I was happy to read the open letter of support that Wade Davis wrote to gay athletes on theGrio last week. His earnest story, his struggle, and his newfound self-acceptance — so palpable from his words — touched me deeply. Like many others, I spent several years of my life fighting the shame generated by those hollow words: “You can’t be a strong black man and be gay.”
Perhaps Wade Davis was influenced by the positive momentum for gay rights that has been gathering steam around the country. Every day, statements by prominent black leaders like President Obama, the NAACP, and a host of celebrities showing their support for marriage equality are helping dismantle the stigma experienced by so many gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered people of color.
We can’t let this momentum die. In fact, we need to step it up. Erasing the shame and stigma burdening men of color who have sex with men and who live with self-hatred, men who often live recklessly because they don’t believe their lives are worth something, men who felt “the pain of living a lie,” as Wade Davis did for so many years, is more important than ever. Because it also increases the risk of HIV: this stigma can kill.
More than 1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS today and about 50,000 become infected with HIV each year. In fact some U.S. cities — Miami, New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC — report HIV prevalence rates of more than 2 percent, a rate that surpasses many developing nations across the world. Gay and bisexual black men have been especially impacted: a CDC study of five cities found 46 percent of them infected with HIV, compared to 21 percent and 17 percent of their white and Latino counterparts, respectively.
Research shows a link between addressing stigma especially among young, black gay and bisexual men — and reducing HIV infections. Helping these young men embrace who they are and regain their self confidence can motivate them to practice safer sex, get tested for HIV, get lifesaving treatment if infected, and access the support networks they need to live better and longer lives.
As the crisis ravages our community, this work is all the more important. It will continue in a few weeks, when 20,000 of the world’s top HIV/AIDS experts will descend upon Washington, DC for the International AIDS Conference. A prominent pre-conference discussion will focus on how to pierce pervasive HIV stigma — especially as it pertains to black gay and bisexual men — and how to improve attitudes and awareness about the importance of treatment and HIV care.
Right now we’re witnessing critical, game-changing developments in the fight against HIV/AIDS, from Truvada to stem cell transplants that offer a potential cure. They show just how far we’ve come in developing tools to thwart what used to be considered a fatal disease. But the fact remains: AIDS is still killing black men at an alarming rate. And all of us must show our support and join the fight to end this epidemic.
Ronald Johnson is Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for AIDS United, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic in our lifetimes.