According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new HIV infection rates have risen to nearly 50 percent among black gay and bisexual men in the United States. The new data indicates that young gay men, ages 13 to 29 years old, are the hardest hit. Although CDC released these new stats several weeks ago, most of us have not heard or read about this significant public health disaster in the U.S. The severity of this public health crisis, within a segment of America's population, has not been given the attention of even at least one 24-hour, primetime news cycle. These soaring HIV infection rates among black gay men have, for the most part, gone unnoticed. Most unfortunately, the silence of urgency regarding the plight of our gay brothers is deafening in black America.
The Balm In Gilead, Inc. has moved into its 23rd year of working to build and strengthen African American congregations to become healing centers of prayer, education, advocacy and service for all persons living with HIV. Today, there are many testimonies of transformation and change within the walls of black congregations. Numerous congregations throughout our nation have transformed into inclusive, supportive spiritual and health centers for all persons living with HIV, including gay men and women. However, like the news regarding the dire health conditions of many black gay and bisexual men, the work of these progressive congregations most often goes unnoticed. Often spoken of as "radically inclusive," these congregations are consistently labeled as "exceptional" and not the "typical" black church.
There is no such entity as a "typical" black church. "Typical," unfortunately, is often erroneously described as "a group of like-minded individuals who are generally homophobic in nature, and who stigmatize all persons affected by HIV and/or homosexuality." Further, these individuals gather on Sunday morning for extraordinary singing, preaching and income-generating appeals but lack the inclusive embrace that compassionate love mandates. Regrettably, this very inadequate description of a "typical" black church is grandly upheld by the actions of like-minded black preachers who stand in scared pulpits and vilify gay people as public enemy number one.
The spiritual, emotional, and physical suffering of many black gay and bisexual men, especially those in their formative years of 13 to 29, must stop being ignored. Behaviors of homophobia and HIV stigma are sustained by the deafening silence of the black church and the African-American community at large. This indifference quietly supports violence and bullying against young gay men and the relief they often seek through suicide and other self-destructive behaviors. Sadly, the unwillingness of clergy and others to denounce public statements of hate toward gay members of our family and community continues to erode the interwoven cords of respect, love and well-being that cloaks us together as human beings.
These alarming HIV infection rates among black gay and bisexual men beg this question to every black congregation, family and community: do we exemplify unconditional love for our gay and bisexual brothers, uncles, fathers and sons, or do we exemplify unconditional hatred?
For those of us who consciously choose to lead in the realm of unconditional love, we must heighten our application of hands-on care for our gay and bisexual brothers with a continuous flow of HIV prevention information, and we must advocate for the availability of HIV testing and treatment, and our words and actions must communicate that our gay brothers (and sisters) are significantly important to our family, congregation and community.
Pernessa Seele is the Founder and CEO of The Balm In Gilead, Inc., a 501(c)(3), international organization dedicated to preventing diseases and improving the health status of black people worldwide by building and strengthening the capacity of faith institutions to deliver programs and services that contribute to the elimination of health disparities.
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