December 1 was World AIDS Day!
However, here in the U.S. you would have scarcely known. Much of the focus was, and still is, on developing countries.
There was no reportage of it in key newspapers like the Boston Globe or the New York Times. None of the major television networks ran stories, nor did most local radio stations nationwide. Either these stations forgot it was World AIDS Day also here in the states or opted out to not report on it from a local angle.
Some contest, in defense of both the New York Times and the Boston Globe, that the demographic groups most impacted and ravaged by the disease—African Americans and Latinos—don’t read these papers in huge numbers, so why waste the ink. And ink, also, wasn't spilled on this topic in many independent black, Caribbean, and African local newspapers across the country.
PBS's "Frontline" ran its last year special "ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America," with 2013 statistical updates. A large contingent of both African Americans and Latinos have not seen this documentary because it ran on PBS and not on cable television networks, like "TV One and "Black Entertainment Television,” which have successfully reached this demographic.
Each year fewer and fewer public events bring attention to the fact that this epidemic is still in our midst.
While clearly racism is one of the contributing factors to the paucity of reportage on this health crisis issue in major media, so too, is the persistence of black homophobia keeping it on the "down low."
To date, more than a quarter of African Americans have died of AIDS.
With the latest comprehensive data tracking the virus coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the numbers are staggeringly alarming.
Although African Americans represent nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, we tragically accounted for approximately 44 percent of new HIV infections in 2010. But 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 the CDC in 2010, 1 in 22 African Americans will be diagnosed HIV-positive in their lifetime. And, it’s the leading cause of death among African American women between the ages of 25-34 and African American men between the ages of 35-44. The good news is that HIV infections among African American women in the state of Massachusetts has decreased. 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.
According to the Black AIDS Institute’s August 2008 report titled “Left Behind” the number of people living with HIV in Black America exceeds the HIV population in seven of the fifteen focus countries in the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiative, an initiative helping to save the lives of those suffering from HIV/AIDS around the world in countries like Haiti, Dominican Republic, India, and South Africa, to name a few.
In other words, if black America were its own country, standing on its own like Haiti or Nigeria, black Americans would rate 16th among the countries most affected by this epidemic.
There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of HIV/AIDS in the African American community—racism, poverty, health care disparity, and violence, to name just a few—but the biggest attitudinal factor still contributing to the epidemic and showing no sign of abating is homophobia.
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 although famous HIV-positive heterosexual African Americans, like tennis great Arthur Ashe, news anchorman Max Robinson, and rapper Eazy all died of AIDS, and basketball giant Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is still living with the virus, highlight the fact that anyone can contract the virus, 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.
One of the reasons many still see this epidemic as a white gay disease, in my opinion, is the way in which data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is reported. Terms are used that perpetuate the confusion. For example, "MSM," is the CDC clinical control coined acronym for "men who have sex with men,” but it is used for men who are openly gay or openly bisexual.
So when the CDC puts out the data that MSM of all races remain the group most severely affected by HIV, and white MSMs account for the largest number of annual new HIV infections of any group in the U.S., followed by MSMs of African descent, many in the African American community still think of the epidemic as a “white gay disease.”
While the data may be accurate about this subgroup of men in the African American community, the story is, at best, incomplete, and, at worse, intentionally skewed. Because gay and bisexual men have been identified with having the virus, they have been and continue to be tracked in CDC studies; thus, there is more data on these groups.
But the truth is this: while over 600,000 African Americans have been diagnosed and are living with HIV there is still, within the black community, at least one in five unknowingly living with HIV who are unaware of their infection; and, they are disproportionately heterosexual.
With more than 18,000 people with AIDS still dying each year in the U.S. and as many 30,000 newly infected each year, we can't afford to be uninformed.
Clearly, as long as we continue to think of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease, we’ll not protect ourselves from this epidemic.
But we will also continue to not protect ourselves if the media doesn't cover this story and research institutions continue to distribute skewed data.