Several weeks ago, HBO aired The Normal Heart, starring Mark Ruffalo, a film about Ned Weeks, a gay American who founded a prominent HIV advocacy group. The film portrays the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York's gay community and how the group united to fight the spread of the disease. It relates the community's determination to remove the illness from the shadows. Due to its social and political efforts, the contraction of HIV today need not be a death sentence.
In the black community, the number of HIV cases continues to increase. Why? A recent Our America special on the Oprah Winfrey Network tried to answer this question It followed the lives of several people living with HIV. The stark difference between what we saw on Our America and in The Normal Heart is that in the black community, HIV carriers are shamed, and stigmatized. While the gay community chose unity and education in the face of HIV, the black community has chosen isolation and ignorance.
One of my closest friends and family members has been HIV positive for nearly twenty years. Her attitude about her life is a great lesson for me about dealing with adversity. She educates me to understand how someone contracts the virus. It was she that taught me that you can't get the virus from eating or drinking after an infected person. She also taught me how difficult it is for a woman to give the virus to a man. HIV is virus that more likely contracted through unprotected gay sex or unprotected heterosexual sex, from the man to the woman because women receive body fluids during sex and men do not. I also watch her move through dealing with new side effects on her body and immune system from new meds. She has a team of doctors on the cutting edge of new treatments that work to keep her healthy. She takes responsibility for her health and her life at all costs. Along with caring for her physical health, she must be thoughtful and selective as to whom she will disclose the information about her virus. She also works closely researchers and educators to give accurate information about medicine and side effects and longer-term survivor life-style . And her work counseling newly diagnosed women of color is life changing. Unfortunately she was also a member of large Christian community that turned their backs on those with HIV. Those with HIV are often judged and condemned; they are afflicted because God "punishes the sinner." Broadly speaking, I've found that black Americans are uneducated and in sad denial about the realities of HIV.
One of the stories featured on Our America is about Kimberly, who is HIV positive. Kimberly made it her mission to go into churches and speak to dispel the shame of the virus and to offer education. The church has been the cornerstone of the black community since slavery -- it's not only been the place for worship, but also the place for community building and political activism. But the church had been virtually silent on the issue of HIV and resistant to taking leadership to help educate and save lives until very recently.
Why do so many black women contract HIV? We all need to feel loved and seen. We have deep emotional desires to connect with a partner who will love us unconditionally and will accept as we are. When we feel hungry for love, touch, and connection, we're more likely to avoid the topic of a potential partner's HIV status. I personally have had partners insist on not using a condom, and I've had to tell them no and be willing to let them go. When I was younger, there were many times when my desire to experience sexual intimacy and feel loved overrode my understanding of the risk I was taking. It has only been decades of inner spiritual work and tools like meditation, therapy and prayer that have assisted me in knowing my worth and intrinsic value. These are tools I never learned in my Christian church.
I'm not sure what has happened to the black community as a whole. It seems we've lost our ability to coalesce since the civil rights movement. No longer does the church and its leaders offer us progressive guidance. Where do we go for a sense of how to continue to move forward in our society today? It breaks my heart that the black community has not only dropped the ball on a life-threatening issue such as HIV, but has also failed to stand with those who've courageously stepped out to lead us. Gay peoples' freedom to marry and to enjoy the rights that come with marital partnerships has finally occurred during the administration of our first black president. President Barack Obama has done more to advance the rights of gay people than any other president in history. Yet for the most part, black people have stood on the sidelines of this effort, unable to see that the victories of the LBGT community are their victories too.
In The Normal Heart, we see that the early gay activists aligned with the lesbian community and others to fight, to shout, and to demand action until they saw a difference in the way HIV was addressed by our society. There was no secrecy and shame to head them off. Today, my gay friends (particularly the non-black ones) speak openly about their sexuality and their HIV status. They have built communities that support thousands of people, both gay and heterosexual, living with the virus. What this country has seen the gay community do to change its social status makes my head spin. They are organized, and they refuse to take no for an answer. As black Americans we have a model for how to beat this virus, educate our community, and rid ourselves of the shame and stigma. It's time that we shine a light on the truths of HIV, embrace one another, and work together to fight the tragic spread of the virus among us.