Adjusting our lens
Young black gay men, HIV and the future
On Dec. 1, we commemorate World AIDS Day. Last month, we celebrated the 22nd anniversary of AIDS Walk Atlanta, perhaps one of the most enduring rituals of the local HIV/ AIDS community.
These two milestones are part of a series of significant events over the past few months locally and nationally: The United States Conference on AIDS, also in October; National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in September; and the much anticipated International AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC, back in July.
Throughout these high profile events and activities, one message remains clear: We are at a turning point in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Scientific evidence seems to be pointing in that direction. Recent studies have shown that if an HIV-positive person is put on treatment, they are less likely to transmit the virus.
There has also been evidence in recent studies indicating that the HIV drug Truvada can be effective at preventing HIV among HIV-negative people if taken daily and with monitoring by trained clinical professionals. This suggests an additional tool in an ever-expanding toolbox of HIV prevention options.
However, even in the midst of such stunning success, the impact of HIV among young black gay men provides a needed and humbling perspective on just how far we have left to go. And thus, even as we witness the breathtaking progress of science and medicine in the context of HIV/AIDS, we must also remember that HIV stigma, homophobia, racism, and other forces of vulnerability for young black gay men, will not be treated with a pill.
We have to address the social and political alongside the clinical. There will be limited success in the realm of HIV prevention or treatment, unless we address the impact of HIV among young black gay men.
After all, it is imperative for the success of any movement, and certainly our collective progress as a community, to be measured not only by the continued conditions of the most privileged but also by the most vulnerable. This is not merely a matter of political significance, but also a matter of moral urgency.
We must first continue to drive home the fact that HIV is not merely an issue of behavior, but also has social and structural implications. For example, we know that homelessness and housing instability, along with issues of poverty and economic distress, are problems that affect young gay men.
These challenges create conditions that make them more vulnerable to HIV, and lead to poorer health outcomes if they are HIV positive. Stigma too, as it relates to anti-gay stigma, creates conditions that disempower young black gay men from seeking treatment and prevention resources.
How we address the structural issues facing young black gay men is intricately tied to our success in addressing HIV.
Next, we must inspire resilience and confidence in young black gay men, while also inspiring a collective vision of being gay and black as parts of a whole. This creates a stronger and more affirmed sense of identity, and this reinforces the political urgency to continue to fight injustice and inequality.
Though there has been considerable thought and effort put into understanding the complexity of identity from a cultural perspective, this has not always made its way into the HIV conversation. The relationships between culture, identity, and the social forces that shape health outcomes have to be met head on. Cultural affirmation is a part of developing and sustaining individual and collective resilience.
Finally, we should consider not only the present, but also the future of the movement. The innovations developed today are as effective as the leaders who are able to usher them in.
Working together, young black gay men and allies, we will bring an end to the epidemic.
Kenneth Maurice Pass is a junior at Morehouse College studying psychology and public health. He is president of SafeSpace, Morehouse College’s gay-straight alliance and student advocacy organization, as well as an undergraduate research fellow and health policy intern.
Charles Stephens is an Atlanta-based writer. He is co-editing an anthology called “Black Gay Genius” and helped to develop the social marketing campaign From Where I Stand: www.fromwhereistand.org
Kenneth Maurice Pass
Charles Stephens and