What Are the Top Myths About HIV/AIDS in the African-American Community?
Executive Director, Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health, Philadelphia, Pa.
That it's a gay disease. In this country, HIV seems to have started in the gay community. But as it has grown, and particularly as it has spread around the world, it's apparent that the vast majority of people who have HIV are heterosexual. But because African Americans tend not to be involved in our own health care very much, we don't pay attention to that information.
The media has also let us down by doing a poor job of focusing on HIV -- you can go months without seeing any new coverage. It's just not on our radar screens. So we don't choose to dispel that myth because we're not actively looking for the information and it's not staring us in the face.
This is just a part of our interview with Gary Bell. Read the Full Interview >>
Communications and Public Education Coordinator, New York State Black Gay Network, New York, N.Y.
Because it's been such a public conversation over the past couple of years, the myth of the DL [down low] -- that the men on the down low are the reason for high rates of HIV among black women. There is just no evidence to support it -- in fact, there is evidence that points otherwise.
What is the source of this myth?
The source is really crass media that likes to sensationalize. It makes for a juicy story. This had been a conversation in the black community for a number of years, but the story that took the conversation to the next level was the New York Times Magazine story from late 2003 about men on the DL, which was full of problems and inaccuracies, and then following that was J.L. King's book, On the Down Low, and him being on Oprah. A lot of media jumping on salacious tales, without doing any homework, really set us back a lot.
What is the best way to counter this myth?
It's really hard. The best way to counter it is, more black LGBT organizations have to do more work publicly to challenge these stories when they appear, and to hold media accountable for spreading this information. So that's one thing. And we don't have enough -- my role here at the network is communications and PR -- and one of the things is, we don't have the organizational mechanism in place to respond on a national level to media and our representation in media. As we do more organizing work in the black community to destigmatize homosexuality, it will go a long way in diffusing the sensationalism that allows those stories to take root. If people weren't so horrified and titillated by the thought of homosexual sex, there would be no DL and no DL sensationalism.
This is just a part of our interview with Kenyon Farrow. Read the Full Interview >>
Nurse Practitioner, Luck Care Center, Chicago, Ill.
There are a lot of myths about where HIV comes from. Mosquitoes, polio vaccines, the government -- to kill all African Americans. I hear those things repeatedly. I also hear HIV medications just help you die quicker -- that they cause more harm than good.
Some patients actually do get sick from side effects of the medications, but that doesn't mean that the next patient will get those same symptoms. So I try to say, "These are the potential side effects, 'potential' meaning that you may not get it, but it's possible."
This is just a part of our interview with Bethsheba Johnson. Read the Full Interview >>
Executive Director, Minority AIDS Project, Los Angeles, Calif.
Top myths include "It doesn't feel good with a condom on." "I'm too large for that." "Black men are so large, they can't fit the condom." "You don't look gay, you look clean." "You're not thin, therefore you must be OK." Another major myth -- not just in the African-American community, but in society in general -- is that people in church are not having sex, not fornicating. "That everyone is looking for their perfect mate to get married." "That all men are primarily straight" -- that's been proven otherwise.
Another myth is that we believe we can empower our African-American women to fight back and tell their men, "You're going to wear a condom." I think we're setting them up for failure. I can talk to them all day long about making their men wear the condom, and putting them out if they don't. But what if he's the sole provider. What happens when he says, "I'm outta here," and leaves, and the women want and or need their support?
What is the best way to counter these myths?
One of the best ways to counter these myths is to not allow people to endorse myths as realities. A lot of myths are really old and have not been proven otherwise. When HIV first hit the television screens, we saw a lot of Caucasian folks that were HIV positive, like Liberace. When the face of AIDS changed, we didn't see black faces to reflect that. So the assumption is still that it's a white, gay disease. African Americans just backed away. Often times people from the African American community say to us, Yes, we see Magic Johnson, but he has money -- of course he can get the best doctor. "And it's probably a hoax anyway." We hear it all the time: "Magic's not positive. He's just doing that to make money."
Another major challenge is having everyone on the same page. There are many people who believe there's a cure. That may come true, but people are holding on to that hope, and are not dealing with the true issues we have in the community around safer sex, self-love and low self-esteem.
This is just a part of our interview with Victor McKamie. Read the Full Interview >>
Director of Technical Assistance, Training and Treatment, National Minority AIDS Council, Washington, D.C.
"It's not going to happen to me," that's number one. Second one, "You can just say no" -- as far as I know, I don't know anyone who can just say no to sex or drugs. Also, "abstinence is great," and, "injection drug users will never change their behavior."
And what would be the best way to counter these myths?
To create programs that counter the stigma of HIV in communities of color, because all those myths are actually the result of stigma.
Having role models is important. For example, we can all think of injection drug users who have successfully kicked their habit and become productive members of society. Same with people who have been incarcerated.
Another strategy is role-playing -- imagining how you would deal if you had to work with someone from this community. It's a great stumbling block for a lot of us -- including people who do prevention and education -- who think we would never be able to deal with someone who's in prison because they were using drugs. So before we meet a drug addict or someone who's in jail, we can learn to deal with our feelings and reactions in order to get to know and serve these people better.
This is just a part of our interview with Carlos Velez. Read the Full Interview >>
Iris House, New York City
It's because in their mind they relate it to getting pregnant. Because you can't get pregnant from oral sex or anal sex, you can't get HIV or you can't get STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] from those methods.
It's kind of shattering the myths that exist in their minds about what sex is and what types of sexual acts you can get HIV or STDs from.
SisterLove, Inc., Atlanta, Ga.
Wow. I've heard some stuff. I've been doing this a while. [laughs]
The interesting thing is I find that in older adults, and old people of color in the South, their biggest thing is: "If I share forks with her, if I come over to her house and she's cooking [and she has HIV], can I get HIV?" The whole cooking business is always interesting.
Another thing that's always interesting to me is the fact that you find a lot of men that are like, "Oh, you know, I'll just have oral sex with her and it's cool."
We don't necessarily look at oral sex as another form of sex. We know anal is real sex and we know vaginal is real sex, but we kind of play oral down a lot. We have a lot of people that would engage in unprotected oral sex, and then turn around and try to put a condom on to have sex, when they've already shared body fluids. So it's like, "It's just head. It's all good," not looking at all the other things that can go along with just getting oral sex.
One of the other ones -- we actually did this one when we were doing risk assessment. The risk assessment game goes, "If I were sitting in a hot tub naked with someone who has HIV, can I get HIV?" My sister was like, "Yeah, if they're sitting in there naked, their juices are just going to be flowing out to you." So I'm like, yeah, you can't get HIV through osmosis. You're not going to get it by sitting in a hot tub naked with somebody. Nobody's juices are going to come crawl over to you in a hot tub.
Black AIDS Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I think that would be the most outlandish thing that I've heard: Magic Johnson went to Africa and he's found the cure for AIDS, and they're not telling any of us over here. It was said that they have it over there and they hand it out to rich people!
There are a lot of people nowadays who will argue that Magic Johnson is cured! [Laughs] But he still has HIV, and that's the bottom line. There's no cure right now, and that's the bottom line.
Oh, I've got a great myth that I've heard. I actually did an interview one time before -- it was for a radio show in California. They told me that HIV did not exist, period. People were not dying of HIV/AIDS, and the only way people were getting whatever disease that was killing them that they were saying was HIV was by taking the HIV test.
So the test would infect them?
Yes. They were saying that there is no HIV. It doesn't exist! There's no AIDS -- it's not a disease. People are dying from other complications of something mysterious they couldn't actually name. The show's host had a whole panel of people that were telling me that by me telling people to get tested for HIV, I was actually making people get infected with this mysterious disease that people thought was HIV.
Why do you think people want to believe things like this that are so ridiculous?
Everybody has their individual reasons. It could possibly be to make them feel better about the irresponsible things that they're doing in their lives. It could be to fill a gap for things that they don't understand.
Some people just always want to have an answer for something. The fact that HIV has no cure and there is no answer to where it has come from and how to get rid of it, people just figure it's something that they're going to make up the answer for. You say something, you get a couple of people to believe it, it starts to become a reality to you. You have people backing you up and saying, "You know what? You're right! There's no such thing as HIV! I had it and I'm cured now." They're not really cured, but they say, "I had it and I drank some orange juice and I'm cured now," or something like that.
You can get a group of people to stand up for anything, right down to the cults that get people to kill themselves by drinking Power Punch. I just think they have their own personal reasons, but it's more to fulfill a personal need versus trying to educate people on the real situation.
At the end of the day, people are dying. For somebody to come and say it doesn't exist -- what about all the hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people who have died already, or the families that have been touched and hurt by HIV?
I think that was definitely one of the craziest myths that I've heard. They were really passionate about that.
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