World AIDS Day and my community’s ongoing struggle

December 10, 2014 at 10:54 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

Dec. 1 was World AIDS Day!

President Obama conveyed hopeful remarks on World AIDS Day at George Washington University (GWU) in D.C. by vowing to continue efforts to combat the disease.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been to achieving the extraordinary: an AIDS-free generation,” Obama stated to the GWU audience. “But we’ve got to keep fighting, all of us. Governments, businesses, foundations, community groups, and individuals like you.”

In 2012, the United Nations stated that it’s possible to eradicate the disease by 2015 — in part, of course, by preventing new infections.

But, much of the focus was, and still is, on developing countries, and not on hot spots like the nation’s capital, which is one of the hardest hit areas battling the epidemic

In 2006 at the “Women and Response to AIDS” panel at the conference, Sheila Johnson, founder of the Crump-Johnson Foundation in Washington D.C., pointed out that another at-risk population in the African-American community is teenage girls.

Seventeen percent of the U.S. teen population is African American, with 70 percent of black teens testing HIV-positive. One in 10 African-American teenage girls test HIV-positive in the nation’s capital, the highest percentage in the country among this age group.

When asked why such a high percentage test positive, Johnson said, “As long as girls see themselves as glorified sex objects in hip-hop videos, HIV/AIDS will increase within this population.” In 2014 little has changed within this demographic group.

And sadly, with African Americans at younger and younger ages being infected with the AIDS virus, the life expectancy rate of African Americans will decline. Soon we will no longer expect today’s young African-Americans to become the elders of the community.

With the South’s propensity to avoid speaking about uncomfortable subjects unfortunately the South has evolved into one of HIV/AIDS hot spots in the country.

Each year, fewer and fewer public events are being held to bring public attention that the epidemic is still in our midst. This year, PBS’s “Frontline” didn’t run its special “ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America.” 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 American comprise of now nearly 13 percent of the U.S. population, we tragically account 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. Good news is that HIV infections among African American women only in Massachusetts has decreased for the first time. And this decline in numbers 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, 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 with the epidemic in the world. The epidemic is heavily concentrated in urban enclaves like Detroit, New York, Newark, Washington, D.C and the Deep South.

There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of the epidemic in the African American community—racism, poverty, health care disparity, 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.

Although famous HIV-positive heterosexual African Americans, like tennis great Arthur Ashe, news anchorman Max Robinson, and rapper Eazy-E 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.

But the truth is this: while over 600,000 African Americans are now living with HIV, and as many 30,000 newly infected each year, there is still within the black community at least one in five living with HIV and unaware of their infection; and, they are disproportionately heterosexuals.

While the number of cases across the globe will continue to decline and possibly eradicate the disease as the U.N hopefully predicts, we as African Americans we’ll not protect ourselves from this epidemic as long as we continue to think of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease.

Rev. Irene MonroeRev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Rev. Monroe can also be heard every Monday on Boston Public Radio, WGBH 89.7. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies.

Opinions expressed in the guest editorials are solely those of the author.

AIDS Still Thought of As A Gay Disease In Black America

December 3, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

To date, more than 230, 000 African Americans have died of AIDS.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 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 inception of World AIDS Day began, many would say, when the world was in need of prayer. But that was all we had at the time.

In 1988, the World Health Organization designated Dec. 1 as the day to pause and reflect on the magnitude of the devastating effect this disease was having on domestic and global communities.

Because there is still neither a vaccine nor a cure, a prayer is sometimes all a person thinks he or she has in the face of an epidemic that shows no sign of abating.

But in 2010 we can do more than just pray now. We can act!

“ If we don’t work together to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in our community, then who will? Let’s take matters into our own hands and stop the spread of the epidemic. It is a new day,” Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman, NAACP National Board of Directors, wrote in an open letter in November to the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research two-day symposium “The Forgotten Epidemic: HIV/AIDS Crisis in Black America.”

The symposium examined the increasingly critical HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black America. This symposium was the first in what will be a series of meetings, exploring how and why HIV/AIDS has become an overwhelmingly Black disease in the United States.

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, 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 with the epidemic in the world. And the epidemic is heavily concentrated in urban enclaves like Detroit, New York, Newark, Washington, D.C and the Deep South.

There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of the epidemic in the African American community- racism, poverty, health care disparity, 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, in my opinion, is how data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is read and reported on the epidemic that perpetuates the confusion.

For example, “MSM,” is the CDC clinical control-coined acronym for “men who have sex with men,” but it should not be used to depict openly gay or bisexual men individually or collectively. And the controversial term “Down Low” (DL) wrongly accusing black MSMs for spreading the virus throughout the African American heterosexual community should not be used to depict openly gay or bisexual men individually or collectively.

But many conflate the subgroups to be a synonym for “MSMs.” 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.” And with more than 18,000 people with AIDS still dying each year in the U.S. where gay, bisexual and MSM represent the majority of persons who have died, the homophobia stays in place.

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.

Although awareness of HIV/AIDS in anemic throughout communities of the African diaspora, it is gay, bisexual and MSM who are more easily identified with having the virus because they have been and are continually tracked in CDC studies; thus, there is more data on these groups.

But the truth is this: while nearly 600,000 African Americans are living with HIV, and as many 30,000 newly infected each year, there is still within the black community one in five living with HIV and unaware of their infection; and, they are disproportionately heterosexuals.

As long as we continue to think of HIV/AIDS as a gay disease, we’ll not protect ourselves from this epidemic.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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