Basketball legend and entrepreneur Earvin "Magic" Johnson collaborated with OraSure Technologies and the Reed For Hope Foundation on Tuesday to present "life. as we know it," a forum about HIV and healthy relationships within the African-American community. The panelists included Magic Johnson, reality television star Lala Anthony, author Demetria Lucas, Reverend Touré Roberts from One Church in Los Angeles, and sexologist Rachael Ross, M.D.. The lively and colorful dialog took place at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York (yes I know this is a D.C. blog. Stay with me on this one). While discussions happen all the time and all over the place, there where four notable points that were brought to the forefront. I call these the takeaways.
Takeaway #1: When It Comes to HIV, Talk Is Not Necessarily Cheap
Talk, talk, talk. Several questions were raised about how to reduce stigma, raise awareness and create comfort when it comes to discussing sexual health. Where do you begin? Dr. Racheal Ross says start with sex. "This is a sex issue. In order for prevention to take place, we have to have an open dialogue about sex, relationships, partner sharing, homophobia, etc. so we can get to the root of the problem." If all parties involved have accurate information, conversations between parents and children, friends, within classrooms, and at church can all help to relax fear and bring acceptance. Dr. Ross adds, "Fear comes from lack of information and denial. Discussions help with that."
Takeaway #2: Black Men Need Room to Be Men
Let's start with some statistics. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2010, black men accounted for 70% (14,700) of the estimated 20,900 new HIV infections among all adult and adolescent blacks. It is estimated that 2,700 heterosexual Black men were among the new infections. In the District, nearly 70 percent of the males living with HIV are African-American.
So how de we begin with this subgroup? Magic Johnson suggests that we let the men speak to and for themselves. "When I first announced 22 years ago that I was positive, guys got out there and got tested. The problem is it's been long forgotten. We need to dialogue with each other and sometimes it has to be all men in the room so we can talk man to man." Pastor Touré Roberts says that the discussions must target men and be a judgment free zone. "Guys need to be in an environment that is safe and where their manhood is encouraged. The dialog has to intentionally engage Black men."
Takeaway #3: Young People Are Watching Intently
In April 2012, we saw the very first National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day created. Whether it's through Hip-Hop and R&B music, mentoring, schools, sports or groups, empowering youth with accurate information will help them make healthy choices and get us all closer to zero new infections. Lala Anthony asserts that leaders in the Hip-Hop community have a responsibility to be positive role models to youth. "Leaders in the Hip-Hop community need to talk about it [HIV] more. There's so much misinformation out there. If young people hear it from people they like, the message might come across better. We have a responsibility to promote something good." Magic says that mentors make a difference as well. "What comes out of your mouth as a mentor is important. You can help shape their lives by giving the right information. Also you can help them by just being yourself. A real man or woman living your life and taking care of yourself."
Takeaway #4: LGBT Youth Cannot Be Ignored or Denied
While we're discussing young people, let's think about the LGBT youth. To be young and gay is quite a challenge in 2013. They are often ignored or labeled "confused" or brushed off as merely going through a phase. But it's real and for many of them it's a very lonely existence. How many churches fully embrace our LGBT youth and encourage them to be who they are? How do schools address the issue of bullying gay youth? What community leaders encourage parents to accept their gay children and support them as they grow into adulthood?
Magic Johnson's son EJ came out this year as a gay man. Although many people speculated about what Magic and his wife did or did not do to "make him this way," Magic says he never worried about what people thought. "When my son came out and said that he was gay, Cookie and I said 'Ok. We love and support you no matter what. Nothing's changed.' People talk a lot until something happens in their family. So I don't care about what other people think. I support my son 150 percent." Dr. Rachael Ross also stressed the importance of parental support. "We have so many gay, Black, youth committing suicide and suffering from depression in our community. Parents aren't supporting their gay children. That's gotta change."
And One to Grow On
There was a lot of discussion about the importance of HIV testing and that is great. Hopefully more people will get tested (you can even do it in your own home). But what happens after diagnosis. Dr. Rachael Ross discussed the medical steps that a patient takes after they have been confirmed positive. But an HIV diagnosis is big news. How does a person go about making room in their life for HIV?
We're all inundated with responsibilities that require our attention daily. Take the single mother who has just received a positive result. As shocking and depressing as it might be to hear that news, life does indeed go on. She still has to maintain gainful employment, pay her mortgage or rent, purchase food, keep up with her children, and other responsibilities. While we discuss how imperative it is to know your status, we sometimes neglect to talk about what will happen to your life if you are positive. HIV will take up some space in a person's life. Are they ready for that?
Community support means more than just saying I'm ok with HIV. It also means fighting for quality social services. Getting assistance with employment and housing, escaping domestic violence situations, ending a substance abuse addiction, gaining access to health care and mental health services, reentering the community after incarceration are critical factors that can be overlooked because they are not the medical issue at hand. If you want to help someone with HIV, don't pass those points by.
As World AIDS Day approaches, discussions such as this one at the Apollo need to continue. You don't need celebrities or media coverage to make it happen. All you need is the will to live a healthy life and a love for your community. Get together with leaders right outside your window and push for action. And include as many stakeholders as you can because clearly no one is immune to this disease. It can and should be done. Because life as YOU know it doesn't have to include HIV.
Read Candace's blog, D.C. HIV/AIDS Examiner.