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.