Image from positivepitch.blogspot.com.
In the hundreds of panels listed in last week's International AIDS Conference's dauntingly thick guidebook, only one specifically addressed or mentioned heterosexual men of color and HIV and few heterosexual men at all. This was far from some glitch or planning oversight. It's the dangerous status quo of past and current HIV talk, which -- thankfully -- focuses aplenty on disproportionately high rates in black MSM and skyrocketing rates in heterosexual women of color, but shockingly not the straight men the women are sleeping with, many of whom, due to said messaging strategy, are not even aware they are at risk of infection or infecting. And because no one is talking to or about them, many HIV positive men of color have chosen to stay in the shadows, causing them to seem a mere myth to many, though math shows they are far from apocryphal, hence the name of the lone panel: Myth To Leadership: Heterosexual Black Men and the HIV Epidemic. "It is foolish to think that the HIV epidemic can be addressed in communities of color without including heterosexual men of color in that dialogue and in those prevention activities and interventions," says Terrence Young, co-chair of the Heterosexual Men of Color Coalition, who organized the panel.
While the CDC provides nary a specific statistical or outreach-strategy mention of straight men of color, among the dozens of mentions of nearly every other pop, breaking down the stats tells the tale that they desperately need to. According to the CDC, MSM constitute 73% of all black male infections, meaning 27% of HIV positive black men are straight, a staggering number in and of itself considering that overall African Americans now claim 50% of new infections. The CDC also reports that 85% of HIV positive black women are infected through heterosexual sex, often with this unmentioned 27%, further upping the stakes of adequately educating them, and that HIV is now the leading cause of death in black men ages 35 to 44.
Why haven't government orgs or AIDS services orgs taken a closer look at straight men of color in 30 years of targeting populations? Well it's hard to know as no one has studied it. But not having prevention and outreach strategies that target straight men creates a two-fold, cycle feeding, problem. Not only does it cause straight men to have the illusion that they are not at risk -- meaning they do not take as many precautions or get tested as often as those bombarded with HIV messages that they are and are therefore less likely to know their status and more likely to infect someone, it also drives those who do know their status further from the spotlight, perpetuating the original lack of risk awareness. "Because of homophobia and stigma, straight men are not represented and do not want to be represented," says Housing Works' Larry Bryant, who spoke on the panel, discussing life as an HIV positive straight man of color infected via heterosexual sex. "People make their assumptions and a lot of men don't want the burden of having to prove that they're straight."
The fact that much past public talk about African American men who infect women with HIV has focused on the "down low", or publicly straight men who are secretly sleeping with men, hasn't helped, instead fueling stigma and fear of disclosure among straight men. Plus, the stats never backed the hype. "Part of what has happened as a result of that initial burst of stories reporting the 'down low' is that those stories often tied the down low to high rates of HIV infection among African-American women, which was not supported by epidemiological data," said Dr. Chandra L. Ford of Columbia University. "The myth of black women being infected mostly by 'men on the down low' has been dispelled," says Young. "A focus needs to be put on heterosexual men and heterosexual couples protecting and caring for each other."
Bryant adds that not only do the HIV positive straight men not step up to the activist podium, organizations don't prioritize hiring them or making them their face, another factor feeding the cycle. "I'm an oddity," he says of his visible place at the Housing Works' advocacy helm. "It has to come from both ends. Organizations have to hire straight men and put them in places of visibility and straight men shouldn't shrink from being more visible."
Young founded the Heterosexual Men of Color Coalition to change just that and to fill the current silence by amplifying the voices of the straight men who are out there advocating, in the hopes of recruiting more, and to collectively demand an investigation both of how best to reach straight men and to understand the factors fueling the epidemic amongst their ranks, from high rates of incarceration to low rates of employment. Says Bryant of some of those factors and the media messages that do reach young black men, "They're told not expect to be leaders, not to expect to be productive. They're just told they are scaring the hell out of everybody. And many of them don't expect to live past 30 and self destructive behavior is seen as a badge of honor." He adds that, facing these unignorable daily pressures and stressers, and with no one telling them it should be otherwise, HIV hardly registers on most young black men's list of concerns.
Young calls the lack of focus on straight men of color "shocking," especially considering the fact that HIV is ever-increasingly a disease affecting low income people of color. "By giving voice to and raising awareness around the challenges that face heterosexual men of color in HIV prevention and care, HMOCC can encourage individuals, organizations, funders, and policy makers in positions to make a difference to allow heterosexual men of color the opportunity to be a part of those conversations before decision are made, as opposed to clearly being an afterthought during those conversations," says Young.
Meaning that a major take away from this year's IAC is that to follow through on all the conference AIDS-free generation slogans and talk, we have to say what still remained largely unsaid. After all, Silence = Death is one slogan that has never proven shallow.