The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

AIDS, Me & Us: 25 Years Later

I had a lot on my mind this morning, as I saw the hubby and the kid out the door before preparing to head to work myself. Not the least of which was the scheduled Senate debate on whether or not to divorce my family and others like from the constitution. I couldn’t help considering the irony of that debate starting on the same day as the 25th anniversary of AIDS entering the public consciousness. I also couldn’t help thinking, on both counts, how my life (particularly as a gay black man) has turned out quite differently than the odds — and a lot of people and policy makers over the last 25 years — would have it.

But what struck me most was that today’s anti-gay grandstanding will probably serve to derail more lives as it distracts some communities and people from issues far more urgent than the threat the imagine my family poses to them and theirs.

I’ve said before somewhat jokingly that AIDS came out of the closet around the same time I did, but it’s true. I was 12 years old in the summer of 1981, when the first cases were mentioned in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. It was right around the end of the school year, and just a few months earlier I’d made a stunning declaration in the schoolyard one afternoon.

It was the same summer that I pinned down the feelings I’d always had about other boys, right about the time I got caught looking too long at one my classmates (a tall, blond, blue-eyed athlete) and proceeded to pay the price from then on out.

I flunked out of P.E. because I’d gotten tired of the taunts and the physical harassment in the locker room and refused to “dress out” for an entire semester. I’d also gotten tires of female classmates joining in and putting their hands on me in mockingly announced attempts to “turn my love around” (borrowing from a popular George Benson song at the time). I’d grown tired of the daily teasing and harassment from my classmates about everything from the way I talked (too “white,” to “proper,” to “girly”) to the way I walked to how much I read, etc.

So when a fat, bespectacled, black kid named Gerald started in on me after recess one afternoon, I got in his face. (In retrospect, he was probably picking on me in order to deflect attention from his own shortcomings in the schoolyard pecking order.) Standing behind me in line, waiting to go back inside, he kept needling me — to the amusement of those around us — until he finally just asked.

“So, are you a faggot or what?”

I got right in his face, looked him in the eye and said “So what if I am? What’s it to you?”

And with that, I was out. AIDS followed closely on my heels and in one way or another I’ve lived with it pretty much ever since. First it was classmates who immediately assumed I had it (though I wasn’t and wouldn’t be sexually active until college). Then in college I started losing friends to the disease. I threw myself into HIV/AIDS prevention and spent a lot of time in college doing educational presentations to various student groups. Later I moved to D.C. and spent several years working at a national AIDS organization.

All the while it’s seemed slightly miraculous to me that I’ve managed to avoid becoming infected myself and ended up having the life I have now. I remember the names of all the people I’ve lost personally, and I don’t think I was any smarter than them over the last 25 years. Maybe I just happened to come out at the right time, when news of the epidemic was breaking. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t become sexually active until after information became available on how the disease was spread, and because I was out and in the right place to have access to that information. But I definitely took my share of risks in the years between then and now. So maybe it’s just dumb luck.

But I worry about how today’s rhetoric will end up leading a lot more people, black people in particular, to be needlessly lost to the disease. This morning I walked by the television, glanced at what was on CNN and was reminded of just how effectively the radical right has used the same-sex marriage issue to court black voters when I saw a black guy speaking in defense of the FMA and spewing disinformation that he apparently honestly believed. (I knew it for sure when I came across a signed pic of Dubya and Laura during my last visit home for my dad’s funeral, thanking him for being a 2004 campaign contributor, tucked away on a bookshelf in the home of my otherwise life-long Democrat parents. I bet this is the issue that did it.)

The thing is, it’s that disinformation and the focus on same-sex marriage that stands to harm black communities, because it’s not same-sex marriage that’s endangering those communities. It’s the consequences of homophobia in those communities when it comes to HIV/AIDS.

From the epidemic’s start, black people have been disproportionately likely to test positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. African American men, women and children now account for 51 percent of new HIV diagnoses — up from 25 percent in 1985 — and 55 percent of people dying nationally of AIDS, although they make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.

The black community’s high poverty rate contributes to this disparity, because poor people have less access to medical information, preventive health care and treatment, researchers say. Higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases also contribute because a person with genital lesions, for example, is more likely to contract HIV and a person carrying another disease in addition to HIV is more likely to transmit the HIV.

But AIDS activists, researchers and people with HIV say a much bigger factor has been the ongoing reluctance by many African Americans to address the disease at all.

… The decades-long lag in identifying AIDS as a black health crisis results from both the disease’s initial label as a white epidemic and its association with homosexuality, which carries a heavy stigma in the black community. Influential black people and black secular and religious institutions have been slow to embrace black AIDS victims, demand government aid or speak out.

… Denial that AIDS is epidemic among blacks makes people reluctant to be tested and treated, or to talk openly with their sex partners about the disease. The stigma against gays in the black community, especially within churches, exacerbates this problem, experts say.

“People with AIDS have paid their tithes, and the pastor still beats them over the head,” said Sherry Thomas, coordinator at the Walker House, an Oakland facility for the chronically ill that is funded by the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco. “It is like if they keep them in a box, they feel safe.”

And now cynical politics of banning same-sex marriage has gotten black ministers like D.C.’s own Willie Wilson and Alfred Owens, as well as others like Atlanta’s mega-church minister Eddie Long, to continue gleefully beating gay and PWA congregants over the head, allegedly in the name of “love.” But it’s a love that exacts a price of silence if one wants to keep support and acceptance of one’s community.

Prince’s story, and the lack of response from his mom’s minister illustrates a reality that I think probably helped keep quiet any congregants who objected to Wilson’s rantings — and remember, chances are some of those church members were gay or lesbian themselves. Some of us will listen to a homophobic rant like that, whatever the cost to us emotionally or spiritually, and still come back to church the next Sunday; and even pay our tithes, play the organ, and sing in the choir.

It’s not a huge secret that the black family — and by extension the black church — as long served as a kind of refuge from the racism present in society at large; for a long time, the only refuge. The power of the church — along with a deeply ingrained literalist approach to scripture, along the lines of “God said, I believe it, that settles it” — in both the community and the family creates circumstances under which individuals are required to toe the line of what is accepted moral behavior by the majority, or at least appear to do so, if they want to keep their place within that refuge. Step out of line and you may find yourself “cast out from among your people”; set outside the walls of the fortified city to take your chances without the protection available within.

Want to stay safely within the walls of the refuge? Then Dwan Prince is an example. Step out of line and you could end up like him, “left for dead” with no one looking out for your interests and no one to protect you. Maybe not even your own family, if it means they’ll have to join you outside the walls of that refuge, where who knows what might happen. So, maybe you bear what you have to bear, and hear what you have to hear, rather than risk facing the rest of the world without a community to turn to when there’s trouble.

That’s what was in play when a number of closeted black gay men in Owen’s congregation felt they “had no choice” but to knuckle under to the ministers homo-hating pulpit rhetoric. That’s what happens on a daily basis. We “knuckle under.” We keep the truth of our lives “hidden under a bushel.” We pretend to be what we’re “supposed to be” if we want to keep the support and acceptance of our families and communities.

And because the truth of our lives must remain hidden, we lose our lives because what’s hidden can’t be addressed. The light of knowledge can’t shine through a bushel and we can’t or won’t access knowledge that might protect our lives and the lives of those we love if we could only come out of hiding.

Yet somehow 25 later I, as an out black gay man who loves his family and happens to be HIV negative, am not only the biggest threat facing America but also the biggest threat facing black America. Sure it’s a lie, but it’s one being cynically debated on the floor of the Senate today, and it’s one that too many people in black communities are buying while simultaneously reinforcing all of the above. And as a result of all that, more people in more communities — especially black communities — will likely die of this disease.

So, who’s the biggest threat to America in general and black America specifically? Someone like me? Or the purveyors of the lie that people like me are the real threat?

And will it take another 25 years to figure out the answer?

One Comment

  1. Wow, Mr. T dude. I was 9 in 1981 and I wouldn’t come out until I was 15, but then only to a few friends and not to the whole school. Even though kids today are coming out younger than that, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have faced a mature truth at 12, nor to be young gay and black. You’re a brave soul.

    If I’d gone to see Reagan’s body, I would have spit on it. I just can’t respect men like him, and like this Owens character. Quid pro quo, I guess, and they threw the first stone at me.

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