On Tuesday, July 13, President Barack Obama presented the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS) for the United States.
According to his administration, the NHAS is a concise plan for moving the country forward in the fight against HIV and AIDS with three primary goals: Reducing the incidence of HIV; increasing access to care as well as optimizing health outcomes; and reducing HIV-related health disparities.
The NHAS is a good first start for America. What I appreciate about the strategy is its unprecedented existence. No other administration has created a White House Office of National HIV/AIDS Policy, or has had so many progressive people in its midst. (The NHAS is now available to the public: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/NHAS.pdf).
Theoretically, this is a history-making initiative. However, upon close review, NHAS content features elements that are not necessarily signs of innovation or a framework shift, in terms of how HIV services may roll out or be resourced. It appears that the strong [White] gay identity bias (to be explained in more detail later) will continue to skew attempts at culturally diversifying how HIV services are framed, funded and prioritized.
Although diverse groups in America are impacted by HIV/AIDS, Blacks, by a large percentage, are more impacted than all other groups in the country. Yet, deciphering this could be a challenge as presented in this NHAS excerpt: “While anyone can become infected with HIV, some Americans are at greater risk than others. This includes gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities, Black men and women, Latinos and Latinas, people struggling with addiction, including injection drug users, and people in geographic hot spots, including the United States South and Northeast, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. By focusing our efforts in communities where HIV is concentrated, we can have the biggest impact in lowering all communities’ collective risk of acquiring HIV.”
This NHAS passage also abstracts the disproportionate depth of HIV in Black communities by bundling everyone as “Communities where HIV is concentrated.” This passage muddles the fact that, by leaps and bounds, Black men, specifically, are the most HIV-impacted group in the United States.
Yet, what is not abstract is how much the NHSA affirms gay identity, despite the fact many homosexual and bisexual men of color don’t identify with being gay. Over the last 30 years, this gay identity bias and barrier has been a contributing factor to reason why the diverse population of Black men at HIV sexual risk do not seek HIV services nor do they internalize the prevention messages.
While Obama’s White House is committing resources and efforts to initiatives like HIV/AIDS and healthcare, the explicit context of race and culture continues to be overlooked.
The first HIV/AIDS services paradigm in America was designed by White gay men, and ultimately was very effective for that community. Despite the relative success of this community at saving itself from HIV/AIDS, a once frequently deadly disease, the disease has subsequently gotten Blacker and Blacker. To date, there are no published examples of similar HIV success among African Americans. Even after three decades.
Gay identified men–Black and White –have controlled and directed this epidemic, and blamed its failure to address the needs of Blacks as “homophobia.”
The organization identified as the Black AIDS Institute once featured an article stating, “Homophobia Causes AIDS (http://www.blackaids.org/ShowArticle.aspx?articletype=NEWS&articleid=168…).” Yet, if this was true, given the still very present existence of the rabidly anti-homosexual White right-wing-Pat Roberson, Rush Limbaugh, the legacy of Jerry Falwell and most Republicans–the White gay community should still have an HIV problem-equal to, if not similar, to African Americans. But they don’t.
Frequently, while Black gay identity and “pride” (in being gay identified) is often encouraged within the Black HIV industry, education about the symptoms of social injustice toward Black communities and self-concept, cultural affirmation, repair and restoration are very rarely included as HIV problem-solving strategies.
The White gay community understood one thing: In order to eradicate the numbers of new HIV cases, they had to empower their community, while at the same time address the self-esteem damage done by homophobia, discrimination, hatred and oppression. Their primary HIV prevention strategy was (because, ultimately, most finally knew how HIV was transmitted) to publicly and actively resist social injustice toward their community, and affirm [White] gay identity. As a result, it has been comparatively very successful at managing HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately and concurrently, the White gay community has had little interest in resisting [White] racism within its community or society as a whole, just homophobia. And the Black gay-identifying movement and approach has taken on that same paradigm, instead of using an approach directly relevant to Black culture, history, circumstance, problem-solving, diversity, process and under-engagement of relevant Black issues.
“Gay” acceptance is often more important than issues directly relevant to diverse Black life, culture, history and healing. As a result, many Black gay identified HIV leaders are ill-equipped to address Black community issues, and to counter the impact of internalized racism, institutionalized racism, Black male or female trauma and White biases that sometimes lead to risk-taking behaviors.
Essentially, identity politics have superseded developing capacity to effectively engage diverse Black subgroups and communities facing disproportionate HIV threats. The NHAS, while strong on affirming gay identity, fails to affirm Black specific culture, diversity and relevance.
The gay paradigm creates little to no encouragement for same-gender loving (SGL) and bisexual African American healing and cultural affirmation. Being limited to “gay” has created HIV-issue disenchantment among Black men, who have sex with men (MSM). As a result, Black homosexual subgroups have emerged in an attempt to connect more with the rhythms of Black life and culture.
Many Black homosexual and bisexual males do not have an affinity with gay identity and culture, seeing it as White or culturally unrelated. There are “homo-thugs,” men on the “down-low,” as well as men who identify as same-gender-loving (SGL) or bisexual. If more space was created for homosexual and bisexual Black males to be fluid and “Black,” more would likely self-identify.
In the late 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that the term or label “gay” was a barrier to getting Black and Latino men to identify as men who had sex with men, and disclose HIV risk factors. As a result, the now widely used term MSM, or men-who-have-sex with men was derived. Initially, White gays and Black homosexuals who internalized the gay politic balked at the term, claiming it was homophobic. The fact of the matter was the term MSM was more neutral in terms of identity, inclusive and culturally responsive to the diverse ways of being among homosexual and bisexual Black men.
A footnote excerpt from the NHAS states: “Throughout this document we use the terms “gay and bisexual men” and “gay men” interchangeably, and we intend these terms to be inclusive of all men who have sex with men (MSM); even those who do not identify as gay or bisexual.” In other words, even if you are not gay, or don’t identify as gay, or don’t want to, we are referring to all homosexual and bisexual men as gay regardless. This is not helpful to African Americans and is an example of an institutionally racist barrier to life and ways of being very present within Black communities.
Sure, many of us are used to simply calling all homosexuals gay. In the Black community this is not the result of an identify poll taken in the community, but because SGL Black people have rarely been rationally engaged in a Black community context. While the powerful White gay community vigilantly profiles its gay identity politics and ideas, this does not necessarily represent all homosexual and bisexual Black people.
Without these considerations or an examination of the relationship cultural barriers have to HIV risks among Black women and men, the NHAS will likely have limited impact on addressing the Black HIV landscape. Consequently, it may be discreetly shelved by many Black organizations.
While the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States does represent a potentially progressive step forward, its lack of specific strategies for African Americans has resulted in some response. National organizations are in the process of generating recommendations to the President to use as an addendum to the historic NHAS. All African Americans interested in getting involved or contributing somehow to this effort, are earnestly invited to do so. Call The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) at (800) 992-6531 or the Black Men’s Xchange National at (888) 472-2837.
Cleo Manago is the CEO of the AmASSI Center. AmASSI is a non-profit, community based health, wellness and cultural affirmation center that provides preventive health for HIV/AIDS, STDs, cancer, diabetes, etc., psychological and therapeutic assistance, as well as math and literacy tutoring, skills building opportunities and empowerment.
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