This past December, in conjunction with World AIDS Day, a panel of experts on AIDS and HIV in Africa convened at the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in New York City to discuss the devastating affect of AIDS on that continent.
During the question and answer session, one incensed Black American AIDS activist stood up and thundered that many Black gays in America felt angry, "even jealous" of the attention the media and the world was giving to the plight of AIDS in Africa, while, as he put it, the epidemic among African Americans here remained virtually unnoticed. He said that many in the African American AIDS community had the sense that the focus on AIDS in Africa was "diverting attention from the crisis here at home."
At the conclusion of his comments, there was an audible, collective gasp at his remarks, at the mere suggestion that anyone, particularly Blacks, would begrudge the continent of Africa its due media spotlight and humanitarian aid, given the horrific plight of people left without medicine as basic as aspirin to treat a disease that was devastating multiple generations.
Several journalists and activists on the panel, most of whom were African American themselves, jumped to make the point that we in America have seen nothing nearly equivalent to the devastation AIDS has wrought on Africa. And of course, the activist who raised the issue was fully aware of that fact, too.
But the intentionally jolting words of that angry activist were not without merit. Indeed, many on the panel sadly acknowledged as much. Marcus Mabry, an editor at Newsweek International, said he had been working for months to get his magazine to do a story on AIDS in Black America. When they do, he said with regret, the article will not be a cover story—as was the magazine's coverage of AIDS in Africa.
Sadly, Mr. Mabry and other journalists and activists of conscience trying to raise public awareness of the continuing struggle of the Black community with AIDS may now have the news hook they need to get some badly needed attention.
A study just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta indicates that approximately 30 percent of young Black gay men in major U.S. cities are infected with the virus. Compare that to the rate found in white gay men of the same age group, where the infection rate was about 7 percent. Perhaps even more startling, research indicates that in this age group, more than 50 percent of new HIV infections may be in gay African Americans, particularly the young. Another startling finding: up to 70 percent of those infected may not even know it.
Those are astounding numbers of alarming proportions, reminiscent of the figures and estimates of the general gay population in some major U.S. cities back in the mid-'80s, at the height of the AIDS epidemics most frightening toll on gay America.
While AIDS is still an incurable disease, much has been accomplished in the gay community at large since those earliest, darkest years when ignorance and fear reigned. This research, however, suggests that most of that progress—from education and counseling to healthcare—has bypassed gay Black men.
The CDC study involved gay and bisexual men between the ages of 23 and 29, living in six U.S. cities ( Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle ) . The numbers, of course, are specific therefore only to this group. But they do mirror what is likely happening nationally, at least in other big cities.
And that does not fare well for Black gay men.
The reasons the epidemic remains unchecked in the Black gay male population are many and complicated.
Part of it is clearly related to the fact that, despite the best efforts of Black gay activists, homosexuality remains a considerably taboo topic among many African Americans. To many Blacks, gay issues are still simply seen as white issues. In other cases, there are Blacks who strongly deny the presence of gay men in their ranks, convinced it is some sort of conspiracy by society to emasculate the Black man and further hinder the progress of civil rights.
And while there are certainly plenty of predominantly white churches that remain anti-gay ( the Baptist church and the official teachings of the Catholic church, to name just two ) , there can be little doubt that the continued silence, denial—and sometimes outright condemnation—of gays in many Black churches has an untold impact on Black gay men. The church has long been one of the strongest influences on Black life—sustaining African Americans socially, culturally, politically and spiritually through a history of slavery, oppression and racism. And while some Black ministers have bravely taken up the battle of HIV and AIDS for Black gay men, their numbers are still too small. In other instances, even when AIDS is mentioned, the gay factor is left unspoken, purposely leaving people to believe that the problem of AIDS in the Black community is solely related to things like drug use—a social ill that can be more easily linked to the history of racial inequity in America. For too many African Americans, homosexuality remains a shame that is just not spoken.
"I used to think that when we got a critical number of dead bodies, we'd finally wake up," said Black AIDS activist Ronald Johnson during the recent panel discussion about how the African American community deals with infected Black gay men. "But we're still in denial."
May gay men and lesbians are tempted to stop here, and say that Black gays and lesbians themselves must battle homophobia in their own communities. It's fair to say that Black gays and lesbians have far greater hope of making an impact there than do white gays and lesbians.
However, one element that cannot be overlooked when considering the incredible disparity in the number of infected Black gay men vs. white gay men is the continuing struggle within the gay community over racism. Blacks and other minorities have long felt, and continue to feel, largely left out of the movement for gay and lesbian civil rights.
We must ask why the messages of safer sex and better healthcare that have worked so well in saving the lives of white gay men have not reached our Black gay brothers. To continue to ignore that stark reality is a denial none of us—Black or white—can afford to live with.