This Month in HIV: Stopping HIV/AIDS in the Black Community
Isn't there another problem, which is, the city school systems are still teaching abstinence-only education?
"What we're doing, quite frankly, around AIDS education in our schools is nothing short of criminal, nothing short of genocide."
What we're doing, quite frankly, around AIDS education in our schools is nothing short of criminal, nothing short of genocide. It is absolutely an abomination that we would have AIDS programs in our schools that deny our children information that could save their lives. Of course, every parent and every adult supports abstinence being a part of the strategy. It should be the number one thing that we talk about to young people: sexual responsibility and accountability, and assessing when you're ready to be sexually active, and understanding the consequences of that should always be a part of that dialogue. Delayed sexual gratification should always be a part of that dialogue. But so should condom use, and how to protect yourself if you choose to engage in sexual encounters.
Clearly, if you abstain from sex, that's the best choice. But for those who make a different choice, death is too high a price to pay. And when we are in a war -- and when you look at the numbers that we're seeing around AIDS in black America, clearly, we are in a war -- we need to make sure that those folks who are in the front line of that war have every single weapon at their disposal so they will win that war.
So, just like we went into Iraq ill prepared, understaffed, ill equipped, that is the same strategy that we are using to fight HIV and AIDS by advocating abstinence-only measures -- abstinence-only measures that have been proven over and over and over and over again not to work. That's not to suggest that abstinence doesn't work. Clearly, for those who choose and can successfully maneuver abstinence, it clearly works, and we should advocate for that. But at the same time, we should make sure that there's a strategy. No matter what your choice is, there's someplace in that choice that allows you to have the tools and the information you need to protect yourself.
Are you excited, with the Democrats getting more power, that things might change?
"So, just like we went into Iraq ill prepared, understaffed, ill equipped, that is the same strategy that we are using to fight HIV and AIDS by advocating abstinence-only measures -- abstinence-only measures that have been proven over and over and over and over again not to work."
I'm not excited about the Democrats getting more power at all. The truth of the matter is, our government is not going to respond unless we make them respond. The Democrats set an agenda for the first 100 hours, and AIDS was not on that agenda. Hillary [Clinton] is in, and Barack [Obama] is in, and Joe Biden is in and Edwards is in. And they want Hillary to apologize for her vote on Iraq. They want to ask if Joe Biden is a racist because he says Barack is "clean." They want to know if Barack is black enough. They want to know if Edwards is really 50.
But nobody's asking the question: What is their position on HIV and AIDS? For us, that has to be a question. We cannot allow any conversation with any presidential candidate, no matter if there's a "D" behind their name or an "R" behind their name, where we don't ask the question: What is your agenda for ending AIDS in black America? Period. We have to have that conversation, and we have to make sure it's not only a part of the presidential discourse, which it has to be, but that it's also a part of the congressional discourse on what's happening in Congress, what's happening in the White House. It has to be a conversation that we're having. Because the message right now, whether or not the government is led by Democrats or Republicans, [is that] HIV and AIDS is on the back burner.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think that during the vice presidential debates there was one question asked that everybody was stumped on, about the leading cause of death in African-American women? And although there was a little bit of attention after that, it quickly disappeared.
Right. Well, you know, it's the Gwen Eiffel question, and it actually has become a huge phrase in the black community. The question that Gwen Eiffel asked about AIDS and African-American women. And neither vice presidential candidate could answer the question. I think that the truth of the matter is that leaders don't respond unless pressured to do so. So unless there's a penalty for not responding to this issue, they're not going to respond. So that means it's the responsibility of each and every one of us to step up to the plate, and to put the question on the table.
I wanted to go through a few other risk factors. In New York City, there was a recent public service campaign about homophobia in the African-American community that was kind of different. Are there things like -- I don't know if you know about it -- are there things like that going on elsewhere in the country?
Sure. Stigma plays a critical role in fighting HIV. I don't think that it plays as critical a role as some people would make it out to be. But it is an important issue that has to be addressed. And, yes, there are campaigns that are going on around the country. And quite frankly, the Black AIDS Institute just sponsored a national black women in AIDS conference, held in Los Angeles, and co-sponsored it with the National Council of Negro Women and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Recently a coalition of 54 different black women's organizations issued a call to action and a declaration of commitment to end the AIDS epidemic in black America. Each one of those includes the issue of addressing homophobia and stigma.
The issue around homophobia and stigma in our communities is yet another barrier that we can ill afford in fighting HIV and AIDS.
What's your opinion of the down low?
I think, quite frankly, the entire down low discussion was a deadly distraction in really addressing HIV and AIDS, because it created a false paradigm. On the one hand, it painted black men as amoral sexual predators that were out to get you. On the other hand, it painted black women as helpless victims and vectors of disease. Neither picture is particularly helpful.
It suggested that the down low phenomenon was a uniquely black phenomenon, which it isn't; that it was a new phenomenon, which it isn't. Are there black men who are sexually active with both men and women, and not disclosing that fact? Yes. Are there white men? Yes. Can we say Governor McGreevey? Can we say this recent minister in Colorado? So it's not a black phenomenon, and it's not a new phenomenon. The down low phenomenon is not the sole engine that's driving the AIDS epidemic among black women. So it was a distraction in that regard.
But can you agree that it did get a lot of women's attention? I mean, suddenly they go, "Oh, wait a minute," in a certain way. Everyone was talking about it.
I think that it did get a lot of women's attention, and everyone was talking about it. But sadly, the way the discussion was framed was not in a way that empowered black women to take care of themselves, and to protect themselves. Getting better at deciphering whether or not your man is having sex with other men is not helpful. If anything, what you need to get better at is making decisions around how you're going to protect yourself, no matter who your man is sleeping with.
"The issue around vulnerability for black women is an issue around infidelity."
The issue around vulnerability for black women is an issue around infidelity. It doesn't matter if your man is getting infected by a man or a woman -- or a needle, for that matter. What you need to know ... as a black woman, you need to know what are the risk factors of your partner, and you need to know how to protect yourself without regard to what your partner is doing.
So creating a paradigm where women are hiding behind the produce sections in their grocery stores [trying] to figure out if their partner is bisexual: that's stupid. When we can't even get black women to ask the question of, "What is your sexual history?" "We need to go get tested." "Use a condom." Those are the conversations we need to have, because those are the issues that black women are facing every single day, or every single night, in their bedrooms.
But isn't that like teaching women to role-play better, and to assert themselves, and not to be afraid of men?
Of course, that's a part of it. Of course, another part of it is teaching women that their lives are worth the effort, and making sure that black women understand their own power, and encouraging them to use that power.
Young gay men of color are also at big risk because of self-hatred. Many experience the same kind of lack of self worth that women do. Are there any programs trying to reach these young men?
There are a number of programs that are attempting to reach young, black, gay men. They are under-funded, and under-resourced, and they are few and far between. But there are some programs that are out there. Us Helping Us is a remarkable program, run by Dr. Ron Simmons in Washington, D.C., reaching out to young men who have sex with men. Also, there's Gay Men of African Descent, run by Tokes Osubu in New York City, which is a remarkable program. People of Color in Crisis in Brooklyn is another program that is addressing the needs of young, black, gay men. So there are a number of programs out there that are attempting to address that population. There needs to be more. There are not enough. And they need more resources to do the work that they need to do.
How come they're not getting the resources now?
I think that the resources that are going into black communities, whether we're talking about young gay men or whether we're talking about women, or whether we're talking about drug users or prisoners, are not sufficient. And they certainly are not in proportion to the numbers of people at risk for HIV and AIDS. Now, we're in an environment where we have an administration that has determined that it is better to cut the taxes for the very rich, as opposed to creating health programs for poor people. We have a situation where we're in a very, very, very expensive war, and so you have a reduction in taxes and an increase in expenses to fight this war. As a result, when it comes time to look for where you're going to save money, the people who end up paying the price for that are the most vulnerable among us.
You can get involved in what we're doing in so many ways. So much of what we do is in local communities and partnerships. So if you're part of any organization and you want to partner with the Black AIDS Institute, we're really, really excited to do that. You can sign up for our weekly e-newsletter; that goes out every Tuesday. You'll get the latest information on HIV and AIDS. You can visit us on the Web at www.blackaids.org. You can participate in any number of our various trainings or programs.
We have a program for college students called Life Aids. We have a program to train prevention workers and treatment educators called AAHU, the African American HIV University. We have a short film competition. If you're a filmmaker, we have a competition where you can submit a script about HIV and AIDS in black America and get your script funded. You can participate in our mobilization. Any of those ways. You can join in with the Black AIDS Institute on the level of the NAACP or the Urban League, or Rainbow Push, or 100 Black Women, Incorporated, or the National Council of Negro Women, or 100 Black Men ... which are partner organizations. So there are lots of ways to get involved with us.
So are you the first person -- the Black AIDS Institute -- to connect all the dots? Meaning, the media organizations and the Urban League and NAACP ... just connecting everybody together to fight HIV? Was nothing ever connected before?
As far as I know, no one had done that kind of comprehensive strategy that we're attempting to put together now. And we've been doing this since 1999, trying to put all the pieces and all the players together. Now we're at a point, in 2007, where it appears that we are poised to make that happen.
Is it the mobilization that's going to have its second meeting this year?
So if people start seeing HIV being talked about and posters are being put up -- or programming -- it's really a result of the efforts of the Black AIDS Institute.
Well, we're actually in partnership with a number of other organizations. We're not doing this alone. And they are very critical partners. The Balm in Gilead, for example. The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, for example. The Magic Johnson Foundation. And those partners are part of the NBAM program. And each of us has our strengths: the Balm in Gilead has a strong history of working with black churches. The National Black Commission on AIDS has a strong history of working with elected officials. So we bring each of our strengths to the table.
That's the other strategy; that we have to stop the divisiveness, the turf stuff. We need to break through all of that. We need to get real about this epidemic. We can't blame other people for not responding to this epidemic unless and until we are developing effective strategies among ourselves.
Okay. Well, thank you very much.
To e-mail Phill Wilson, click here.
To read an excerpt from Phill Wilson's writing, click here.
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This article was provided by TheBody.com. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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