December 1 will mark another World AIDS Day observance and most of the education, advocacy, and advertisements in my community will focus on Black MSMs, and understandably so, since Memphis has some of the highest new transmission rates of HIV among Black MSM’s in the country. Shelby County’s (Memphis) rates of chlamydia and HIV diagnoses are more than double the average rates of the nation as a whole; rates of gonorrhea are more than triple by comparison. In 2012, African Americans accounted for more than 90% of reported cases of both AIDS and chlamydia in Shelby County. While this is important information for advocates to know when offering education and services to Black men and boys, I am disappointed. The focus on Black women and girls — particularly those in the South, some of whom are the lovers, spouses, and girlfriends of these same men — has not been prioritized by the mainstream HIV community, which is an epic cultural competency failure of the public health community.
Cherisse Scott, Founder & CEO SisterReach
In 2014, the CDC reported that among all African Americans diagnosed with HIV in 2014, an estimated 57% (11,201) were gay or bisexual men and of those gay and bisexual men, 39% (4,321) were young men aged 13 to 24. Exactly who do we believe bi-sexual and sexually fluid men are having sex with? This is beyond the stigmatizing ‘down-low brotha’ trope. For some, the appearance of a hetero relationship means job security and advancement, the ability to adopt or maintain custody of their children — all very real scenarios in the lives of gay people of color surviving in a patriarchal society.
This piece is an intentional centering of the lived realities of those who present as bi-sexual, sexually fluid, or sex positive. This is an indictment on an advocacy culture that ebbs and flows because of data without humanizing the people, their lives or geographical location as a lens to inform that data. Lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) for both adults and young people has caused HIV to be an epidemic for the Black community – still. In the Bible Belt South, we talk about fornication and aren’t willing to talk about sex. We have HIV programs in our churches and no true acceptance of gay people. Conservative legislators craft policies to remedy behavior instead of addressing the systemic conditions of their vulnerable constituents. In Tennessee, there is no CSE – by law – and having HIV could be a criminal offense if thought (not even proven) to have intentionally transmitted the virus to an unknowing partner.
In March 2015, my organization, SisterReach, released our report: Our Voices & Experiences Matter: The Need for Comprehensive Sex Education Among Young People of Color in the South as an attempt to expose the fact that conservative legislation and lack of CSE has failed youth of color and their parents in the South. The southern culture of prohibiting access to anything it deems sinful has perpetuated generational ignorance around sex and sexuality, as well as hindered our ability to have open and affirming conversations about sexual health as Black people living in the South, though we KNOW we’re dying. Black women are the least medically cared for in the grander scheme of public health, yet many of us are the head of our households and the sustainability of our families and communities rests on our shoulders. HIV isn’t a Black MSM problem. It’s part of a much larger Black community public health epidemic, and until we re-center Black women and girls in this siloed narrative, our communities will continue to die.
Source:Shelby County Health Department Epidemiology Program. HIV Disease and STD Annual Surveillance Summary. Rep. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.