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Special Report: Black Gay and Bi Men Battle the Escalation of HIV

Special Report: Black Gay and Bi Men Battle the Escalation of HIV

Stephens calls passing down that history to young gay black men critical “proof we existed,” and he sees it as necessary for them to “know that they not only have a community behind them, but a culture and a history.”

Green puts it succinctly: “We are racing against time and AIDS to avoid becoming a people that once was.”

Aquarius Gilmer, National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (below)

Aquarius Gilmer
Aquarius Gilmer of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS and Stephens agree that black gay organizations — and those who work in them at any level — need to do succession planning now. “There is often high turnover among frontline staff in HIV/AIDS work,” Stephens says. “And with each new staff transition, we lose access to community members and key partnerships. This, I think, perpetuates the kind of destabilization that happens in our communities.”

There was a time when all gay men talked this way, a bit too aware of their own mortality. A time when middle-aged men stepped into community elder roles because the generation ahead of them was just…gone. Back then the entire gay community was haunted by ghosts of hundreds of lost friends and lovers, and individual gay men were torn between living it up while they could and trying to quickly archive their generation’s lives and accomplishments before they too were gone, always with the specter of death around the corner. In the darkest moments it seemed almost possible that all gay men would disappear into that sweet night.

Though gay and bi men are getting HIV at increasing rates still, for thousands of white, middle-class gay men, those dark days are long gone. Pharmaceutical advancements and adoption of some prevention strategies (better access to health care, testing, condoms) has given those gay men a new lease on life. For them, HIV is a manageable chronic condition. But for gay and bi men of color, the epidemic is far from gone — and the specter of death still haunts the lives of far too many black men.

According to a recent study from Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, the incidence of HIV is so high that a black gay man becoming sexually active at the age of 18 today has a 60 percent chance of being HIV-positive by the age of 30. At the current rate of infection, one in four black gay men will become HIV-positive by the time they are 25.

The study cited “lack of health insurance and solely having sexual partners from the black community” as key factors, along with unemployment and incarceration.

Not only are African-American gay men and transgender individuals more likely to have HIV then their white counterparts, they are also less likely to know it (only 54 percent of black gay and bisexual men knew of their infection, compared with 86 percent of white gay and bisexual men). They are less likely to receive appropriate medical care and (partly as a result) are more likely to die from AIDS complications.

Blacks accounted for 56 percent of all deaths due to AIDS-related causes in 2009, and their survival time after diagnosis is lower on average than that of any other racial or ethnic group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 HIV Surveillance Report. What’s behind the high rates for gay black men? Some of it has to do with the same socioeconomic forces that lead to the high rates in the southern United States, but, as HIV Plus reported last year, black gay men are also more likely to have sex with other black gay men. Dating within a smaller subset of any population increases the likelihood of one person’s STI being shared with all members of the intertwined group.

While nearly half of all HIV-positive African-American men who have sex with men are unaware of their infection, Jacory isn’t one of them. The 26-year-old gay man was featured on the Our America With Lisa Ling special “Black America’s Silent Epidemic.” He knew he was positive, but he hadn’t started treatment. He didn’t have health insurance, but he also admitted to having a fatalistic attitude, certain that his status would doom him to a poor health outcome. Why bother having a doctor confirm what he already knew? He imagined he wouldn’t live past 35 and would never reach his goal of becoming a fashion designer.


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