As a heterosexual black man, I think it is time we had a talk about why more Black men are not talking publicly about living with HIV, protecting our women and families from HIV, and how to overcome the stigma of HIV. It is time to Rise for WAR!! I'll go first.
I am very torn by the wonderful compliments that Black women give me when they hear or read what I share about living with AIDS for the past 27 years. First of all, sharing my status is not something I do in order to be noticed or for adulation. I do it to give hope to those who might need it. I also understand the power of images, and we need to see more straight Black men speaking out after they have been diagnosed with HIV.
Black women have a sense of what it took to survive the '80s and '90s hosting HIV. Most people still have vivid memories of the trauma that was caused by the way people were suffering and dying during that time. Almost all can identify, in some way, with the fear and stigma associated with living in the Black community while carrying the HIV virus. Hell, they crucified Jesus, and they talked really bad about Magic, so all the brothers I knew did not want to put themselves out there like that, and they still don't. No one wants to endure the public and private condemnation, and more importantly, everyone wants to be loved. Is that so wrong? So I'm encouraged by the compliments, but the fact that I am an aberration is troubling to me.
I was 28 years old when I stopped letting drugs use me. That is when I started growing up, but some of the damage had already been done. I was still equating sex with love, and I had a lot of love to give, if you know what I mean. Even though there were many, many people in the community trying to get and stay clean that had been exposed to, suffered with, and eventually died with the virus, people were not very forthcoming, shall we say, about the reality of the epidemic -- especially in the Black community. The reasons for that have been highly scrutinized, and the resulting consequences have been thoroughly documented. Nevertheless, it is sharing the many situations that arrive from living with the virus, as well as sharing the insights learned that will help us to turn the tide on HIV.
According to the CDC, "In 2009, black men accounted for 70% of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks."1 "In 2009, black women accounted for 30% of the estimated new HIV infections among all blacks. Most (85%) black women with HIV acquired HIV through heterosexual sex."1Stigma, fear, discrimination, homophobia, and negative perceptions about HIV testing can also place too many African Americans at higher risk. Many at risk for infection fear stigma more than infection and may choose instead to hide their high-risk behavior rather than seek counseling and testing.1
That is the part of the problem that can and must be fixed. Speaking honestly as a non-homophobic Black man about living with HIV should not be such an unusual occurrence. I mean, if you believe the numbers, and "ya'll" believe everything else, then there are a lot of heterosexual men of color who are carrying the virus right now! I bet that besides Magic and I, you can't name three more that are speaking out without fear of being labeled a homosexual! That doesn't make any damn sense to me (or you). How are we going to win a war against HIV when our troops are untrained and afraid to fight?
The underlying connotation of what Black women are saying when they compliment me for my honesty about sharing my positive status is that it may be an indication that I might not be letting my fear of being seen as gay override my responsibility to protect my wife, family and community. Black women see that as true love, and they are, like all of us, looking for that "ride or die" type of love that supersedes social acceptability. I know many a Black man who has got that kind of love, but for some reason(s) we have not represented ourselves well enough in this war. We would do well to learn the lessons that some of our gay and bisexual brothers have learned about social acceptability not equaling freedom. If we were truly secure in our sexuality, we would also see the need to destroy stigma, and root out homophobia because we are all in this thing together. It seems like the psychological warfare being waged by the virus is working!
First of all, approximately 1 in 5 African American adults and adolescents in the U.S. living with HIV is unaware of his or her HIV status. This translates to approximately 116,750 persons in the African American community.1 Getting tested and knowing your status is the least you could do! Ignorance is no excuse, and it will not protect anyone from the enemy -- HIV. If you were not afraid to go in raw, then man up and get tested. I understand about lacking our self-discipline and our addiction to unprotected sex, but either we will change, or these viruses will change or end us. It is a new world now, and there are medications and options like the female condom to prevent and treat contracting HIV. None of that will matter if we do not, as Black men, participate in the survival of our families and our communities.
I'm from the SSJQ (south side of Jamaica Queens) and there are a few things I have learned growing up there. "They" said hip hop wouldn't last and we see what happened there, so "they" don't know what they are talking about. There are plenty of strong black men who would give their life to protect their families if the enemy was something more recognizable, like a robber with a gun. Our situation is no less critical in this war against HIV. Also, I do not care what you think about my sexual orientation, especially if we are not engaging in sex together, so fear and stigma do not apply here. Stigma is being more afraid of what other people think about you than what you think and know about yourself.
So I am putting out a call to action. It is time to step up and defend ourselves, our families, and our entire community from our common enemy ... HIV. It is not a morale issue. It is a biological war, and the virus is looking for the weakest link. The virus is cunningly seeking to destroy us, and we remain passive about our reality at our own peril. It is like when the indigenous peoples fought the cowboys in the Wild West. They would allow the cowboys to come through the pass and silently pick them off from the rear until they all were gone! We are NOT going to sit silently while that happens to us. Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." That time is now.
If you are not scared to live, or afraid to die, comment or respond to this post here at TheBody.com and like the Facebook page rise4war -- the multimedia magazine. You will receive further orders at the appropriate time, soldier!
Read Reggie's blog, RISE4WAR -- Focusing on Wellness, Awareness and Recovery.