AIDS in The Hood:

The Invisible AIDS Group -- Black and Latino Heterosexuals

Black and Latino heterosexuals were invisible to the HIV Health and Human Service Planning Council of New York City (The Council), and its PWA Advisory Council in 1996 and 1997. The Council establishes binding priorities for the allocation this year of approximately $100 million in Title I Ryan White funds. The Council also developes a comprehensive plan for the organization and delivery of HIV-related health and human services in the New York City metropolitan area. Due to their invisibility there was no specific service category for Black and Latino heterosexuals in the request for proposals for Ryan White funding. The Council's failure to identify the AIDS crisis in the black and latino heterosexual communities not only hurts the struggle against AIDS in minority communities, it flies in the face of the facts.

In February 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced declines in AIDS deaths nationwide except among women and those infected through heterosexual contact. The women and those infected through heterosexual contact are by far Blacks and Latinos. Deaths increased in both these groups by three percent, paralleling the concurrent rise in the rate of transmission of the AIDS virus. Unquestionably, the frontline in the battle against AIDS has shifted from the downtown gay community in Manhattan, to Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. The Council targeted substance abusers and women with children, two groups that are mostly heterosexual. The division of the heterosexual AIDS community into small subgroups has weakened significantly the ability of heterosexual people of color to unite in the struggle against AIDS in minority communities as the gay community did in the early 80s.

It was over a decade ago, when the outrage and anger at the death of lovers, family members, and friends pushed thousands of white gay men and a lesser number of black gay men to form the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Homophobia -- from the White House to Gracie Mansion -- fueled the anger. A combination of cruel stigmatization and outright prejudice against the gay lifestyle resulted in talk of quarantine, little or no research, and the public's ignorance. Gay activists of diverse orientations -- queers, drag queens, lesbians, and transgenders -- gathered under ACT UP's umbrella, and put aside their differences and took to the streets, committed to direct action in the struggle to stop deaths in their communities. This coalition went on to raise the country's consciousness and compassion, change the government's AIDS policy, and accomplish the anciliary goal of gaining wider acceptance of the gay lifestyle.

In the 90s, the sharing of HIV-contaminated hypodermic syringes has been the road on which HIV/AIDS has travelled into New York's non-white community. In many cases, HIV-positive intravenous drug users infected their unsuspecting partners. Today, heterosexual black women who smoke crack cocaine and trade sex for more drugs are the fastest growing new HIV-infected group, and they have gone on to infect others. Whatever the transmission mode, Black and Latino women and men living with HIV/AIDS are in much the same situation as their gay brothers and sisters were 10 years ago. The same stigmatization and prejudice from all levels of government has blocked successful needle exchange programs, limited women's and family services, and failed to effectively relay safer sex messages to heterosexual people of color.

One problem is the perception in Black and Latino communities that AIDS is a gay disease. This misinformation feeds into homophobia in these cultures that frightens heterosexuals into silence for fear of being thought of as gay. Many heterosexual women of color are afraid to disclose their HIV status or to access services because they fear being stigmatized as whores and/or drug addicts. It's a double whammy. Consciousness and compassion for heterosexuals with AIDS must be cultivated. We must also network with exisitng gay and lesbian organizations

Black and Latino organizations must network and organize with gay and lesbian organizations on the grassroots level to include a variety of other problems that impact the AIDS crisis (e.g. police brutality, welfare reform, rent control, youth, etc.). In addition, the gay and lesbian community could do more to end the AIDS crisis in Black and Latino communities by allowing us to set our own agenda and providing financial support. In closing, we should all remember that the rise of AIDS among Black and Latino heterosexuals is the second wave of the AIDS epidemic, and the struggle continues.