Sex, Stigma and God: On being black and HIV positive In D.C.

WAMU 88.5 | Eva Harder

When experts talk about the HIV disparity in the African American community, there’s one statistic they’re likely to repeat: Even though African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population in the United States, they account for nearly half of all new HIV infections every year.

According to Adam Allston, Chief Epidemiologist within the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, & TB Administration (HAHSTA) at the District of Columbia Department of Health, African Americans made up half the population in D.C. in 2012, but they accounted for 72 percent of new HIV infections that year.

In D.C., the HIV prevalence rate for black men in D.C. is more than twice as high as it is for the city as a whole. According to Allston, 2.5 percent of the city’s population is HIV positive. For African Americans, that number is 3.8 percent. For black men alone, it’s 5.6 percent.

More risk despite less risky behavior

In 2012, GW’s School of Public Health partnered with the National Institutes of Health in a multi-site study to recruit and interview more than 1500 young black men who have sex with men (MSM) in six different cities, including D.C.

“We found incarceration was extremely high, STDs were high, health care access, not having access to equitable or kind care,” Watson says.

Even though he’s HIV negative, Watson says he sees a lot of himself in the men he interviewed.

“We’ve all made the same decisions, we’ve all made the same choices. As a researcher who looked at myself outside of the box, I questioned how did I stay negative and some of these men were positive? And what was that difference? What decision did I make differently? Did I use a condom more than they did?”

According to other research, that’s probably not the case.

A few years ago, a D.C.-based study examined the risk behaviors of a sample of men who have sex with men. And they found that, even though black men were more likely to be HIV positive than non-black men, it wasn’t because they were having more unprotected sex or sex more often than other men (MSM). In fact, black men’s sexual behavior was actually less risky than others.

According to this study, the real reason black MSM are more at risk of getting HIV is because they’re less likely to have health insurance, less likely to get tested, or less likely to tell their doctors that they’ve had sex with other men.

HIV and “the black church”

Earl Fowlkes, the CEO of the Center for Black Equity, has been working with LGBT and HIV issues for more than 30 years. He says that black men face a lot of barriers that white men don’t.

“What’s the use of giving someone medicines and putting them on regimen if they don’t have a house to live in or a stable living environment? Or if they have mental health issues? Or they have the lack of education and are struggling to find a job?” Fowlkes says. “In the black community we have to look at the issues that impact black folks.”

One of those issues is the church.

“That’s one of the major differences between black and white gay men is that the black church is particularly conservative and that conservatism can translate to homophobia in many cases,” he says. “You just can’t leave the church. If you leave the church, you leave your family, and you leave one of the few things you’re rooted to.”

An HIV Positive Ministry

Bishop Rainey Cheeks is the openly gay, HIV positive bishop of Inner Light Ministries, a small church that meets in a black box theater at the Anacostia Arts Center every Sunday morning at 11 a.m.

“I am HIV positive. I am very open about that. My members know,” he says. “So we take out all the shame and guilt.”

Cheeks was diagnosed back in 1985.

“When I went to the doctor, and they finally said, ‘You’re HIV Positive,’ I tell everybody that this is usually what it sound like: ‘Well your test labs came back and I need to inform you that you’re HIV positive and [makes incoherent noises.’ That’s what it sounds like. You don’t hear anything else,” he says. “All you hear in your mind is, ‘I’m about to die.’”

Fortunately, HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be.

“The month of November 1988, I did 17 funerals in one month,” Cheeks says. “Last year, I think I did, maybe three funerals, and only one was HIV.”

According to Cheeks, the stigma of being gay in the African-American community is one of the things putting black men at risk.

He says that he talks to men who sometimes think they’re not gay if they’re the ones penetrating other men. “That’s why they had to come up with the term, men who have sex with men,” he says. “And I know some guys today who are still in that attitude of, you know ‘That’s not my life-style, I don’t need to get tested.’ Yes you do.”

For Cheeks, fighting the HIV disparity starts with taking away the power of secrets, and removing the power of shame.

“Usually if somebody in my church comes to me and says they’re HIV positive I say, ‘One Sunday I want you to be bold enough to stand up and say it.’ And every once in a while somebody will stand up and say, ‘I just need to tell you I’m HIV positive.’ And I say, ‘Notice the world didn’t end. People embraced you anyway.’”


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