV/AIDS is “a special concern in the gay community, which has effectively fought this disease for decades through education and prevention.” He added that AIDS is “increasingly found among women and minorities.” That’s one reason why it is unfortunate that, under this administration, funding for abstinence-only sex education in our schools has more than doubled. Abstinence-only education teaches that the only way to protect yourself from HIV and other STDs is to not have sex outside of heterosexual marriage. Such “educational” programs typically bar instructors from discussing how to use condoms at all.
The Institute applauds President Bush’s moving words on World AIDS Day – for an administration in which the vice president acknowledged just over a year ago that he hadn’t realized the intensity of the epidemic among African American women, that is certainly progress. We now urge the administration and Congress to start putting action behind their words on the other 364 days of the year.
STATEMENT: World AIDS Day
Following Rosa Parks Lead in the Fight Against AIDS
Fifty years ago, an ordinary Black woman boarded an ordinary city bus in a small, ordinary southern town and an extraordinary thing happened. By holding fast to her seat, Rosa Parks gave voice to the frustration and pain -- and to the dreams, hopes and promise -- of a people. In so doing, she ignited a movement that changed the world.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ declaration that enough is enough, we also note that today, on the 18th commemoration of World AIDS Day, Black women still face a world in need of change.
Black women have always born the brunt of the female AIDS epidemic in America. But as journalist Hilary Beard explores in the Institute's latest report on the Black AIDS epidemic -- Getting Real: Black Women Taking Charge in the Fight Against AIDS -- data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it more evident than ever that AIDS primarily a Black epidemic among women in America.
According to the CDC, Black women represent 68% of the new HIV diagnosis among women in the United States. African American women are 18 times more likely to contract HIV than white women, and AIDS remains among the leading causes of death for Black women. It is the leading cause of death for Black women aged 25-34.
Yet nearly 25 years into the epidemic, there has yet to be a mass mobilization of Black women to respond.
Fifty years ago today, a Black woman and the community she lived in were brave enough to stand up and refuse to participate in their own oppression, to declare, Not today, this stops now. For Black women in America today, the bus is AIDS. We are not just being asked to give up our seats, we’re being told to give up our lives. The Black AIDS Institute and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women are calling on all Black women in America to, like Rosa Parks, refuse to consent. Not today, this stops now.
Dispatches from Black America
By Phill Wilson
“There’s only us.
There’s only this,…
No other road,
no other way,
no day but today.”
February 4, 1960-January 25, 1996
I just saw Rent, the much anticipated movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning rock opera about a year — “five hundred, twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes” — in the life of a group of friends, some of whom are HIV positive, living on the lower East Side of New York City six years — or, three million, one-hundred fifty-three thousand six hundred minutes—before the arrival of the life-extending triple combination AIDS regimens used today.
I first saw rent on Broadway with the original cast in 1996, the year protease inhibitors came on the market. It was a time in my life when my own mortality clock was ticking very fast. I had nearly died a few months earlier, and no one expected me to live beyond the end of the year.
So much has happened since the play opened that I expected the movie to be dated. After all, World AIDS Day has rolled around 10 times since Rent debuted. Many of us with AIDS are living longer. I have been living with HIV for over 25 years and full blown AIDS for 15 years. But, more than that, the unimaginable has happened: We are making HIV/AIDS therapies available in the worst-hit parts of Sub-Sahara Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. So I was surprised when, after the opening verse of the first real AIDS song, I found myself in tears.
The scene is of an AIDS support group. A few of my tears were a response to the memories that came flooding back. The faces of Chris, Rory, Craig, Roger, Lynn, Stephen, Bylinda, LeRoy and all my friends who are now dead suddenly filled my head. The grief and the fear that we all felt back then thrust me back into those support groups, those hospital rooms, those memorial services.
But even with all of that, most of the tears were not about my yesterdays. As I fought my way back from the memories, I realized the immense sadness and terror I was feeling was about what is going on with regard to Black America and AIDS today. You see, even with the new drugs, we are still dying in droves -- and most of us don’t seem to care. What makes me so sad and so terrified is that I just don’t know what else to do to get Black folks to make ending the AIDS epidemic a top priority.
The statistics don’t seem to do the job — AIDS continues to be the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 24 and 34; Black youth represent over 56% of the new HIV/AIDS cases among youth in America; and nearly 50% of Black gay men in the U.S. may already be infected.
Knowing someone who is living with HIV/AIDS does not appear to be the answer, either. I estimate roughly 90% of Black people in America know someone who either is living with HIV/AIDS or has died from the disease. Yet we are still complacent.
Sure, there have been some successes. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 5% annual decline in the rate of diagnosis over the last five years. The Black media has responded in tremendous ways. Despite only lip service on the part of most, some Black groups and churches have made real commitments towards stopping AIDS in Black community. But these attempts are diddling around the edges of a massive health catastrophe, a viral Katrina.
According to the CDC, “Despite the decline, the rate of HIV diagnosis among Blacks remained 8.4 times higher than the rage among whites.” More than half of all HIV diagnoses in America are among Blacks.
Nothing less than a full community-wide mobilization will do, but, tragically, there has never been a mass Black response to the AIDS epidemic in America. To help try to ignite one, actors and humanitarians Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph have recently launched a national celebrity spokesperson campaign to stop AIDS in Black America.
Astonishingly, AIDS in Black America has never benefited from the power of celebrity in the way other communities have. Armies of Black leaders have not participated in AIDS walks to benefit people with AIDS in our community. There is not a “We are the World” or even “That’s What Friends Are For” to raise awareness about AIDS and Black people in America. I, for one, anxiously await to see what kind of response Danny and Sheryl Lee get from their call to action.
We won’t be able to execute the kind of response we need to stop AIDS in our community unless and until each one of us does two things:
1. Decide we deserve to live, a decision I fear not enough of us have made.
2. Commit to joining or starting a community response in each of our neighborhoods.
The opening song of Rent asks the question “How do you measure a year in the life?” The song offers a few possible answers: “In daylights, in sunsets, in laughter, in strife, in five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes, how about love?” Love’s good. But, here’s another way to measure a year: the number of people who became infected with HIV last year. Last year, worldwide, it was 3.1 million, and most of them were Black. How about measuring 2006 by the number of things you do to stop AIDS? That would be love.
“There’s only us. There’s only this…, No other road, no other
Phill Wilson is executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. His column is syndicated monthly through the NNPA News Service.