April 7, 2003
"As a former president of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority, I've been pleased to hear speakers echo this important message at recent sorority events across the country. When it comes to sex, the speakers say, young women should be able to talk openly about their questions, concerns, fears and needs. Why? Among other things, it could save lives.
"I know this all too well; I lost a son to AIDS. Sadly, a culture of silence about sex contributed to his death.
"...At home, at church and in school, we avoid straight talk about sexuality. The result for young women, particularly African Americans, can be a three-letter word far more awkward than sex: HIV. Half of the 40,000 Americans infected with HIV each year are under the age of 25. African Americans account for 64 percent of newly infected women.
"Women are silent about sexual issues for many reasons.... Of course, men have their own reasons for avoiding honest talk about sex. One speaker at a Delta event was a man who hadn't told his girlfriend that he had also been having sex with men. Like many other African-American men, he felt he had to choose between being black and being gay. Rather than make that painful choice, he stayed silent.
"My son endured this kind of silence.... My husband and I will always regret that, for so long, we felt too ashamed and too afraid to talk about his illness with him -- or with others. It was only three months before he died that I told my own mother what we as a family were going through.
"That's why it's no small thing that my sorority -- with its capacity to educate and influence thousands of young African-American women -- now holds AIDS awareness meetings at chapters across America.
"My years in the sorority have taught me that service is the rent you pay on life. For an African-American community that is being devastated by AIDS, there can be no greater service right now than empowering young women -- and men -- to talk frankly about sex."
The author is a Democratic member of Alabama's state legislature and a board member of the Black AIDS Institute.