I still remember that moment back in 1988. I needed to get some dope in me fast. I looked at the needle I had borrowed and saw the blood in it. I thought for a second, and shot up -- that's what we did back then. When I was hospitalized for pneumonia the next year, I had no usable veins in my arms, so they had to put the IV in my neck. I stayed two days but was never offered an HIV test. I don't know why, since they knew I was an injection drug user.
A year later, in jail, I was called down to the clinic. The doctor said that someone thought I might have HIV. I said, "Who thinks that? I'm very healthy -- I weigh 195 and play ball all the time!" Still, they asked me to sign papers so they could test me. (Actually, I think they already knew the result but they needed to make it legal.) Two weeks later they told me I was positive. I went back to my room, lay down, and said to myself, "You can't blame God -- you put that needle in your arm."
Two months later I was released to a halfway house. While I was there, I saw some residents going through another guy's stuff. He was in the hospital, dying of AIDS. The first thing that came to my mind was that I was going to die in that halfway house. So I escaped. When they caught me, I ended up in Sing Sing prison, where they had an HIV support group. That helped me so much that now I run my own support group, for heterosexual men like me.
At least nine of the 14 men in our group got infected through heterosexual sex. They never injected drugs, like I did, or had sex with other men. But the stories we hear about men "on the down low" always make people question how somebody got infected. There is still a lot of stigma around this disease, especially when it comes to heterosexual African American males. People don't think we can get HIV from women because science says that it's less likely to happen that way. But it does happen, and we need to talk about that.
I don't feel like the data around HIV in heterosexual men is clear enough or discussed enough. Most research about HIV transmission is done on men who have sex with men. And there haven't been any successful prevention interventions for heterosexual black men. I'm talking about men coming together and talking about their sexual behavior toward our women, and why we treat them the way we do -- why we have more than one partner but don't use condoms when we do.
In fact, what I learned from the street when I was growing up was that you were a hell of a guy if you had two or three girlfriends. Our behavior runs deep, and until we talk more about it and deal with it, the generations to come will continue to do the same things. Until we engage heterosexual men and work on changing our behaviors, we will never get a handle on this epidemic.
Over the years, every time I mention the words "heterosexual men" in connection with HIV, the response is, "Really? Who are they? What do they want?" It's sad that we have to jump up and holler to be recognized 30 years into this epidemic. At the end of the day it comes down to money, but we're all supposed to be in this together, working to stop the spread of this disease. Well, we're miles apart when it comes to looking at how gender and race are affecting the spread of HIV. Until we face that this virus affects everyone, including heterosexual black men, we'll never end AIDS .