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.
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."
- 10 Tips for the Media on How to Stop Screwing Up HIV/AIDS Coverage, by Kellee Terrell
- TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
- TheBody.com's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for Gay Men
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.