February 7th is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It’s the one day has been set aside to honor and commemorate those who are infected and affected with HIV. In case you were wondering, HIV is still very much here! And Black folks continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Blacks/African Americans account for a higher proportion of new HIV diagnoses, those living with HIV, and those ever diagnosed with AIDS, compared to other races/ethnicities. In 2015, African Americans accounted for 45% of HIV diagnoses, though they comprise 12% of the US population.
Why is that?
Black people have a long and complex history when it comes to sexuality. What happened on that auction block centuries ago is still unfinished business for Black people today. Slavery ripped into the hearts and soul of African folk, altering their culture, their families, and most intimately, their sexuality. It would be naïve to think that time has healed those wounds, or to believe that they are no longer relevant to the sexual experience of Black people today. The effects of slavery left Black men and women feeling ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality. They were left to negotiate the burden of years of sexual humiliation and degradations. With limited avenues for discovering that the pain, ambivalence, and/or shame they felt from the shame of this shared experience of exploitation, these experiences became the catalyst for the negative intergenerational patterns, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes regarding sexuality within the Black community. This degradation contributed to the modern conceptual framing of sexuality. The psycho-sexual trauma of slavery is embedded in our black people’s collective memory creating stigma, shame and negative feelings associated with sexuality. In addition to this disjointed relationship with our sexuality, there are other factors and social determinants that put us at risk. In order to be effective in reaching the Black community with HIV education and prevention efforts, we first must understand what’s lacking from existing HIV messaging.
What’s lacking from existing HIV messages?
Lacking Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
As a society we are oversexualized and undereducated. True, barrier free, comprehensive sexuality education is missing from our families, schools, religious organizations, just about everywhere. So unfortunately, the education we receive about sexuality is oftentimes inconsistent, misleading, inaccurate and confusing. On one end we have heavy-value laden, judgmental, bias condemnation messages that can lead someone to engage in risky behaviors. On the other, we have hypersexualized messaging in music, reality T.V., social media and host of mediums that can often lead to or persuade someone to engage in unhealthy, risky behaviors. Where’s the healthy balance? Due to the absence of comprehensive sexuality related programs, we must work tirelessly to counter the current messaging of categories to focusing solely on behaviors. We must also reframe messages into a sex positive messages that address all the dimension of sexuality. If we put more focus on messaging that is medically accurate, relevant, demonstrates cultural humility, incorporates skills building and other social determinants of HIV, and less on “categories” we will see a reduction in the number of Black people becoming infected with HIV.
Lacking conversation. Sex is one of those things we all like to do but no one likes to talk about. But in a day and age where HIV is still deadly, gonorrhea has resistant strains, celebrity sex tapes are the norm, sex sells everything, and casual sex is glamorized, we cannot afford to not have the conversations about sex. The dangers of not talking about sexuality is that it puts people at risk. Sex is a natural part of life. It’s who we are! It encompasses every dimension of our lives. The urge and desire to have sex does not go away. So, then why don’t we talk about sex? Shame, secrecy and stigma continues to be one of the major reason Black people do not talk about sex, not to mention HIV! In many Black households, sex is just one of those things that we know happens but rarely is it ever talked about. It’s one of those things that’s swept under the “intergeneration rug.” These unspoken intergeneration patterns passed down from “Big Momma and them,” keep us from being able to have open and honest conversations about sexuality. Growing up we’re often told, “what happens in this house stays in this house.” While I appreciate the sentiment behind the thought, it inadvertently contributes to the risks for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections because people don’t have the knowledge to talk about sexuality and the skills to keep themselves safer. Regardless to whether the conversation is awkward or not, these conversations must take place. We talk about religion, war, politics, or the state of the economy but yet we won’t talk about healthy sexuality; something that can save or end our life!
Lacking Focus. Existing messaging about HIV tends to focus on categories of people rather than sex behaviors. This type of misleading messaging affords privilege that doesn’t truly exist. It leads people to believe that they are not at risk because they are in a privilege group, i.e. heterosexual, lesbian, transmen. Current branding dictates that only those at risk for acquiring HIV are young men who have sex with men, particularly those of color, “addicts,” gay-white men. Black women get thrown into the mix, only because they must have gotten HIV from an “addict” or a man on the “down low.” The challenge that I have with this categorization of HIV is that many folks feel that if they don’t fit into those categories; which are based on gender identity, sexual orientation and/or identity. This gross assumption is that if I do not fall within either of those categories, then I am safe for getting HIV. Wrong! The reality is that ANYONE who has anal, oral, or vaginal sex or any combination thereof is at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. HIV risk is not about gender identity, sexual orientation and/or identity. It’s about engaging in unprotected sexual behaviors and/or sharing unclean needles…any needle (piecing, tattooing, etc.) with an infected person! THIS is the message that we must be conveying not the misleading messaging.
Lacking funding. Lack of focus and funding goes hand and hand. Given the current message around HIV risk, funding priorities tend to focus on those identified categories, which creates a lack of focus and funding for other categories. And because there is a lack of funding, several things happen: 1) people in these categories are forgotten. Programs and services tend to focus on categories that offer funding. As a result, programs and services to the forgotten category become limited or non-existent. This creates more burden of HIV in the forgotten categories because the mindset become, “if I’m not at risk, then I do not need to practice safer sex.” 2) people in these categories tend to believe that they are not at risk because there isn’t a focus on them, thus perpetuating the myth that HIV is no longer serious or a threat, and 3) those of us who know differently are left scrambling to find funding for prevention, education, and treatment programs to provide services for the forgotten categories.
Lacking involvement from faith communities. There is a critical need for sexuality education among faith communities. However, because of negative religious and moral attitudes about behaviors associated with sexuality, many Black churches are reluctant to address concerns regarding sexuality. Unfortunately, this antiquated ideology helps to contribute to engaging in behaviors that put individuals at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. It is imperative that black churches begin to view HIV/AIDS and STIs as not only a moral issue but a public health epidemic that is destroying communities; because although the individual may be infected, the community is affected. Historically faith organizations have been the foundation of the community, a vehicle for dissemination, and a conduit for providing social services for their congregants and the surrounding community. Faith organizations are a place that people trust and turn to in their time of need, for healing, and for support. Given the fact that faith, spirituality, and religious beliefs are such an important aspect of many people’s lives, it is extremely important to provide the faith leaders with the knowledge, skills, and tools needed to make their organizations a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental. Black church leaders and faith based organizations must become agents of change and move from being barriers to healthy sexuality education to facilitating and leading prevention efforts.
While, Black National HIV Awareness Day is great and educating Black people on this day is important too, Black people need to be included in the conversation more than one day a year! Because there are 364 days a year that we are lacking support, suffering in silence and dying with stigma. So perhaps instead of just focusing on us one day a year with all the hype and dog and pony show, consider make all black lives apart of the daily HIV prevention education, treatment and care efforts and responding with messaging that’s effective! Here are some action steps to increasing HIV awareness and prevention messaging within the Black community: 1) Partner with an agency like The Center to host an HIV awareness event at your faith organization, 2) Lobby for more funding for HIV prevention and education, 3) Donate to an HIV community organization, 4) Partner with and organization, such as The Center, to create seminar or training for your organization, and 5) end the silence and address the stigma. If we do this, we will begin to see a reduction in the number of lives claimed by HIV. Our lives matter…well at least to me anyway!