AIDS Cluster Raises Concerns About Resurgence

Tina Susman, Newsday.com (NY), Aug. 18

Charlotte, N.C.—It was a scientific discovery that no scientist wanted to make, an outbreak one likened to a looming genocide of young, black men.

In November 2002, North Carolina health officials began a new form of blood testing designed to catch HIV infection far sooner than standard screening, which often doesn’t detect the virus for two or three months after it enters the body. They quickly found five HIV cases in people with infections so fresh they had tested negative in conventional screenings.

Surprisingly, two were black college students from the same small town, yet they didn’t know each other.

“That got us to thinking there might be a problem,” said Dr. Peter Leone, an AIDS researcher with the state Department of Health.

He and others began reviewing known HIV cases in North Carolina college men dating back to 2000. They were alarmed at what they found. In 2000, the number infected with HIV was six. In 2001, it was 19. By 2002 the number was 29. By the end of 2003, it had jumped to 84, and 73 of them—88 percent—were black.

Interviews with the students uncovered a total of 119 HIV cases once their sexual contacts were added in, and indicated a network of sexual activity spanning two dozen colleges in six states and the District of Columbia.

“There has never been a description of a cluster of HIV cases among college students like this, ever,” said Leone, who called the trend a “potential genocidal issue” affecting young black men.

“It’s not a good foretelling of where HIV is moving,” he said. “This is the next wave.”

The numbers are indicative of the racial disparity involving the spread of AIDS in the United States, where blacks comprise 12 percent of the population but accounted for 54 percent of new HIV cases in 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When new cases are concentrated in such a young population, as in North Carolina’s college students, researchers say the numbers are particularly ominous because of the potential threat to the best and the brightest of America’s young black men.

No single state’s problem

“In Africa it has really wiped out a generation of educated young people,” said Dr. David Jolly, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Education at North Carolina Central University in Raleigh, one of 11 Historically Black Colleges and Universities—a consortium of colleges founded to educate African-Americans—in the state. Jolly is also director of the counseling center at NCCU. “I don’t know if that’s where we’re headed here, but I do think that this is not a North Carolina phenomenon. If it’s happening here, it’s probably happening in other states as well.”

Researchers, educators and students are trying to determine what led to the spike and how to stop it, an effort that is forcing them to confront issues such as homosexuality and bisexuality that are often ignored or hushed up in the black community. In addition, it is highlighting some of the shortfalls of AIDS education programs, which blacks say for too long have presented the disease as one of older gay, white men.

“I ask people, ‘How do you get AIDS,’ and they say, ‘Oh, by being gay,’” said DeMishea Charleston, 20, a student at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., who teaches fellow students about HIV and AIDS. She is among 32 so-called peer educators at the school, which is in the system of historically black colleges.

Complexity of coming out

And few black college men feel comfortable admitting to being gay or bisexual, particularly in the conservative South, where Charleston said the church plays a prominent role in most African-Americans’ lives.

“In the black community, you just don’t come out and say things like that, things that you know the church is down on, that you know are going to be detrimental to your position in the community,” said Charleston, herself deeply religious. In addition, counselors say coming out is more difficult for black men in a society where they already are marginalized for the color of their skin.

“I would surmise that if you were black, white, yellow, brown, purple, or pink with red dots, if you are in fact not sure of your orientation that’s not something you’re going to rush out and announce to the world, but particularly if you happen to be a minority kid,” said Phyllis Gray of the state Health Department, who has been working to enhance HIV education among blacks.

In fact, 67 of the 73 infected black men told researchers they had sex with other men, but they did not consider themselves gay and did not think they were at risk of contracting HIV. Twenty-seven of those men said they also had sex with women, raising fears that the spike in HIV-positive black college men will spread to young black women.

Not everyone’s convinced

The denial of one’s homosexuality or bisexuality contributes to the spread of HIV in a number of ways. Those in denial are less likely to prepare themselves for a sexual encounter with another man by carrying condoms when they go to clubs or parties where gay men congregate, Leone said. If they have wives or girlfriends, they are less likely to use condoms for fear of arousing their female partner’s suspicions. Additionally, if they consider AIDS a gay disease but don’t call themselves gay, they convince themselves that they are immune to it regardless of how they behave. Teaching AIDS prevention is also hampered when men are in denial.

“If they did identify themselves as gay and if they belonged to organizations for gay men, you could do HIV education for them through those organizations,” said Jolly. “But if they don’t associate with gay organizations, it’s harder to reach them.”

Schools like Johnson C. Smith and North Carolina Central have beefed up their peer education programs in the wake of the findings. Among other things, they are increasing the number of student educators and counselors and planning free HIV testing for students. In addition, incoming freshmen who start classes Aug. 23 are being given hour-long classes dubbed HIV 101 that provide instruction in putting on condoms, and that debunk misconceptions about AIDS: that it can be spread by kissing, that you can tell by looking at someone if they are HIV-positive, that AIDS is no longer a lethal disease thanks to new drugs.

In North Carolina, where policy in public schools is to teach abstinence-only in place of sex education, student educators say such courses are crucial. “They don’t really know what HIV is or how it’s transmitted,” said Elisha Washington, 20, a peer educator at Johnson C. Smith, who recalls explaining to one freshmen class how rapidly the virus could spread. “Their reaction was ‘no way, that can’t happen.’”

One of the most effective ways to reach students is by having HIV-infected students speak to them, something difficult to do given the stigma of not only being a gay black man, but a gay black man with HIV.

“Why would any reasonably rational, thinking individual want to come out and talk about something they are going through when society doesn’t foster an environment that would encourage him to do so?” said Jonathan Perry, 27, a Johnson C. Smith senior who nevertheless disclosed in 2001 that he is gay and HIV-positive.

Perry said he was prompted to come out during a school discussion on AIDS, because rumors had spread that he had the disease. Perry wanted to make clear even though he carried the virus, he was not dying of AIDS.

While Perry said he has not been shunned by fellow students, he acknowledges that his own mother has been reluctant to accept him as either gay or HIV-positive. In addition, he and others acknowledge that so far, no other gay, HIV-positive college students in the state have joined him in going public.

At schools in the HBCU network, where women students far outnumber men, the HIV statistics have complicated male-female relationships. With so many of the infected men describing themselves as straight even while having sex with other men—a practice known as being on the down low—female students admit to a new wariness.

“You don’t know if they’re gay or straight,” said Washingon. Carleston described herself as far more reluctant to date, and often skeptical and stand-offish when approached by male students.

One positive outcome of the frightening findings has been to open up discussion about HIV, AIDS, and sexual practices among young blacks, counselors and researchers say. North Carolina remains the only state to have studied AIDS among college students, though, raising concerns that the trend is spreading unchecked elsewhere.

The Black Slate: Rethinking Down Low Politics

Lester Kenyatta Spence, Africana, Aug. 17

J.L. King has been making the rounds touting his book on the DL lifestyle. The “DL” lifestyle, for those brothers and sisters with their heads in the sand, is a lifestyle of lies, deceit and deception. A lifestyle in which supposedly heterosexual men engage in homosexual sex without protection and without informing their heterosexual partners. The end result is more than hurt feelings. The end result for black women can be HIV/AIDS. JL is best known as the DL poster boy—a formerly married brother who was caught having sex with one of his boys. After his divorce, rather than coming out and living as a bisexual or homosexual man, he continued to “act” as if he were heterosexual, all the while continuing to see other men discretely. According to him, the phenomenon is rampant and constitutes a severe crisis in African American communities.

J.L. is not the only one telling this story unfortunately. I’ve read stories in every major venue about this dynamic. The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon.com, Time, Newsweek, Essence, you name it. From the way they tell it, sisters (married or single) should run some type of check on their men to make sure they aren’t closeted bisexuals. I remember talking about this on a black email list I belong to, and the sisters were up in arms, wondering if they had to do checkups on every man they dated or were even thinking about dating.

Let’s be clear. Because of the sexual politics of America, much less of the black community, it is very difficult to be anything other than straight-laced, heterosexual and black. And because of that weight, there are indeed a number of people who are closeted for fear of losing their loved ones, losing their social connections, losing their jobs, and even in some cases losing their lives. This is a serious matter that should be discussed in churches, in schools, in homes, and in businesses, as well as in organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League.

But I’ve got questions. Two mainly.

Where the hell are the numbers? Where the hell is the theory?

You see, I think the DL phenomenon is mired in the myth of black pathology. The myth that our central problem as a people comes not from poverty or the lack of government intervention but from us. From our lack of standards. From our lack of morals. From our lack of command of the English language. From our inability to be quiet during movies. From our inability to control our pound-cake stealing urges.

From the inability of black men to be faithful to their wives and keep from sticking themselves into anything that walks.

Bill Cosby, Henry Louis Gates and a whole host of other prominent and intelligent brothers and sisters have bought into this to one degree or another. Some of us regular folks have too…and I see it in the discussion around this issue. The central problem is at least two fold. Because this column is ostensibly about domestic politics, I’ll deal with the political ramifications first.

As HIV/AIDS is a public health crisis, it requires funding from federal, state, and local entities. Just as we don’t expect Ford Motor Co. to fund NASA, we should not expect private sources to combat a disease as problematic as HIV/AIDS. And as the current administration has acknowledged the severity of the crisis both at home and abroad, we would expect funding for HIV/AIDS to increase.

We’d be wrong. Funding for HIV/AIDS in most major cities has been cut severely. Here in Saint Louis for example, the current administration cut funding by 13.5%. In fact, of the largest 50 cities, only 11 saw their funding increase. Now given how hard HIV/AIDS affects our communities specifically, we can say with little to no hype at all that black people will die as a result of these cuts. They won’t just get a little bit sicker. They won’t just be out of work a little bit longer. They will die. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Wait. It gets worse. It has been accepted as a given that using condoms not only helps prevent pregnancy, but are highly effective in preventing the spread of diseases (including HIV/AIDS). The current administration is considering cutting CDC funds of all HIV programs that do not contain “anti-condom propaganda” noting that condoms are not effective in preventing disease. Yep. To continue to get money to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS you’ve got to actually say that condoms are bad for you.

Now I’ve mentioned two ways in which the allocation of government resources (or in this case, the decreased allocation) can arguably result in black suffering. But what if we focus instead on black behavior? If we believe instead that the increased spread of HIV/AIDS is due to the activities of black men with shady sexual habits? Where exactly does that lead us? Our dialogue about the DL phenomenon causes suspicion, hatred, and violence. When instead we could be engaging in earnest dialogue about how we can increase the rate of funding, about how we can get the administration to properly disseminate information about HIV/AIDS transmission. And finally, we can be having a discussion about how we can create a loving culture where we can be open and honest about who and how we love.

Now I play a columnist on TV . . . but I’m also a social scientist. The second problem with this phenomenon is that it appears to be almost purely a media-driven phenomenon. We have absolutely no idea about how many men in general are living dual lives . . . much less how many black men are doing it. Furthermore, we have absolutely no idea about how many of these men are indeed carriers of HIV/AIDS, because we have absolutely no idea about their sexual practices. Do they engage in safe sex when they have encounters? Do their partners engage in safe sex? All of our stories are based on the anecdote.

Some might say that there is something mildly funny about hearing about a woman who followed her husband to a joint only to catch him with Steve rather than with Eve.

Very funny.

Ha.

Ha.

But this ain’t no joke. I believe strongly that our understanding of HIV/AIDS should not be based on a survey sample of people hanging out at the club. It should not be based on some brother looking to get paid off of his random and trifling stories. It should be based on a combination of research designed to measure the routes (and roots) of HIV/AIDS transmission, and political mobilization designed to get the resources to both study the dynamic and to solve (or at least stem) the problem. The DL phenomenon should take a back seat to funding HIV/AIDS initiatives in our cities. Let’s wake up from our fear induced haze and start dealing with it. Leave the DL discussion for Oprah.

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