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Disproportionately Affected: The Impact of HIV in African-American Lives

Summer 2001

In the past 10 years, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in this country has shifted. Today, the majority of people contracting HIV are people of color. The African-American community, in particular, is disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. While African-Americans account for just 12% of the United States population, they constitute over one-third of the country's AIDS cases reported to date, and over one-half of all people contracting HIV today.

Among children living with HIV/AIDS, African-American children outnumber children of all other ethnic groups in the U.S., combined. Not only are more African-Americans contracting HIV, they are also more likely to die of AIDS-related complications. AIDS is now the leading cause of death for African-American men and women aged 25 to 44 years in the U.S.

In Western Washington, African-Americans make up just 5% of the total population, yet they account for 16% of recently diagnosed AIDS cases and 18% of those testing positive for HIV. The following interviews with local African-Americans highlight their responses to the disproportionate impact of AIDS on African-American communities and the impact of HIV/AIDS in their personal lives.

Teresa Gantt is a 24-year-old healthcare worker whose father is living with AIDS. She shared with STEP how learning her father was HIV-positive has changed her life.

When did you find out your father was HIV-positive?

"It was in 1994. All I remember is that my father, mother, brother and I held each other and cried. I wanted to support my dad in any way I could. A lot of things became clearer about my dad's health when we found out that my father was positive. My dad didn't want us to know because he was afraid what our reaction would be. We surprised him. All of us were supportive of him."

How has your father having HIV changed your life?

"I look at life differently than I may have before. You never know when you are going to go, or how you are going to go. Because I know that my dad will not be around forever, I always want to take care of my dad. I am also more open with other people. I am always showing people how to love others. All of my friends are church-going people and have always been supportive of me and accepted my father."

"With HIV, I think that it changed my father more than it changed any of us. He used to be different. He was more concerned about his career. Now, he is more open with his family. He also helps other people who have HIV. I am really proud of my dad."

Miss Rickey Snowden is a 44-year-old transgendered person living with HIV. She spoke to STEP about the intersection of the transgender community and HIV.

The statistics for transgendered individuals have shown high rates of HIV; some estimates are as high as 60%. Why do you think that is?

"Can you believe that it has taken me 44 years to be a transgendered individual? Before, I thought that being a girl meant that you had to be in drag or in make-up all of the time. I have been wearing hair weaves for 20 years and have these long fingernails. That just shows you that you can't always be comfortable with who you are. That is why I think most of these girls [that are transgendered] have HIV. We cannot just be ourselves. Most women are selling their bodies so that they can pay their rent or eat. A drag queen is more like a cross dresser. They can change their identity. I cannot change who I am. I don't want breasts or a sex change. I am not a woman, I am a 'transgendered' woman. This is just me."

How has having HIV changed your life?

"It has made me sad . . . but never changed my life. I don't claim this disease. If you claim a sickness, you will always dwell on it. My T cells have never been under 250. If they go under that, maybe I will start to worry then. I take medicines for HIV but I don't take medicines on the weekend because I drink alcohol. And I don't want to drink and do medications."

Final thoughts?

"I think that all of this business with 'practice safe sex' is crazy. We all wish that we can, but unfortunately we want the real thing. You are always taking a risk. When I worked at the bathhouse, I used to preach to people about safe sex. But I would always get in trouble from my boss. He would tell me, 'Just take people's money.' That is a disgrace, 'cause there is too much shit out there."

This 42-year-old HIV-positive man gave insight on the struggles of being black and gay.

What do you think of AIDS in the African-American community?

"A lot of people don't really get educated until they have to -- either they find out that they have it or someone that they know has it. I think that for gay black men it's not like being a gay white man. If you are white and gay there are billboards and posters to tell you that you may have HIV. There is nothing like that for black men. It is like if you are black, you can't be queer or gay. They look at us like we don't belong in their community, and society tells us we can't be gay or queer. To be black means that you can't be gay or worry about anything besides being poor and dumb."

What can we do to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community?

"There is POCAAN [People of Color Against AIDS Network], I guess. Although, I had never heard of POCAAN until I got infected. That is a shame. If it is for people of color, we should hear about what is going on in our communities."

"Schools talk about smoking and everything else, why can't they talk about HIV without talking about abstinence. That shit turns off a young black man or woman. We are taught that sexuality is healthy in our homes."

"The other problem is people keep focusing on the percentages of people with HIV or AIDS. That shit doesn't tell me nothin'. I hate math, and statistics are even worse. You need to let people know that these percentages of people look like them. Break it down. Let it be known that black people have been dying of this disease and not just in Africa. We can talk about prostate cancer in black men but not HIV. That is crazy because HIV kills triple the amount of people living with prostate cancer."

Dr. Leslie Braxton is the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He revealed his thoughts on the churches' response to HIV/AIDS.

What do you think of the churches' response to HIV/AIDS in the African-American community?

"Some churches have been conscientious and others have been indifferent. I think the reason why this is has been the understanding of the origin and nature of the disease, and biases that people have believed. Of course, in the church it has been thought that deviant behavior -- either sex or drugs -- has led to people getting HIV/AIDS, therefore, the sense of sympathy and empathy has been detached. A lot of people believe that people are victims of their own behavior. People tend to believe that HIV/AIDS is different from people having a cough or ovarian cancer. There is a definite prejudice surrounding morality with HIV/AIDS. The church has wanted to distance itself from unchristian behavior. Therefore the church has had unwillingness to link themselves with groups that had homosexual representatives, who were traditionally the pioneers of the HIV/AIDS movements."

What can be done in Seattle to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS?

"I will continue to preach, teach and educate about HIV/AIDS. We can never get enough information out about HIV/AIDS. Not until people begin to realize that HIV is more than youth with raging hormones. HIV/AIDS is a disease that should cause us all to be cautious and settle down, because unfortunately the alternative is death."

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This article was provided by Seattle Treatment Education Project. It is a part of the publication STEP Perspective.
See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
More Personal Accounts on African Americans and HIV