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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
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Larry Bryant

January 2006

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African-American Identity and HIV

When did you first realize that you were African American?

Honestly, I don't think it was until I was in college. I grew up in such a diverse environment, being an Air Force brat and living on base -- it was just the Rainbow Coalition, especially in Hawaii. Going to Norfolk State University was really my first experience being in an all-black environment, which was interesting, because that was the first place where I started getting that "You talk funny. You talk white!" thing. So it wasn't until then that I really felt like, "Yes, I'm black", but maybe I wasn't black enough in some people's eyes. Then off-campus, in some communities, I was certainly black enough. And even now I get unique reactions from people -- especially having played football, they expect me to act a certain way and when I don't, it puts them off.

To what extent have you experienced racism in your life? How have you learned to deal with it?

I know it's there. In my senior year at D.C.'s T. C. Williams High School, which is predominantly white, a handful of kids were selected to represent the school at different law firms and businesses across the city. And I was sent way out with this other guy to Chantilly, a suburb. I don't remember what the place was or what we were supposed to be doing because they didn't give us any tasks, just a little office space and some time. So we got comfortable, but I pretty much got run out of there -- they accused me of doing things I didn't do, like flirting with the secretary, who was this older lady there. The other guy and I were always together -- he happened to be white -- but everything that happened, I did, you know. And at the time, it confused the hell out of me because I knew I wasn't doing these things. But I tried to justify it, like, "Well, maybe I did say or do something." It wasn't until years later that I figured out what had happened.

As an athlete, it didn't really matter -- no one really cared if you were black, white, Chinese, whatever, as long as you could play. We never really cared -- on the field we were all the same. What got in the way of that was when we took off our uniforms and went home to all our respective neighborhoods. But in school, we were either lucky or na?ve to that whole process.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing African Americans today in terms of HIV?

One is to get people to talk to each other. When it comes to communication, if it has to do with rap or Jerry Springer, you can't keep people quiet. But getting people to talk to each other in relationships, whether they are family, social, personal, sexual, whatever -- just communicating with whom you're with. In the African- American community, that's multilayered because you have the religious and church community. You have the different generations where the newer generation is "hip-hop" and has its own language and got angry at Bill Cosby, and all that. And, of course, you have his generation, where they have their own standoffish quality. So just getting everyone to talk to each other instead of at each other.

Another is that you can't talk about HIV in the African-American community without speaking about the disparities that exist in employment, education, and health care. I mean, we can't blame everything on "The Man" -- we have to be more self-sufficient and proactive when it comes to saving ourselves.

What HIV risk factors are of special concern to African Americans?

A lot of those are the ones I just said, the disparities in employment, education, health care -- all those play a part not just in HIV infection, but incarceration rates, pregnancy rates. And they're mostly along socioeconomic, not racial, lines. HIV has come, and at some point, it'll go, but the next epidemic will come through and the same people will be the ones affected. Look at Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in the Gulf Coast -- that affected the same group of people. We have to close that gap.

Are there any specific aspects of African-American culture or identity that give you strength as you learn to live with HIV?

It's understanding that we, as black Americans, have culture and family. I was reading, I think in the Washington Post, about how black people in Atlanta are running toward events that are planned around family reunions. Whereas most people during the holidays are trying to run away from their families, black people are planning these reunions. Now obviously that involves good and bad when you're talking about family, but the connections are there, and they're very powerful.

What is the biggest change you'd like to see in HIV treatment, prevention or education care for African-Americans?

I work in a field where, as an advocate for people who are positive and marginalized, right now it's all about getting the Ryan White CARE Act [a five-year federal grant for HIV services] fully reauthorized and allowing everyone access to quality health care. But the thing I would like to see personally is for those marginalized communities to become self-advocates, to develop the confidence and the vocabulary to demand these things for themselves. A lot of things can be presented on a silver platter, but there are people who, if jobs came and knocked on their door, they still wouldn't answer.

I was talking with this lady today, and we were sitting side-by-side on Thursday addressing Congress on reauthorizing Ryan White and addressing the Medicaid cuts, and in the middle of that we're giving our own personal testimonies, talking about who we are and why these things are important to us. I'm a positive black man and she's a positive black woman. And she keeps deferring to me because I went to college and I present myself a certain way and I work on Capitol Hill -- and I'm trying to convince her that we're in the same place! I'm just as nervous and have the same butterflies she has, and there is no professor or Ph.D. or class that can give her the education and experience that she has developed on her own over the years. So having people understand that it is just lack of confidence, or that there is no quick result. With this big push toward voter advocacy in recent years, where the elections went the other way, a lot of people are giving up and saying, "I'm not voting anymore." You're supposed to try even harder after that! We have power and value, and we need to exercise it and share it.

Do you think the Bush administration is doing enough for the black epidemic?

No, I don't think the Bush administration is doing nearly enough for anything in communities of color -- and HIV is just one thing that needs to be addressed. But to blame Bush for all this would be incorrect. A lot of this stuff did not begin just four or eight years ago -- though there have been presidents and administrations in the past that were more relevant.

I think we all need to do more to address the people that need the most assistance, regardless of their color. We tend just to take for a given that "There's always going to be that permanent underclass, so don't worry about it." For me, there's no place that better illustrates that than right here in D.C., where there's these gleaming marble buildings like the White House and then steps away there's a homeless village. What picture is that?

What are some of the main myths about HIV that you hear in your community?

I've heard some really interesting ones over the years. That condoms are purposely made to be faulty. That HIV is a gay disease -- I think it's accurate to say that HIV is a male-driven disease, but it's not a gay disease. I heard one little girl, like 10 years old, talking about how "You know when someone has HIV when their hair is really fine, almost straight." I have an idea where that came from, because sometimes when you take medications it affects your metabolism, and maybe that can cause changes. She said it so matter-of-factly that you know she heard it somewhere. Sometimes the myths can be confused with the facts -- misperceptions become myths, and then those just become givens because we just give up on wanting to know the truth.

What are your fears and hopes for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV?

I have both a fear and a hope: That the current generation, who are growing up in a world where HIV has always existed, will get through the whole idea of stigma to the point where HIV is no longer taboo to even talk about. It's just a regular conversation, people regularly get tested -- like growing up when there's always been the iPod. But that hope becomes a fear because the "Oh, it's not going to kill me, I just need to take the medications and I'll be OK" attitude then doesn't remind people to protect themselves. People are still dying of AIDS, and there's a lot of things that people who sell the medications don't tell you about side effects, and a lot of people who are positive won't go anywhere near the meds because it's easier for them to live with the effects of AIDS than with the side effects of the medications.

HIV, Health Care and Treatment

What has been your experience with HIV treatment?


Never been on medications, and that may have to do with the fact that for 18 of the 20 years I've been positive, I never went to the doctor. I never went to get my viral load count or my T-cell count. I didn't want to know. And it was weird because working as a peer educator and health educator, I would tell people, "Go get your tests, make sure you know your levels, it's better to know that not to know" -- and of course I'm not doing it. But one day I decided to do that, about a year and a half ago, and my levels are all OK. I have a very low viral load, high T-cell count. Of course, the doctor was surprised that after 18 years everything was pretty manageable, and he was like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I often wonder what my decision process will be if and when I get to the point where I'm recommended to be on meds. I have a good job, and I understand the avenues to access, and there are medications I know I'm going to be able to get. But there are a lot of people out there who have needed medication for a long time, and cannot get it -- and are refused medication, for whatever reason. I would feel almost guilty to access medications.

How did you choose your doctor?

This was back in Houston. I lived on the periphery of the AIDS community -- I had a regular job, and a regular life, and I would volunteer in different things related to HIV. And it got to the point where I wanted to flip that -- and one of the first steps was "OK, I want to go get my tests done." And it was pretty much just going to the HIV clinic where most people went. Fortunately, the clinic was the Donald Watkins Clinic in Houston, where Dr. Joseph Gathe is. He's this world-renowned HIV pioneer in medicine, and I just lucked into that!

I've been in D.C. since November, and I haven't chosen a doctor because I haven't been still long enough. But with my new job and new insurance -- I mean, the list of doctors are a little more experienced and have a history working with employees of Housing Works, so it's just a matter of me sitting down and trying to figure out who's going to be my doctor for life. But I feel a lot more comfortable doing that now than I would have five years ago.

Do you have a particular health regimen that helps you stay well?

When I was in high school, I was pretty athletic -- and a lot more health-conscious than I am now. It's not like I have any special diet or I'm a health-food junkie. So anything that's kept me where I am is just part of me. The thing I try to keep in mind is not to do anything that could hurt me, anything detrimental to my health. I drink occasionally, I don't smoke, my diet is pretty full, but at the same time I'm not bingeing or damaging myself. I think it's best to live in moderation.

Do you participate in an AIDS service organization? In what way?

In Houston I was a little involved with everything. Aside from being a member of the Ryan White Planning Council, I was on the African-American Task Force and different community and peer groups. I was just trying to saturate myself, not just at the agency level but at the community level. Here, back home in D.C., I'm still reacquainting myself with the area. But I will soon be doing the equivalent as far as involvement goes.

Having gone to high school here, I've already spoken at my old high school -- which was weird, because I played football on the state championship team, so my picture is still up in the halls. It was so weird to be coming back and not talking about football! I snuck it in there, but ... I've spoken in front of crowds and at schools in Texas, Georgia, lots of different places, but to come home and do it was very, very interesting.

Have these organizations been helpful in improving your health?

I don't look at it necessarily as being helpful for me -- I always look at it with a sense of "How can I help someone else?" And I feel like the more I can educate myself about what's going on, the more I'm able to share with someone -- whether it's personally or socially or access to services or whatever. Being an advocate for as many people as I can helps me, because that's what drives and motivates me.

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This article was provided by TheBody.

See Also
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