Saturday, June 13, 2009

It's Time to Get Real-sponsible about HIV/AIDS

About 4 years ago, a close friend of mine told me that he contracted HIV. I still remember sitting on the couch, staring into his face as tears poured from both our eyes. Immediately, I was forcibly shocked into dealing with the “HIV reality” a subject matter I felt absolved from ever having to deal with directly. Sure, I had the occasional HIV test, but there wasn't a reason to be really concerned about my status. Well, there was this one time when I knew my “monogamously challenged” boyfriend was dipping out on me. We hadn't always practiced safe sex. So that probably was the only time, I was truly concerned about the possibility of contracting HIV.

Sadly, it wasn't till my close friend notified me of his status that I found myself becoming more knowledgeable about HIV/AIDS and its impact on the African American. I was alarmed to discover that AIDS has quietly become one the leading causes of death for Blacks and Latinos in the United States. And although, it is an epidemic in our communities, we have yet to fully commit ourselves to aggressively addressing the epidemic...maybe due to HIV/AIDS fatigue or lack of leadership? I'm not sure but what I do know is that we can't wait any longer because AIDS is killing us. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans make up approximately 13% of the US population, but in 2005 they accounted for 49% percent of the estimated number of HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed.

I was completely shocked and outraged? Are you?

Among youth, while only 15% of teens (ages 13-19) are African American, they accounted for 73% of the new AIDS cases reported in 2004. Comparably shocking HIV and AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Where's Black leadership on this issue? Where's the Black Church?

The failure of African American leadership to address the AIDS epidemic which disproportionately impacts African people more than any other ethnic group in the United States is a moral travesty and socially irresponsible. Is it enough to be outraged only by the United States government's delayed response to a national health epidemic but not our own so-called leadership?

Do you mean to tell me that African American leadership is more willing to challenge our society's use of the “N” and not the HIV and AIDS epidemic? I'm sorry there are no passes being handed out today, tonight and whenever! The “N” word “AIN'T” killing people nor is it creating a biological underclass of individuals dependent upon anti-viral medication for the duration of their life on earth. Come on now.

Frankly, “our” leaderships inability to address homophobia, sexual safety, and patriarchy is a primary reason AIDS continues to impact Black folks disproportionately. Long standing homophobic attitudes in the Black community and church prohibit Black folks from getting “real”-sponsible about AIDS. It's time to be honest with ourselves and our partners about our sexual choices and preferences. Promiscuous and/or bisexual Black men are not addressing how they have contributed to the way this disease is impacting Black women and devastating our community. Where's the love brothas? Black women deal with enough. Don't get me wrong, I'm mature enough to handle if a man I was dating informed me that he was bisexual or curious. Actually, I'd welcome the conversation without becoming judgmental or abruptly ending our relationship out of fear of having to compete with another man. I'd prefer for us to be honest with one another and discuss the importance of practicing sexual safety at all times for the sake of both of us.

As the epidemic continues to grow while religious forces of all color ignore AIDS and the federal government continues to champions abstinence to no avail, people are slowly dying. Black women being the most at risk group, the fact that AIDS is impacting Black women more than any other group might be one more reason, Black leadership is invisible when it comes to addressing the AIDS epidemic. There's no doubt that African American religious and political leadership is concerned about the problem of AIDS, it's the action of not doing something about it that I have the most problem with.

According to the The Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of African Americans on HIV/AIDS about half of African Americans say local schools (49%) and churches or religious leaders (54%) care 'a lot' about the problem of AIDS; by comparison, only a quarter say either actually do “a lot” (28% and 23%, respectively). The government gets lower marks: fewer African Americans say the government at any level -- local (17%), state (20%), or federal (22%) -- cares 'a lot' about AIDS; almost the same percentages as say government does 'a lot' in the fight against the disease (local: 14%; state: 17%; federal: 18%).

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and Chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, suggested in an interview, “ a need for more leadership within the African American community - especially from ministers and other church leaders, medical professionals, and educators to talk about an epidemic which is sixteen times more likely to strike its women and six times more likely to strike its men." Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also asked "Why is it that we are motivated to fight racism in the workplace and the civic square, but are not equally motivated to save the lives of our brothers and sisters from this horrible disease?"

For the first time since the detection of the HIV, women account for approximately half of those affected worldwide. Today AIDS is the leading cause of death in African American women aged 25-34 and the third leading cause of death in African American men in the same age group. More than 64 percent of HIV positive infants are African American, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Driven by gender power inequities rooted in a complex design of cultural, socio-economics and politics, the feminization of HIV and AIDS has hit African American women in the United States extremely hard. Our bodies and stories are being violated and forgotten simultaneously in the face of AIDS. There has been a call for us as Black women, Black people to demand an aggressive culturally sensitive approach from the U.S. government in addressing the epidemic now. An equally aggressive approach that would rival our governments attempts in the early 80's, when it was viewed as predominately impacting white males. Hillary Clinton once stated while on the presidential election campaign of 2007, “If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” Black women must begin to consistently initiate dialogue about our sexuality in a manner that challenges patriarchy and racism in America. We must first educate ourselves then our men, our daughters, and our sons. If we do the math the numbers don't lie, and our silence has allowed this disease to take a toll on our health and spirits. My mother always says, “a closed mouth is never fed.” Now is the time for action.

Okay, so I know it's a lot. Remember, I said it all started from a friend telling me they were HIV positive. It really turned my world up-side-down. So here I am, wanting to not only to inform myself but our entire community. It is what it is and if we don't address AIDS now our tomorrow might not be the change we hoped for. What do you think?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Opening My Eyes

Before I started working with Beyond The Odds, AIDS was not anything more than a fleeting thought. I have had unsafe and unprotected sex with a number of partners and did not worry about possible repercussions to my health. I always trusted my judgment, and instinct, even when intoxicated. I have been in a committed relationship for over two years now and still have never been tested for any sexually transmitted diseases.

The stories and presence of my peers who are the journalists for Beyond The Odds have greatly opened my eyes. Simply listening and being at the workshops has been, at times, heavy, but I am always reminded of the strength this group of individuals embodies. The conversations we have had are not something I would experience anywhere else. This makes me realize that these types of conversations should be more commonplace. I believe that part of why the discussion around HIV and youth is limited is because people do not know how to talk about it; be it people with skewed assumptions about the disease or people who are living with it and are uncomfortable talking about AIDS with people who are not HIV positive.

One thing that we have discussed at the workshops is a comparison between the new health epidemic, the oh so-scary Swine Flu, and the seemingly invisible threat of AIDS. With around 100 known cases, people are paranoid about traveling, being in contained spaces and some are even wearing facemasks. But the idea of AIDS is just too huge for most people to fathom. "More than five young people worldwide contract HIV every minute -- that's 7,000 people each day, and more than 2.6 million each year. Half of all new HIV infections occur in young people ages 15-24, with one-third of all currently infected individuals in this age group1. " With a shocking fact like that people are still not wearing condoms. I can say for myself that while the facts are overwhelming, it has had zero effect compared to the handful of hours I have spent thus far with a group of my peers who are all HIV- positive and pull no punches in being themselves.

I believe that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and I know that needs to start with me. “A 1992 study of HIV-infected youth conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health revealed that one-third of all adolescents who had been diagnosed with HIV had discovered their illness accidentally, through mandatory testing at the Job Corps, the military, or plasma centers. The other two- thirds learned of their illness through emergency rooms and acute-care settings. These youth were already sick by the time of their diagnosis2.” Therefore, starting today, my choices and decisions to get protected, get tested and get informed will be a top priority not just for myself but also for my partners.

This blog was written by a Beyond the Odds staff member for Beyond the Odds 2009. Beyond the Odds is a project designed to illuminate the perspectives of young people 18-24 living with HIV and AIDS. Beyond the set to launch late June, 2009.

1 Advocates for Youth, March 15, 2001