HIV/AIDS Rising Among Young Black Men

December 8, 2011  

BEYOND THE BUBBLE

By Essete Workneh
eworkneh@smu.edu

At 26 Terrance Gillbert may be the new face of HIV/AIDS. He’s young. He’s gay. He’s black. And his fear of the stigma that plagues the disease nearly cost him his life.

Gillbert tested positive for HIV when he was 18-years-old. While he has been an HIV/AIDS activist for years, he kept his own positive status a secret from even his closest family and friends. Last year, his denial and refusal to take medication led him to contract pneumonia, a disease that left him teetering on the brink of death.

“I was trying to prevent others from feeling the way that I was feeling and just by me being so active I could do that, but at the same time I wasn’t technically taking care of myself,” he said. “It took me getting really sick and deciding that I wanted to reconquer my own life, and that’s why I do the work that I do now.”

Statistics from the Dallas County Health Department show Gillbert is far from alone. The Health Department reports an increase in the number of young people in Dallas contracting HIV/AIDS. In 2010 there were 908 new HIV/AIDS cases in Dallas County. Young people, ages 13 to 24, made up 25 percent of these new diagnoses, a five percent increase from 2009. Men who have sex with men (MSM) account for 70 percent of the diagnoses. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, black MSM alone make up 25 percent of people living with HIV in the Dallas metropolitan area.

This rise in HIV/AIDS among the black MSM population can be attributed to a number of things; however, many experts cite the shame and stigma that surrounds homosexuality as a leading factor. This shame was pivotal in creating the “Down Low” culture, a term that describes men who have secret sexual lives with men, while often engaging in straight relationships in public.

Darrin Aiken, a Los Angeles Activist, leads a series of program sessions geared toward gay black men infected with HIV/AIDS or those engaging in high-risk behaviors. The sessions are part of non-profit AIDS Project Los Angeles’ (APLA), Many Men Many Voices Program. The program helps tackle the reasons that lead men to engage in unprotected sex and identifies what can be done to help them adopt a healthier lifestyle.

While there appears to be a move toward greater acceptance of homosexuality in recent years, Aiken said this has not translated into the young black male population.

“You have a young gay man who lives in a community where the whole community may be homophobic, where being gay is just not a cool thing and it could be pretty dangerous,” he said. “In the community he may live one way, covering up who he really is and walking on egg shells. When he finally gets away and finally has that opportunity to be who he wants to be, and be intimate with who he wants to be intimate with, condoms may not be the first thing on his mind.”

Many of the young people Aiken works with tend to come from poverty stricken urban backgrounds. Some are kicked out of their homes when their parents find out about their sexuality.

“Some of the young people actually wind up having unprotected sex with people just for places to stay,” he said.

Auntjuan Wiley, Executive Director of the Anthony Chisom AIDS Foundation in Dallas, was not surprised by the increase in diagnoses.

“I definitely see an increase among young African-American MSM,” he said.

Wiley, who has been living with HIV for 16 years, started a support group for HIV positive African-American MSM called “The Group,’ after he saw a need in a community where many men are private about both their sexuality and diagnoses. Wiley cites a youthful sense of resilience and invisibility as another reason for the increase.

“They also look at the fact that HIV has been around for 30 years and people are not dying the way they were back in the eighties, when HIV was first introduced to our world,” he said. “They think ‘if I get sick I’ll just pop the pill and I’ll be OK’, all those are misconceptions of course.”

Wiley also cites a new phenomenon of young people who believe they will receive benefits from contracting HIV.

“They think they can go on disability and get a check, get free housing, free food; all of those are misconceptions. No one can understand what people living with HIV go through, especially if they have no income,” he said.

According to Wiley the lack of acceptance of homosexuality in the black community can be attributed to communities that place a high emphasis on religion.

“I think it’s because of our culture, the way that we were raised as African-American men, most of us were raised in the church and have different religious backgrounds and we were always taught by our parents and grandparents that we were to be men, we were to get married, we were to have children, and we were suppose to be the man of the house,” said Wiley. “We tend to hide because we’re ashamed of who we are, the stigma that goes along with our sexuality.”

Zach Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said the increase in HIV/AIDS is seen mostly in impoverished urban areas, and points to the lack of sexual education as a major contributing factor.

“Abstinence is a good model, but the numbers are showing that people are not abstaining, we need a combination of the two,” he said.

LaShonda Worthey, STD/HIV program manager for the Dallas County Health and Human Services, agrees that education is important in decreasing the number of diagnoses.

“Young people do not think they are at risk for HIV. We need to change their beliefs and their perception of how they feel about the risk of HIV and provide more education, and continue to have conversations around this issue,” she said.

Gillbert, who is not yet completely open about his diagnosis to those closest to him, continues to speak out about HIV/AIDS in honor of the many friends he has lost to the disease.

“They died because they didn’t want to get help, so the stigma killed them basically,” he said. “By me going to work, it’s a tribute to those that I’ve lost and those who haven’t been as fortunate as myself.”

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