Anti-gay stigma sparks rise in black male HIV rates

OPINION - A recent study of 21 major cities found that the majority of young black gay and bisexual men who were HIV-infected were unaware of their HIV status...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Black America is fighting back harder than ever against HIV and AIDS. Thanks to courageous leadership and a surge of new action by community leaders, it is now possible to reach those in our community at greatest risk of infection and reduce the toll that this terrible epidemic has taken on the black community.

While we should take pride in what has been achieved — progress remains fragile. HIV infections are stable among blacks overall and among black women, but among our young black gay and bisexual men, they are increasing. Black gay and bisexual men of all ages account for 73 percent of new infections among black men, and the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the burden of HIV is growing among some of the youngest members of our community.

CDC just reported that HIV infections are up sharply among black gay and bisexual men under the age of 30 — the only race and risk group in the United States to experience a significant increase between 2006 and 2009. While data show that HIV infections increased by almost 50 percent among these young men in just four years, HIV surveillance data only tell only half the story.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow: 30 years of HIV/AIDS in black America

We can’t say for sure why this increase occurred, but we have a good sense of some of the reasons. We know that young black gay men often face a double hurdle in staying healthy and HIV-free: economic hardships that prevent many in African-American communities from seeing a doctor, and the stigma and homophobia that can damage the well-being of many gay men.

Additionally, young black gay men are more likely than men of other races to have sexual relationships with older men, which can increase their risk of being exposed to HIV simply because older gay men are more likely to be HIV positive.

Young African-Americans — male or female, gay or straight — also have higher rates of certain sexually transmitted diseases that can make it easier to transmit HIV.

MSNBC: New HIV infections up 50 percent in gay black men

Additionally, a recent study of 21 major cities found that the majority of young black gay and bisexual men who were HIV-infected were unaware of their HIV status. These high rates of unawareness, coupled with the fact that young gay men tend to underestimate their chances of getting infected, are contributing to the increasing numbers of HIV infections we are seeing today.

When considering all of this information, the challenge before us is clear: we cannot end the black AIDS epidemic without confronting HIV among black gay men, and the stigma and homophobia that allows HIV to flourish in our communities.

The stigma of homosexuality runs deep in many of our communities. For young men who are just coming to terms with their sexuality, the weight of this stigma can be crushing. Tragically, it keeps many too fearful to seek the life-saving HIV prevention, testing and treatment services they need.

To protect the health of the next generation, each of us needs to confront the stigma that forces too many of our sons, brothers and friends into the shadows, and prevents them from seeking HIV prevention services that can help reverse the current trend.
I know full well the toll that stigma, silence and ignorance continue to play in the lives of so many young gay men today. As I work in cities and towns across the country, I meet young black gay men who share stories of being rejected by their families or their faith communities because of their sexual orientation.

Many of these young men are driven to high risk conditions, including homelessness, incarceration, sex for survival, or power-imbalanced relationships in which they may be unable to negotiate safe behaviors with their partners.

But, I also hear just as many stories of resilience and strength from so many of our young gay brothers — both HIV positive and negative — who are making choices to protect themselves and their communities.

These men are educating others because they are determined to break the cycle of HIV, and they give me hope that HIV does not have to be a right of passage for young black gay men. Whether in Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta or Little Rock, ending the HIV in the black community will require that we all work together. Understanding the realities of this disease, fighting the stigma which continues to fuel its spread, and supporting those who are most vulnerable are steps that every one of us can take.

Some of the nation’s most prominent black leaders are taking up this challenge and speaking out about the need to show the same compassion for black gay and bisexual men as other members of the African-American family — an example we should all strive to follow.

At CDC, we’re working with African-American leaders and organizations to achieve this vision. We’re expanding HIV prevention programs for African-Americans at risk; we’ve launched awareness and education campaigns to help young African-Americans — gay and straight — understand their risks, get tested and protect themselves; and we recently expanded our partnerships with leading African-American organizations, to help them address the threat of HIV.

We have enlisted the help of well-known organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League, and other respected organizations with deep roots in the African-American community that specifically address the needs of black gay men in their local communities, such as the International Federation of Black Prides and Black Men’s Xchange.

President Obama’s leadership also gives reason for hope. The administration’s new National HIV/AIDS Strategy, announced last year, calls on all of us to focus HIV prevention efforts where the needs are greatest — and that clearly includes black gay men.

I hope these efforts will bring us closer to a day when all African-Americans have the tools and support they need to stay HIV-free. Each of us needs to do our part: speak out against stigma, get tested for HIV and commit our own time and energy to the fight. Our battle against HIV and AIDS has come too far to do anything less.