Civil Rights Leader Urges All African Americans With HIV to "Tell Your Truth"

Q+A with H. Alexander Robinson, Executive Director/CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition

What is the focus of your own HIV/AIDS advocacy work?

The focus of NBJC [National Black Justice Coalition]'s AIDS advocacy is on raising awareness of the impact of the epidemic, and the need for greater activism from black civil rights, social justice, and healthcare advocates. In addition, I personally have a commitment to developing more comprehensive, holistic HIV prevention strategies that address black gay and same-gender-loving men.

What are the biggest obstacles you encounter?

The primary barriers are the enormous challenges faced by black communities and institutions, from poverty and underfunding to drug use and poor access to health care. Our messages have to compete for time and attention. Homophobia and an unwillingness to talk openly and honestly about sex are also major impediments.

What is the most critical AIDS issue facing the African-American community? What do you think is the best way to address it?

The most significant HIV/AIDS issues facing black communities are high rates of infection among black gay men, and the increase in AIDS cases among black women. We need to address the reason for the increase among black women and how homophobia continues to be a major contributing factor to new infections among black same-gender-loving men.

Where is the most progress being made in combating the epidemic in the black community? Where is the least progress being made?

We have made the most progress in the medical area. Like our non-black counterparts, access to treatment has meant fewer deaths and improved quality of life for those who are in care. We have made a great deal of political progress in some parts of the country, but we still have major barriers in many southern states.

We have made the least progress in sexual attitudes and behaviors. Here we continue to see misinformation and prejudice offered up as fact. Sex is still a taboo, and homosexuality is still in the closet.

What are the top myths about HIV you encounter in the African-American community? What is the source of these myths? What is the best way to counter them?

I have found that there's a high degree of knowledge about HIV; ignorance is a myth. There is a mistaken notion that HIV is reserved to certain subpopulations, to homosexual men, their partners and drug users. This is largely because of the reality that HIV continues to disproportionately affect black gay and bisexual men.

In what ways is the HIV epidemic different in the black community than the white or Latino community?

The numbers -- more black men and women are living with HIV and AIDS than any other group. They also progress to AIDS and die sooner than our white and Latino brothers and sisters. Most significantly, HIV is prevalent among black women at rates that far outpace their non-black sisters.

Do you think activism is an effective way to fight the epidemic?

Activism must play a role in combating HIV. However, the activism needed to address HIV and AIDS in black communities is broader than what was needed in non-black communities. For example, the fact that so many African Americans still lack access to primary health care and mental health services means that we have to do more than build up AIDS clinics. HIV activism for black communities must include gay activism. Unless and until we can tell the truth about our sex lives, we will continue to have statistics showing half of the HIV-infected black men who have sex with men do not know their status.

Do you think too much has been made of the "down low"?

Not too much -- too little. It has been an unspoken truth that homosexuals are a part of every black community. The recent focus on the down low has too often been packaged for market appeal with too little analysis about the impact of this subculture. We need to stop thinking and talking about the down low and start thinking and talking about creating communities where it is safe -- and the norm -- for individuals to be open and honest about their sexuality.

What could help African Americans get tested -- and therefore treated -- earlier?

More people living with HIV need to come out.

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

I hope we do not continue to fall behind. I hope that we will use AIDS as a wake-up call to push for universal access to health care, openness about sexuality, and acceptance of same-gender-loving men and women.

Can you recommend one action everyone can take to end the epidemic?

Get tested. Come out. Tell your truth.

H. Alexander Robinson

About H. Alexander Robinson

Robinson is the executive director/CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a black gay civil rights group launched two years ago by Keith Boykin, the former Clinton staffer who has emerged as one of the nation's top African-American authors and activists. Robinson, the former president of the National Task Force on AIDS and a Presidential AIDS Advisory Council alum, signed on to head the affiliation of distinguished gay and gay-friendly African-American advocates, execs and other leaders, and wasted no time in wielding NBJC's clout. The outspoken Robinson and Boykin blasted the media for sensationalizing the "down low," Rev. Louis Farrakhan for reneging on his promise of an openly gay speaker at last October's Million More March, and President Bush for his inflammatory rhetoric against same-sex marriage in the 2005 election. But under Robinson, NBJC is also in the business of making friends to influence people to deal with the AIDS emergency in the black community. In January, the group made national news by sponsoring the first-ever summit between the black church and black gay leaders to address the lethal link between homophobia and HIV.