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Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks

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Shattering the Silence Around HIV/AIDS in the Black Community

Posted: 02/07/2012 9:30 am

Today marks the 12th year for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NBHAAD), which features public events that offer testing and prevention techniques throughout the U.S. This year's theme is "I am my Brother/Sister's Keeper: Fight HIV/AIDS." This national day of community education and empowerment began as a means of engaging African Americans about the epidemic spread of HIV within our families and neighborhoods. While we have made great strides, the numbers are staggering and it remains clear that our most vulnerable -- youth, straight women, and gay/bisexual men -- need additional support networks to prevent the spread of HIV through education and testing.

While only representing 14 percent of the U.S. population, Black men and women account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, according to the most recent information collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2009. We are the most disproportionately impacted racial/ethnic group across all sub-populations [e.g., men, women, youth, and men who sleep with men (MSM)] in the United States -- at all stages of the disease -- from new infections to deaths.

At some point in our lifetimes, an estimated 1 in 16 Black men and 1 in 32 Black women will be diagnosed with HIV infection. These numbers do not include those who will go undiagnosed. Shame, denial and lack of information about human sexuality fuel the skyrocketing HIV rates that we are experiencing.

However, there is good news. According to Phill Wilson, the Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute, we now possess the tools to end the AIDS epidemic. To do so, we must first radically rethink our anxieties about human sexuality and commit to overcoming them.

As a straight woman, I have sat in many rooms with other straight sisters and listened to them demean gay and bisexual men for being honest about who they are. When a man is upfront about his sexuality, we should welcome his honesty and courage to step out on his truth. We should not discount the trepidation he might have had to overcome to embrace his true identity. Blaming and shaming our gay and bisexual brothers only pressures some of them to live a false reality for fear of being ridiculed. Furthermore, it makes people ashamed of themselves, which leads to acts of self-loathing and unsafe sexual behaviors.

Many of our churches teach abstinence instead of safe sex, insisting that congregants defy their human need to be physically and emotionally connected with others, unless they are married -- or straight. Inexplicably, parents project super human willpower onto their children to resist their natural curiosity about their developing bodies and how they work. The same child who, at times, hardly has enough discipline to follow basic rules of social conduct is expected to ignore their raging hormones, peer pressure, years of exposure to sexually suggestive media images, and the intoxicating experience of teenage love.

According to the CDC's most recent study, 55 percent of Black teen moms were not using birth control at the time they became pregnant. Almost one-third reported that they thought they couldn't get pregnant, and it stands to reason that they also thought they could not contract a sexually transmitted disease. Clearly, our young people are not getting the information that they need to make well-informed decisions about the consequences of sharing their bodies.

Discussing human sexuality and prevention techniques is not the same as offering an endorsement of or enabling unsafe sexual behaviors. On the contrary, helping our children and church-goers protect themselves is an act of compassion and faith. As parents and clergy, it is our responsibility. We are offering a lifeline to people we love -- aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, children, and friends -- whom we want to keep healthy and alive, even if the choices they make about their bodies don't align with ours.

Out of love for our people and ourselves, we have to find constructive ways to embrace human sexuality without judgment. Our people are dying simply because those of us who have the power to save lives have not dealt with our own hang-ups.

As we stand on the precipice of turning back the tide of HIV, will you join me in the fight against this deadly disease that has already claimed thousands of our brothers and sisters and threatens to claim many more?

For more information about HIV prevention or to find an HIV testing center visit: www.greaterthan.org.

To find NBHAAD events visit: www.nationalblackaidsday.org or check with your local HIV/AIDS prevention agency.

 
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