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Beyond National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day: Openness Every Day

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For National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, I want to recall how one man's insistence on openness and honesty about AIDS in the black community generated support and saved lives in Los Angeles and beyond.

The numbers make it clear: AIDS has devastated black America. Nearly half of all Americans living with HIV are black men and women -- 46 percent, three times their 14-percent share of the total population. By the end of 2008, AIDS had killed an estimated 240,627 black men and women.

Seventy percent of new HIV infections among blacks are among men. Of them, 73 percent are men who have sex with men (MSM), a clinical term for gay and bisexual men regardless of how they identify themselves. Young black men between 13 and 29 years old have more new HIV infection than any other age and racial group of MSM.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most black women (85 percent) who were newly infected with HIV in 2009 acquired the virus through heterosexual intercourse. Black women have 15 times the rate of HIV as white women, and three times as much as Latinas in this country.

HIV infection and AIDS -- more accurately, advanced, untreated HIV disease -- are strongly associated with poverty and living in concentrated urban poverty areas in the nation's major cities. Overall, 46 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanics live in these urban poverty areas, compared with just 10 percent of whites.

Despite the huge impact of HIV/AIDS on black America, the issue remains a touchy one in a community strongly influenced by the anti-gay preaching of conservative churches.

Fortunately for all black people -- and everyone else, too -- there have been open, proud gay men willing to speak out about AIDS in their communities.

Reverend Carl Bean was one of the first. In a 1995 interview he told me about what he saw when he began, in the '80s, traversing the city of Los Angeles by bus and subway to minister to black men with AIDS in the city's hospitals. "Even with the virus and T-cell counts," he said, "what I was hearing most was, 'Would you tell my family that I'm homosexual, or would you be here with me when I tell them?' The other big part of it was, 'Am I going to hell?'"

To make clear that Bean didn't believe that having a disease or homosexual orientation was grounds for eternal damnation, he recalled that he used to open his speeches to black church groups by saying, "Now, you all know who we are. You all know who's on the piano. You all know who's at the organ. Everybody here knows who's leading that song on Sunday that makes you happy." He added, "The room would always fall apart with laughter, and it would always take the tension out of the room and everyone could relax and they'd start to ask real questions."

In 1985, Bean formed the Minority AIDS Project as an outreach of his Unity Fellowship Church in South Central Los Angeles -- an area that in the early '90s would symbolize the country's festering racial wounds when riots broke out there after the acquittal of city police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.

"Being black and gay," said Bean, "and having been black and gay in the community, I also knew the only voice that was going to deal with the issue was going to be a black homosexual who had in fact had the experience of being very openly homosexual in the community."

Other black gay men told Bean it couldn't be done. He recalled, "Blacks said, 'No, you can't do it.'" As for Bean's idea that the Minority AIDS Project would be part of his church's ministry, he said the others' reaction was, "Jesus and gay and black and church? No!" Bean persisted. "I said, 'Yes, it will happen, because all of that is alive in me, and I'm real. I am black, I am Christian, I am gay, and I'm a part of the black church.'"

The other men were intransigent. Bean recalled them saying, "No way, honey. You'd better look for a piece of property up there on Santa Monica Boulevard," in the "gay" neighborhood. Bean held fast. "I said no. To be openly gay on Santa Monica, if you're black, is not openly gay. Until you're openly gay on Crenshaw, in South Central, you are not openly gay. That's how I feel about that. You're not really open until you're open in the 'hood."

When the Brotherhood Crusade, a project of the Black United Front of L.A., made the first-ever donation to Minority AIDS Project, Bean recalled the group's leader saying to him, "You know, my wife and I have gay friends. We go to their house for Christmas, and they never say they're homosexual, they never say they're lovers. Everyone knows they are."

The man added, "We'll gladly give you money, but you're the first homosexual black who's stood here in the community and said you're homosexual. Yes, we'll help you with this AIDS thing."