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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
Kai Chandler Lois Crenshaw Gary Paul Wright Fortunata Kasege Keith Green Lois Bates Greg Braxton Vanessa Austin Bernard Jackson

The Culture War in the Black HIV/AIDS Movement Is Hurting Us All

February 7, 2012

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell

Last November at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), I was asked to sit on a panel that grew out of my essay, "Will This Generation's Magic Johnson Please Stand Up?" The goal was to have an in-depth conversation about how to get straight African-American men involved in HIV activism, prevention and testing.

To some extent, I knew that a conversation about sexuality, masculinity, gender inequality and HIV in black America would usher in a heated conversation. But given that the purpose of the town hall meeting was to come up with strategies on reaching heterosexual black men, I thought it would be somewhat tempered. I was wrong: While ideas and strategies were discussed, the undertone of the conversation reeked of divisive homophobia and anti-feminist buffoonery.

One man (who was gay) insinuated that gay men were not "real" or "strong," therefore we needed straight men to be the leaders. A woman stood up and stated that she didn't want her husband and son getting HIV information from a gay man. There were serious complaints about why so much money and focus are going to gay and bisexual men and not "black people" -- as though black men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender folks aren't black people too. And when I stated to the crowd that as a community we need to confront our own homophobia and correct it if we plan on getting more straight black men involved in this fight, a woman loudly asked, "Why? What does that have to do with us?"

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The most outlandish statement occurred when an older woman from South Carolina insinuated that black female leaders, who have carved out places for themselves in this movement because their lives depended on it, were hogging the movement and were the very reason why heterosexual black men are not leading and participating in HIV work. She said, "Now is the not the time for feminism, ladies."

What's incredibly sad is these people spewing this ignorance were not random people from off the street who had very little knowledge or experience with HIV. Instead, they were well-known leaders who have worked in HIV for years, even decades.

I wish I could say that this was a fluke encounter, an anomaly of sorts. But in the past six years that I have been writing about HIV, I have had countless run-ins with leaders who share these same beliefs.

Just last year, a high-ranking, African-American member of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and I gave an HIV talk to a room of teens of color. During her talk, she said that numerous studies show that black and Latino men are more likely to be bisexual than men of other races and more likely to hide their sexuality from their partners, thus fueling HIV rates among young women and girls of color.

"I'm not making this up, the studies are out there," she declared.

Now, I have never seen -- or even heard about -- these studies. (Most likely because they don't really exist.) Lying to impressionable children is completely reprehensible, of course. But what's truly terrifying is that this person and her problematic politics continue to shape how New York City responds to its own HIV epidemic.

Whether you want to admit it or not, it's not just our country as a whole that is engulfed in a bitter culture war -- so is our black HIV leadership. And just like in American politics, the conservatives in the black HIV movement seem to be the ones with the loudest bark, and the ones who are shaping the conversation.

What's incredibly ironic is that there is absolutely nothing conservative about this disease. HIV is about fluids, raw vaginal and anal sex, intravenous (IV) drug use, needles, systematic oppression and sexuality -- stuff that makes many people uncomfortable. And yet those very people who are uncomfortable with these issues are the ones leading powerful HIV organizations in our communities.

How productive is it to run programs for black women and tell them that HIV rates are so high because of men on the down low, when studies show that it isn't the case? Or if you work helping black women gain economic and physical autonomy, but then you go around saying that feminism is for white people and has no place in our lives? Or you have serious issues with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community; meanwhile your organization is a place where members of that community access their HIV care?

It's as productive as having Michele Bachmann run Planned Parenthood.

We can continue to sit in denial and put whatever optimistic spin we want on our current situation, but the reality is that we are 30 years into this epidemic and black folks are the ones who are losing. Yes, losing.

There are many things beyond our control that are to blame for why we account for only 14 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses each year. But we can control the decision of who leads us -- and right now, the conservative, narrow-minded leadership and ideologies are not helping alleviate this crisis. They may increase testing and link people to care, which is very important, but when they also foster an environment filled with hate and ignorance, then they are not really helping in the long run.

Don't get me wrong. I know that there are black leaders who are doing amazing, transformative work. There are men and women who understand the interconnections of race, class, gender and sexuality, and who apply it to their research, prevention work and advocacy. Thank goodness for these people, who have adopted a "by any means necessary" approach to their activism and who in the end just really "get it." But sometimes it feels like these progressive advocates are the exception, not the rule, in terms of black HIV leadership. In public spaces, those voices seem to be muted, sometimes by their doing.

During that town hall meeting at USCA, the progressive leaders and advocates I saw in the audience were extremely quiet in the face of so much ignorance. As I sat there on the panel, I felt like I was left to fend for myself. I don't know why that was the case. Do they come across this type of ignorance more often than I do, and have come to believe that speaking out is not really worth it? Do they have to work with some of these more conservative leaders in other spaces, and don't want to rock the boat? Do they feel like their own work has nothing to do with what these random leaders say, so why should they even waste time correcting people?

Whatever the case may have been, silence is just as much of a problem as intolerant rhetoric. Now is not the time for us to keep our mouths closed -- too many lives are dependent on our ability to speak out and up.

In the end, when I think about the future of this epidemic 30 years from now, it scares the hell out of me. Who is molding the next generation of black HIV leaders? If it's progressive thinkers, then I can be somewhat hopeful. But if it's mostly the vocal, intolerant people who attended the town hall at USCA, then we are in for an extremely bumpy and dangerous ride.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.

EDITOR'S NOTE 1/7: Since we first published this article, the fourth paragraph was edited by the author to clarify her interpretation of the statement made by the older woman from South Carolina who spoke about the role of heterosexual black men in HIV-fighting efforts in the U.S.



This article was provided by TheBody.com.

See Also
What Really Fuels the HIV/AIDS Epidemic in Black America?
More Views on HIV/AIDS in the African-American Community


Reader Comments:

Comment by: Garance (France) Mon., Mar. 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm EST
The map linking HIV to poverty is very relevant. During my work as activist and researcher on HIV in Africa, I confirm - high rates of stds, of TB, or intestinal parasites are factors to get infected with HIV (point of similitude between the poor and the homosexuals in general)2- blood contamination in tatooing or women hairdressers, or health care is not mentioned but is important. 3- UN organisations have shown drug batches can be contaminated 'wholesale'100s doses at a time. So we should stop blaming individuals!!
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Comment by: Darriane Martin (Austin, TX) Thu., Jan. 30, 2014 at 3:50 pm EST
I have no clue how I missed this article, but you are right on point. I too work in the field and have experienced similar situations and heard comments not unlike those listed here. It is incredibly scary to think what the next 30 years of HIV advocay will bring if these comments and ideas continue to gain traction.

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Comment by: jhenry69 (California City, CA) Sat., Sep. 28, 2013 at 4:09 pm EDT
I agree that it's one thing to tell people incorect data, but I get a serious 'my/our way or the highway' vibe from this writer. Elton John himself, among others in the public LGBT community have praised George W. Bush's HIV/AIDS programs in Africa as the most effective by far. And yet interviewers always act shocked by these comments. The writer states,"Or you have serious issues with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community; meanwhile your organization is a place where members of that community access their HIV care?"
So you are saying that if someone doesn't agree with your moral or political stance they shouldn't be allowed to help? Do you check the doctors voting record before he operates?
I agree that it's one thing to tell people incorect data
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Comment by: Rick (North Carolina) Wed., Feb. 22, 2012 at 12:09 am EST
This is an excellent analysis of the situation that currentlhy exists in the black community regarding the issue of AIDS. I am a black male who has beent trying to enlighten black people about the AIDS epidemic, and I have had people say things to me like "AIDS only happens to gay people" and "If a person has AIDS he deserves it because of fornication. I hope you know that there are a few of us out here who are trying to enlighten the black community on the issues of AIDS and sexuality, but this is a difficult struggle.
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Comment by: Say Cheese (Bronx. NY) Sat., Feb. 18, 2012 at 12:19 am EST
Thanks for the great article. I appreciate the focus on administrative ignorance and homophobia in the field of HIV care.

The day I got my poz diagnosis, I already knew I had full-blown AIDS. The waiting room was full of people watching a very old HIV info video. It was a collection of the most gruesome photos of dying AIDS victims, and Whoopi Goldberg saying over and over "if you get HIV. you WILL die!"

We must bring HIV basics to the public in a way that doesn't feed fear. Because fear is the one emotion that will quickly shut down dialogue. Maybe there is another Magic Johnson waiting in the wings?

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Comment by: Drew(Sydney AUS) (Sydney) Thu., Feb. 16, 2012 at 10:03 pm EST
The United States has a huge problem, and it's not HIV/AIDS, it's JESUS FREAKS !

Interesting Article...Keep up the good work

Cheers Sydney, Australia
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Comment by: DoctorChipper (Washington, D.C.) Wed., Feb. 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm EST
Just to add some statistical accuracy and groundings to de-sensationalize this whole subject.....

In 2006, there were 2,477,000 black American women in the United States, aged 25-34 years. In that year there was a grand total of 3,126 deaths from all causes in that age, gender and racial cohort.

That was a microscopically small death rate of roughly 1/10 of 1 percent. Of those 3,126 total deaths, 352 were attributed to HIV Disease, making it the 3rd leading cause of death, behind diseases of the heart (370) and malignant neoplasms (367).
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Comment by: John Eisenhans (St. Louis, MO) Sat., Feb. 11, 2012 at 11:41 am EST
Thank you, Ms. Terrell, for this important, courageous, honest and intelligent article!

I agee with MV: It's important to name names and hold folks accountable. Please take the next step.

Tell us the name and the organizational affiliation of the "man (who was gay) [who] insinuated that gay men were not "real" or "strong," therefore we needed straight men to be the leaders." We need to know who is the "woman [who] stood up and stated that she didn't want her husband and son getting HIV information from a gay man." The "older woman from South Carolina" who "said, "Now is the not the time for feminism, ladies."" is safe in the murderous ignorance so long as she remains unnamed. We have no hope of evicting the "high-ranking, African-American member of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene" from her cushy, taxpayer-funded job lying to children and helping to make "Death Anus" videos until we can put a name to her crimes.

We managed to get Karen Handel out of the Komen Foundation (one down, more to go). We CAN get these "divisive homophob[es] and anti-feminist buffoon[s]" out of the way, but only when we arm ourselves with specific information. Out these internal enemies. Hold them accountable!
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Comment by: Anna F. (Kensington, MD) Wed., Feb. 8, 2012 at 10:58 am EST
Yes MA'AM, Ms. Kellee!! Excellent article.

Thank you very much for speaking out on this difficult topic. A movement inevitably reflects its leadership at the top. Always has, always will. Those who wish to change (or fine-tune) the direction of a movement must, themselves, step into leadership positions to do so -- and take the risks and heat that stepping forward involves.

I hope your comments inspire more progressive people to do that. And I hope that those of us (like me) who have been in the field forever have the good sense to step aside and welcome new leaders into our ranks.

We cannot afford to remain static while the epidemic gains ground. We have to grow, change, and evolve to keep our communities alive. Thanks again! Well done.
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Comment by: Debra (Lander, WY) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 8:27 pm EST
The fear is just that deep and thank you for exposing the shaking ground and need for holding it. I am holding onto this essay as well because it informs on many levels when people fear in discussions and actions to end racism, scarcity, homophobia, classism...
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Comment by: MV (NYC) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm EST
Thanks for writing this article. It's very upsetting, a scandal really. There comes a point when it's important to name names and hold folks accountable. These so-called leaders who sit up in public meetings saying these things have lots of power across the country. They are the "experts" who provide cover to those who shape public policy, decide funding and pass legislation that makes the problem worse. Folks need to pull back the covers and reveal these charlatans.
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Comment by: Laurel Sprague (Ann Arbor, MI) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 3:44 pm EST
Well done, Kellee. This was bravely and honestly written. I'm sorry that you were left largely to fend for yourself. The politics of it all are awful...and you are right, they hurt the very people who need help the most. Let me know if I can support you in future efforts.
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Comment by: AntoineB (New York City) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 3:33 pm EST
Kellee, thank you for adding your voice and bringing one more issue into the light. I wrote about this last year, when everyone was hoop-la-ing and celebrating 30 years. I looked at the hypocrisy, lies, deceit, mismanagement, embezzlement of funds, cronyism, cliquishness, and general disservice being done to the Black and Black gay community in the name of HIV/AIDS. See my article: http://www.bilerico.com/2011/08/hoping_for_change_through_restatement.php
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Comment by: John M. (NYC) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 2:32 pm EST
Oh my! Thank you so much for this. I've heard responses like this when trying to work with the African-American faith community around HIV, and I have come to expect it as they are on a journey towards understanding and at least they are TALKING about HIV. (I call it the "harm reduction" approach to religion: meet them where they are.) But at the USCA!?!?!? Leaders of HIV/AIDS organizations?!?!? This is just nuts.

Thanks again for your truth-telling. Blessed be.
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Comment by: John L. (Indianapolis, In) Tue., Feb. 7, 2012 at 12:10 pm EST
Nice article, unfortunately this is what we are stuck with. The Black community(if is truely exist today) are as miseducated today as they were in the 1920s &30s. Let me illustrate Carter G.Woodson wrote "miseducation of the Negro" in the above mentioned erra and every thing he said then holds true today. No it is worst we call each other, " Niggas and Bitches " and call it a term of endearment(how sick is that ?) So I am not surprise about that stinkin thinkin when it comes to the HIV problem. When we examine our history we are just as hypocritical as our so called oppressors. When you learn about the Harlem Renaissance it is pretty watered down to the point the most people don'nt see it was a big comming out party. Look at what those guys went through persecution by there own people. Kellie keep up the fight because if you don'nt who will
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