— Suzy Subways, Editor, Solidarity Project
November 2007 • Issue 7
*Activist Snapshots #2*
“The Black gay community suffers from HIV invisibility, so the New York State Black Gay Network (NYSBGN) is forthright, vital, and visible,” says Mark McLaurin, the network’s executive director. “Our key demand is that resources for domestic prevention have to follow the epidemiologic data.”
And those data are clear about where the epidemic is headed. HIV rates have reached a staggering 46% among Black men who have sex with men (MSM) and 21% among white MSM. In a presentation at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago on October 10, University of Pittsburgh researcher Ron Stall observed that, with the relatively small increases already occurring year by year, each new generation of gay men will have much higher HIV rates.
Same Behavior, Double the Risk
The disturbing racial disparity cannot be explained by risk behavior – Black MSM have similar or slightly lower rates of unprotected sex, including with partners they know to be HIV positive, than white MSM. Also at the Chicago event, Greg Millett of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presented an analysis of all studies on the subject (both presentations are viewable at http://www.lifelube.org/). One 2004 study of MSM ages 15 to 22 found Blacks to be nine times as likely to have HIV as whites, and Latinos twice as likely, despite more unprotected sex among young white MSM. Across all studies, Millett found that white MSM were more likely to use drugs that can increase the possibility of HIV infection, including crack. One study found that white MSM were more than twice as likely to use crack than Black MSM.
The prevalence is already so high among Black men that the odds of potential partners having HIV are much higher, making the risk associated with forgoing condom use much greater. “You’re swimming in an infected pool,” McLaurin says. “The question is, how did that pool get more infected in the first place? We need more research. Every time we meet with the National Institutes of Health and the CDC, we say, ‘We need to figure out what’s going on now.’”
Another Urban Legend: The “Down-Low”
What about the media hype of the “down-low” – the racially loaded term referring to the universal phenomenon of men who identify as straight but have sex with men and don’t tell their female partners? “It’s a titillating conversation, but there’s little evidence to show that this is a serious bridge population for HIV transmission,” McLaurin says. “Unless you can show me that this is a significant factor, then we’re not talking in terms of HIV prevention, we’re talking in terms of entertainment value.”
Millett’s research shows that while Black MSM who do not disclose their sexuality are more likely to report unprotected sex with women than are Black MSM who are open about their sexuality (not surprising, since the latter are likely to be gay-identified and not sleeping with women at all), non-disclosers are also less likely to be HIV positive or have unprotected sex with men.
In a March 2007 commentary in Annals of Epidemiology, researcher Chandra L. Ford writes, “Common perceptions about the DL [down-low] reflect social constructions of black sexuality as generally excessive, deviant, diseased, and predatory.” McLaurin agrees. “It pits Black gay men against Black women at a time when we need each other more than ever.”
To Be Young, Gay, and Black
Homophobia and racism are clearly driving the HIV epidemic, but exactly how is difficult to track – and they are even harder to fight. Member organizations of the NYSBGN take on both in their work with young people. “There’s a structure put in place to serve mainstream gay youth, but it doesn’t always meet the needs of African American LGBT youth,” McLaurin says. “We have stepped in in a big way, especially in upstate New York, creating a safe space [for African American LGBT youth] to be who they are, where they are, in both their sexuality and their race.”
Member organizations in Rochester and Buffalo provide mentoring with adults in small groups during prom season. “Prom night is fraught with anxiety, especially for LGBT and questioning youth, from the interpersonal – asking someone – to the financial, ‘What should I wear?’ and ‘Is it safe?’” he says. “We throw an alternative prom, but a lot of kids also want to go to their own high school prom. As much as it’s fun to create a safe space once a year, a kind of wonderland, what about the other 364 days? That night is a centerpiece around which we base the other work.”
“We Are Part of You”: Fighting Homophobia
“The Campaign for Black Gay Men’s Lives is about combating homophobia in our own community,” McLaurin explains. Research shows no difference in the homophobic attitudes toward gay men among white and Black populations, despite myths about the Black community being more homophobic. But Black gay men rarely have the power to set the terms of this discussion. “The African American community is reflexively uncomfortable around mainstream gay organizations attacking the latest homophobic rant from a Black minister. In some ways, it’s counter-productive,” McLaurin says. “That’s why it’s so important for indigenous organizations from within the Black community to raise the issue. We believe that the NYSBGN is uniquely poised to bring a message to the African American community about how homophobia increases HIV in the community.”
In August 2006, the Campaign for Black Gay Men’s Lives placed out-and-proud billboards, declaring Black gay men’s full membership in and love for the Black community, in New York City bus shelters and subways. Banners several stories high formed a backdrop to the outdoor press conference launching the campaign, with Congressional Representative Charles Rangel behind the microphone. “For Charlie Rangel to stand there in the heart of Harlem making the point that homophobia is harming the Black community – and Rangel is in touch with the faith community on the national level – people listen. It opened up a conversation that might not have happened if he hadn’t been there,” McLaurin says.