Larry Bryant: Beyond the whole "It's not me," the down low focuses on blame instead of accountability. Almost 10 years ago, when the quote-unquote down-low phenomenon was popularized, it took the place of intelligent conversation around solutions in the black community, particularly the rising epidemic among black women, and focused instead on blaming black gay men for infiltrating the community.
It's one of those bridges that we need to build, and rebuild, in the black community, when we're talking about collective positive outcomes in the community.
Kellee Terrell: Does the lack of data around black heterosexual men add another barrier? There are some CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] data out there, but when we talk about what data are really pushed, it's usually about black women or black MSM, especially young MSM. I don't see a push for data around heterosexual men, and it makes no sense, since in a ranking of who is most impacted, black heterosexual men come in right after black women.
Larry Bryant: I think there are multiple layers there. It starts in the community with a young man who identifies as heterosexual, who is either asking questions, seeking answers, or wants to get tested -- or even finds out his own status, like I did. Where do you go? Most visible programs and organizations don't speak to straight men. There are just not a lot of open doors that straight guys feel comfortable going through for HIV information, education, care or services.
So the data are absent because a lot of guys don't even show up. And over the years, there hasn't been specific information targeted at straight men or men in general. I think a lot of the pressure of identification comes along with that, which fuels the stigma that already exists in the community. So you get men that just don't show up, period, whether they are straight or questioning, especially when you're talking about young men.
I was watching TV the other day, and saw the Charles Barkley commercials: "Lose like a man." I've seen two or three of them and what I found interesting is that they are all of black men who are focusing on losing weight and being healthy. They don't imply anything about the men's sexuality, but we know who Charles Barkley is. And this other guy is a DJ from Detroit. I wonder if we had very straightforward campaigns like that, that focused on HIV, or testing, or had strong, identifiable male leaders in the community or nationally, whether they be sports figures or elected officials who stood up in a very real, non-dramatic way and just said, "Hey, I'm getting tested, and this is who I am," would guys show up. I feel like they would.
Kellee Terrell: It's just really interesting because here we are, so close after the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson disclosing his HIV status back in 1991, and we still don't have many messages, if any, that are geared toward straight black men or men who identify as straight, but might have slept with a man.
Ingrid Floyd: Who else who is heterosexual besides Magic Johnson has come forward to disclose his status and have an impact on this demographic?
Kellee Terrell: No one. And frankly, I don't believe that he doesn't exist -- it's not possible, given the HIV rates in our community. In the end, there is so much stigma around this disease and what kind of man can contract HIV, that there is a fear that everyone will think this generation's Magic is lying about his sexuality.
Larry, I know you have come in contact with other heterosexual black men who are positive. What has been their fear? What have they shared with you about being afraid to disclose, or being afraid to be a public speaker or be an advocate?
Larry Bryant: Sometimes it's the heat of the speculation. You know, it's standing in front of a crowd and talking about oneself and knowing that there are whispers in the back of the room saying things like, "Yeah, right."
But I think it's also the additional social issues that exist. Because a lot of guys, particularly guys I know, aren't just living with HIV -- they're living with HIV and have a history of addiction; they're living with HIV and have a history of being incarcerated; they're living with HIV and have mental illness and other health issues. It's also, in some ways, pressure from their own families, from their spouses or people they are dating, or from folks in their support system, to not be out with one's status, because they don't want to be associated with that spotlight.
There are also a lot of guys who just don't want to deal with the backroom questions or the judgment that comes from different places. It's tough, because if there were straight men out there, it would help broaden the conversation. But I also want to point out that it doesn't have to be a celebrity. Like I said before, it can be a pastor or an elected official; everyday people we see in our community can be impactful.
Read Part 2! It covers initiatives to get more straight black men tested and involved in this conversation.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.
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