In 2012, the United Nations stated that it’s possible to eradicate the disease by 2015 — in part, of course, by preventing new infections. However, within African American communities across the country, unfortunately, that has not been the case.
CDC reports that at least half of new cases of HIV in 2013 are attributed to African Americans, which is eight time the rate of Whites. African American gay, bisexual, and MSM (men who have sex with men) account for new affections, and within this demographic group males between the ages 13-24 are the most affected.
A more grim report “For Black gay men, HIV is a perfect storm” was in the recent September issue of the Advocate: “Gay men make up only 1.4 percent of the total Black population in the U.S., yet they account for an astounding 53 percent 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.”
But, much of the focus was, and still is, on developing countries, and not enough in hot spots where Black populations can be found. For example, with the South’s propensity to avoid speaking about uncomfortable subjects, unfortunately the South includes many HIV/AIDS hot spots in this country.
And so, too, are our prisons. HIV/AIDS among Black male inmates is five times the rate of the general population, transmitted primarily through male-to-male sex or tattooing.
To date more than a quarter of African Americans have died of AIDS. Although African American comprise of now nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, we tragically account for approximately 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2013.
However, this data doesn’t reflect the wave of recent African diasporic immigrants of the last decade coming from the Caribbean Islands and the Motherland. This demographic group is overwhelmingly underreported and underserved for fear of not only deportation but also of homophobic insults and assaults from their communities.
According to HIV/AIDS data in my state, there are 26,000-27,000 individuals currently living with HIV/AIDS throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with urban areas the hardest hit. Although African American and Latinos make up six percent and 10 percent respectively of the total Massachusetts population, shockingly, African American and Latino populations are diagnosed with HIV infection at levels 10 and six times that of the White population, respectively. And, infections among MSM increased from 32 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2013.
Good news is that HIV infections among African American women in Massachusetts has decreased for the first time in 2014 and it continues. And this decline in numbers 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, healthcare disparity, violence, to name just a few. And while we know that the epidemic moves along the fault lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, and that HIV transmission is tied to specific high-risk behaviors that are not exclusive to any one sexual orientation, homophobia still continues to be one of the major barriers to ending the AIDS epidemic. And the biggest factor contributing to homophobia is still the Black church.
Although famous HIV-positive heterosexual African Americans, like tennis great Arthur Ashe, news anchorman Max Robinson, and rapper Eazy-E, who all died of AIDS, and basketball giant Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is still living with the virus, highlight the fact that anyone can contract it, many still see the epidemic as a “White gay disease,” suggesting being gay or having sex with someone of the same gender puts you immediately at high risk.
But the truth is this: while over 600,000 African Americans are now living with HIV, and there are as many as 30,000 newly infected each year, there is still within Black communities at least one in five living with HIV and unaware of their infection; and, they are disproportionately heterosexuals.
While the number of cases across the globe continue to decline and possibly eradicate the disease as the U.N predicts, we as African Americans cannot protect ourselves from this epidemic as long as we continue to think of HIV/AIDS as a “White gay disease.” And the thought is so old school its serves no one.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist.