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Why Does Mainstream Media Continue to Throw Young Black Gay Men Under the Bus?

April 28, 2013

Mathew Rodriguez

Mathew Rodriguez

This past Wednesday, April 24, the New York Daily News published an article entitled "Young Black Gay Men Who Hide Sexuality May Be Behind Brooklyn's HIV Epidemic, Doctors Say." The article, from the headline on in, is stigmatizing, racist, heterosexist, shortsighted and misinformed. It does what all the best journalism does: It packs quite the punch in a few short paragraphs. Unfortunately, it reserves its worst jabs and most powerful punches for young black gay men -- a population already at the intersection of many oppressed identities -- and does nothing to further healthy, productive conversation on the fight against HIV/AIDS, ending homophobia or respecting the lives and bodies of Brooklyn residents.

Let's unpack the article's headline and lead sentence, first of all. The headline references young black gay men who "hide" their sexuality, while the first paragraph describes a "new generation of young Brooklyn black males, many hiding their sexual identity" that may be fueling Brooklyn's HIV epidemic. The active construction of this sentence makes the clear statement that these young men are actively choosing to hide their sexual identity. As a young gay man of color who moves among circles of young gay man of color, I can say that we do not "hide" our sexuality. The freedom to live openly and honestly as sexual beings is, to varying degrees, taken away from us; and we must go through a process of "discovering" and "exploring" our sexual identity that, very often, our heterosexual counterparts do not have to undergo. This is commonly called "coming out"; it is a process that is repetitive and never-ending. Even living as an out gay man, I relive my coming out process every time I meet someone new and must disclose my sexual identity. To speak about young black gay men as some kind of malevolent cohort or underground mafia of men who choose to stay hidden -- and spread HIV -- is to disrespect young black gay men, all gay men, and the coming-out process, which is as unique as the individuals whose complex identities are elided in this piece.

For me, as a young gay man of color, this piece drives home the reality that I am at the intersection of many identities that are spoken about, too rarely spoken to, and even more rarely spoken with. Since the article discusses young black gay men, the ideal approach would be to allow more members of this population to speak for themselves. Instead, the article speaks about my people, our bodies, our sexuality, the way a person might describe a house as s/he drives by it on the way to work. Nice shutters, nice door, nice color; nothing about the soul, the family, the love inside the house. To encounter a piece on a complex group like young black gay men that does not discuss these things is a shame.

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Let me describe what some of these young black gay men might be going through. They might be forced to stay closeted by social forces and structures in place that promote homophobia and heterosexism. They might, as many of us do, live under the threat of violence or homelessness should they come out. They might be ashamed, as homophobia is a machine that produces shame in our communities. They might face more struggles daily than most of us can imagine, just by walking out of the house.

And the stigmatizing words and lack of context do not stop with young black gay men. In the article, Steven Holmes, 23, is referred to as having been "born with HIV after getting it from his drug-addicted mother." This statement carries powerful stigma in a culture that demonizes drug addiction, especially in women with children, and constantly searches for someone to "blame" in cases of HIV transmission. Holmes' mother may have been a drug addict, which means she was struggling with an illness. Addiction is an illness. And in that struggle, she found that her female body did what it was wont to do: carry a pregnancy to term -- a beautiful thing, especially for a woman infected with a disease that may have taken a toll on her immune system. And, unfortunately, caught in the middle was a baby who was born HIV positive. Somehow, an article that maligns the sexual behaviors of young men was able to position a perinatally infected young man in such a way as to also lodge an attack on drug users.

The personal interviews with people living with HIV in the piece provide a much-needed bright spot at the end of a dark, unlit road. I'm glad that Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum spoke about the real malevolence at work in the Brooklyn HIV community: funding cuts. I'm glad that the unnamed Bed-Stuy man spoke about the reality of living a life that is considered "taboo," and I hope that everyone digests what that means -- that, just by existing, young black gay men operate in a society that considers them dirty, shameful or outcast. Just think about what that can do to a person's psyche.

The entire article is rather symptomatic of many of the illnesses it purports to fight in its final paragraphs. Because it concludes by briefly describing the rampant homophobia young black gay men face on the streets, are readers to forget the disempowering rhetoric found only a few paragraphs away? Would talk of funding cuts to clinics and hospitals erase the fact that, only a few paragraphs earlier, a doctor who works with people living with HIV/AIDS makes a blanket statement -- quite likely stripped of context -- about young gay men not using protection?

In closing, a tip for journalists: If you are looking for a place to get information about the ways that a variety of young black gay men are affected by HIV/AIDS, you might attempt to speak to some young black gay men. Because of the rampant racism and homophobia in our communities, black gay men often interact with and love other black gay men. They are soldiers on the front lines in the battle against HIV/AIDS. They often live in the trenches of the HIV epidemic. And they need unending support from all their communities as well as from the media. Not to be spoken about in passing, not to be maligned, not to be stigmatized; but to be validated and worked with as human beings and as equals.

And for the media outlet that publishes a story on this topic and takes these concerns to heart, if you need a headline, I will graciously supply you with one:

"As Homophobia and Racism Persist, Young Black Gay Men in Brooklyn Bear Unfair Burden of HIV/AIDS Epidemic, Youths Say."

Further resources:

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.

Read TheBody.com's blog, The Viral Truth.

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Copyright © 2013 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.


This article was provided by TheBody.com.

See Also
The Viral Truth: Making Sense of HIV/AIDS News


Reader Comments:

Comment by: jacksonian (atlanta, ga) Fri., Aug. 9, 2013 at 8:48 am EDT
Everything with a perceived negative headline for non-whites is NOT racist. Unfortunately the truth hurts. Denial is what has put the black (and other ethnic) community at the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic to begin with. Whatever happened to self-accountability and responsibility instead of killing the messenger. Sorry, your argument dies not fly in the face of real statistics.
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Comment by: John (New Orleans) Tue., May. 7, 2013 at 3:11 pm EDT
I really appreciated and enjoyed your article, particularly your discussion of coming out as an on going process. If I understand your approach correctly, you are suggesting that young gay black men are being unfairly blamed for HIV tranmission when, in fact, racism and homophobia is the culprit. I agree with you for the most part, but my question then is: who is to blame for racism and homophobia? I feel like that line of logic can unfortunately lead to an endless blame game. Just a thought. Keep up the great work.
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Comment by: Jay (NYC) Sun., May. 5, 2013 at 9:58 am EDT
Hear Hear! Well said Matthew! That was a despicable headline/article.
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Comment by: Kevin McGruder (Yellow Springs, OH) Sun., May. 5, 2013 at 9:36 am EDT
Matthew, thank you so much for your comprehensive critique of the Daily News article. I don't know if you are aware that VIBE magazine online used the Daily News article as a basis for an even more inflammatory article, and included a picture of a New York black gay men's writing workshop of which I am a member. The picture had nothing to do with their article. We were able to get them to remove the picture and article but it was extremely troubling and disappointing to see how unethical the writer was in writing about such a serious topic.
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Comment by: Edward (Chicago) Fri., May. 3, 2013 at 10:01 am EDT
Well Said my friend. You have expressed the sentiment of many Men of color Bi,gay, or questioning. In our heart of hearts we know that we live in a society that will always seek to blame someone other than themselves for things in their lives that they cannot control. Knowledge is key to unlocking the mystries of being apart of the solution and not the problem. Yet many take the low road to profitability at the expense of others. It is brothers like you that make it a balanced world, in which we will someday find comfort in the very solutions you and I hope for, Acceptance and Joy in being at peace with who we are, Young Gay,Bi,Questioning Men of color. Again, Thank you.
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Comment by: Monique (Philadelphia) Thu., May. 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm EDT
That's why I watch Democracy Now, The Big Picture and read Epoch News. These are not part of mainstream media. HIV is on the raise because some people don't believe the it can happen to them. There are still a large % of homeless women and women on drugs.
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Comment by: Kevin Holy (Chicago, IL) Thu., May. 2, 2013 at 6:03 pm EDT
Excellent response Mr. Rodriguez!
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Comment by: Douglas (Miami Beach) Thu., May. 2, 2013 at 3:35 pm EDT
Thank you for your well-expressed take on this. It's easy to understand your frustration with the article's unbalanced portrayal of this matter.

Can you please help me understand, however, why it is that--speaking generally--many closeted young gay black men are apparently choosing to forego the use of condoms? I don't mean to seem unsympathetic in any way, but I sincerely don't understand how the specific circumstances they face (be it the racism they encounter from outside their community and/or the homophobia they encounter within and outside their community) bear on this apparent choice. Condoms are readily available and are widely known to prevent the transmission of HIV (when used consistently and correctly). So why exactly isn't this group--again, speaking generally--making use of them?
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Comment by: Jim Buresch (Seattle) Wed., May. 1, 2013 at 3:45 am EDT
Poppycock.
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Comment by: Noel Matthews (Philadelphia, PA) Sun., Apr. 28, 2013 at 7:53 pm EDT
This is so on point.
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Comment by: Rob Berger (Minneapolis, MN) Sun., Apr. 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm EDT
I read your article with interest and felt some distress. I am an older white gay man in my fifties. There was a time when we heard from different voices. Now is not that time. I actually want to hear from younger gay men about their experience--I have no clue what is like to be gay men now for younger, especially men of color. Whatever problems young gay black men have, it doesn't help to have media full of negative judgments rather than stories which work to understand their experience. I just happened upon this article in a Google search; I stopped by to offer my support.
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