Thinking Diversity in HIV Prevention

I don’t think there is a whole lot more that I can say about Ferguson that hasn’t been articulated before. I do, however, think that the disregard for black lives extends to another arena: HIV prevention and treatment. A 2010 study from the CDC yielded shocking results. Among men who have sex with men (MSM), black men accounted for 39% of all new infections, and those ages 13-24 accounted for a particularly high percentage of the new cases. In 2011, the CDC launched a “Testing Makes Us Stronger” campaign that I interviewed a then-director about. Despite progress at the federal level, locally and statewide, there has been a disregard for more diversity in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and education.

For now, I will not go into the complex factors that contribute to young black men and Latino counterparts bearing the brunt of the epidemic. (That is for another day.) But it is clear that the higher rates of poverty within these communities, which is particularly concentrated in the southern United States, means less access to testing, less access to treatment, and poorer sexual health education. In cities like Washington D.C., New York City, or Philadelphia, local efforts to lower these infection rates are vigorous, led in large part by targeted non-profit efforts focused on sexual empowerment.

The Gay And Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI) in Philadelphia inspired me when I was living in the city. Always sex positive, always driven by individual narratives, it’s tried to build open dialogues and pull back some negatives of sexual stigma and shame that run rampant amongst all men. But these organizations are themselves in the minority: outliers that often receive less funding then the traditional big-gun organizations. And so, I want to try and harness the successes and challenges of this activism, through interviews and videos, to provide organizational and educational models that can work in other communities, especially ones that are less friendly to this brand of activism.

Our Viral Lives can succeed only if a diverse history and understanding of challenges related to HIV/AIDS are presented. If this is a white, middle class only project, it’ll assume the same racial and economic hierarchies that have extended and expanded this crisis to new communities. If we continue to assume our current prevention and treatment efforts work, then we are effectively saving black and brown lives, histories, and futures matter less. This kind of exclusion is devastating when, as the CDC has just reported, only 13% of men ages 18-24 who have HIV have the virus fully suppressed, or what is referred to in clinical terms as being HIV-undetectable. This means HIV will continue to explode in these populations, in particular.

As someone who has been deeply inspired and challenged by the legacies of Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and other men of color who died from an AIDS-related complication, I’m tired of the white-only face of AIDS activism that seems to dominate today. As someone who has had multiple sexual partners who belong to these higher risk groups, I’ve become acutely aware of the racism that has seeped into MSM culture that no doubt fuels stigma and shame over sexuality. But I’m also optimistic and know that we can do better because there are so many inspiring activists, like this group of men who talk about there experiences on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

Are you committed to stopping the spread of HIV? Then you’re also committed to the racial and economic discrimination that is fueling these alarming infection and treatment numbers. We have to recognize the work of incredible young activists and organizations that are challenging conventional wisdom. We have to recognize how often race, socioeconomic status, or larger institutional factors can hide themselves under this nebulous term “public health.” And we have to question our personal privileges, making sure that our fuck buddies, lovers, and partners’ histories, lives and futures are as valued in the queer communities we belong to as our own white histories, lives and futures are valued.

This movement is failing some of those who need us most. But I’m confident there is a way to step up and work together. Do not hesitate to reach out with any suggestions you might have or if you have a story you want to share. Our Viral Lives is driven by all of our everyday struggles.

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