If we really want Black men en masse to get involved in ending the AIDS epidemic, first we must do a much better job of raising awareness of the widespread presence of the disease among Black men regardless of sexual orientation or mode of transmission. Nationwide, Black men make up roughly 35 percent of new HIV infections among gay men, with prevalence rates so high that some young gay Black men believe it's inevitable that they will become infected. Black men account for 46 percent of new cases among all men. One in 16 Black men will be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS during his lifetime, compared with 1 in 104 white men.
Second, we need to stop the blame-and-shame game. Scapegoating Black gay men, perpetuating the down-low myth, and limiting the HIV/AIDS discussion among straight Black men to one involving inmates and/or sexual predators responsible for infecting Black women undermines attempts to protect both Black men and women. Sexual behavior puts Black men at risk, not sexual identity. And no matter how we got here, with HIV-infection rates among Black men and women in some areas of America as high as in places like Haiti, Kenya and Uganda, unprotected sex with any partner whose HIV status we don't know places us at risk — whether that person is male or female. It's time to talk about accountability and responsibility, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
Next, we need to create opportunities for Black men — straight, gay, bisexual and questioning — to speak honestly with one another about issues like homophobia and the tensions between us, but also about the things we have in common: pressing matters such as high rates of unemployment, underemployment, mass incarceration, Black-on-Black violence, other health problems like prostate cancer and hypertension, and plain old Living While Black in America. We are not one another's enemy. Despite our differences in sexual orientation, in the end we are still brothers. And whether or not we see ourselves that way, the rest of the world does.
We also need to address tensions between Black men and women, including challenges that each gender faces, and barriers between us that make it more difficult to address HIV/AIDS. What are productive and responsible ways of conducting relationships when Black women outnumber Black men — and often by significant numbers? How can we protect ourselves from HIV and other STDs if we engage in non-monogamous relationships? And how do we raise our children and create families when, for one reason or another, so many fathers are missing? Many Black women have a difficult time trusting men, based on past experiences where they've been let down. And many Black men are unwilling to expose their vulnerabilities for fear of having their manhood or masculinity challenged.
And let's not neglect the hopelessness, alienation and fatalism felt by many young Black males, whose official unemployment rate is 38 percent among teens and 18 percent among males ages 20 and older (PDF). (Since these figures exclude those who have given up looking for work, we know that the real unemployment rate is much higher.) On any given day, 1 in 8 Black male 20-somethings is incarcerated, and if current trends continue, 1 in 3 Black males born today will be imprisoned during his lifetime. No wonder many young Black men feel estranged from both Black and white society. They experience a world that sees them only as a problem or a dangerous threat.
Finally, we need to develop community-mobilization strategies to end the epidemic that focus on Black men, particularly young men. And we need to stop waiting for Black men to just show up and, instead, scale up local prevention interventions that target places where they gather, such as barber shops, gyms, basketball courts and hip hop venues.
Most important, we need to listen to Black men. There is much to be learned about us and there are no better experts than Black men themselves. If anyone would just bother to ask us — and use the information they get in a respectful and responsible fashion — we'd gladly tell them.
With Black men demonized, patronized and/or ignored, it's no wonder there is not a mass Black male response to the AIDS epidemic. If we want to change the trajectory of the disease for Black women, Black children, Black families — for Black America — we need to flip this script, because Black men matter.
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