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Why black gay men in the US are at the heart of the HIV storm

Why black gay men in the US are at the heart of the HIV storm

HIV is not an exclusively 'white gay disease'.

If I want to see how far we have to go to solve the HIV crisis this World AIDS Day (1 December) I have only to look at my own black community.

The US Center for Disease Control reports at least half of the new cases of HIV in 2013 were among African Americans – eight times the infection rate of whites.

Black gays, bisexuals, and other men who have sex with men are particularly hard hit – with those aged 13 to 24 the worst of all.

Here’s what a grim report, titled For Black Gay Men, HIV Is a Perfect Storm, in the September issue of Advocate, said:

‘Gay men make up only 1.4% of the total black population in the US, yet they account for an astounding 53% of new HIV infections in the black community.

‘And while new HIV infection rates have decreased among black women and injecting drug users, infections continue to rise among black gay and bisexual men.

‘In addition, although gay men are 40 times more likely to get HIV than the general population, that figure rises sharply to 72 times more likely among black gay men.’

Despite this, there is not enough focus on the hot spots with large black populations.

For example, with the South’s propensity to avoid speaking about uncomfortable subjects it has one of the worst HIV infection rates in the country. So, too, are our prisons – HIV among black male inmates is five times the rate of the general population and transmitted primarily through male-to-male sex or tattooing.

Although African American comprise nearly 13% of the US population, we tragically account for approximately 44% of new HIV infections in 2013

And this data doesn’t reflect the wave of recent immigrants of the last decade coming from the Caribbean islands and Africa. This demographic group is overwhelmingly underreported and underserved – for fear of not only deportation but also of homophobic insults and assaults from their communities.

There are occasional bits of good news. In my state of Massachusetts in 2015, the HIV infection rate among African American women dropped for the first time. And this decline has much to do with the indefatigable outreach by local organizations like AIDS Action Committee while operating each year on a diminishing state funded grant.

There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of the epidemic in the African American community – racism, poverty, health care disparity, violence, to name just a few.

High-risk behaviors for HIV are not exclusive to any one sexual orientation but homophobia continues to be one of the major barriers to ending AIDS. And the biggest factor contributing to homophobia is still the black church.

And let’s make no mistake, there are many in our community in denial about the virus, even now.

Famous African Americans including tennis great Arthur Ashe, news anchorman Max Robinson, and rapper Eazy, all died of AIDS. Basketball giant Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson is still living with the virus.

But many still see it as a ‘white gay disease’.

The truth is this: over 600,000 African Americans are now living with HIV, and as many 30,000 are newly infected each year. At least one in five in the black communities living with HIV and unaware of their infection – mostly heterosexuals.

The UN hopes we will one day, even one day soon, be able to eradicate AIDS. But for us as African Americans, the fight is definitely not over and the idea this is a ‘white gay disease’ is untrue and serves no one.