Commentary: To Help End AIDS, Help End Homophobia

The NAACP’s new AIDS manual for Black churches is a good step. But if a church doesn’t want to stop being anti-gay, the manual’s power is neutered.

Posted: 07/26/2012 09:08 AM EDT

HIV and AIDS are two of the bleakest problems facing African-Americans today. AIDS is currently the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 25 and 44. Rates of infection in Black communities in New York and Washington, D.C., rival those of places in Sub-Saharan Africa, and all the emerging data suggests things are only getting worse. This year, for instance, a report showed that a Black man who has sex with men has a 25 percent chance of getting HIV by the time he turns 25, the highest the chance has ever been.

With the situation looking quite grim, organizations of all kinds have taken up the fight. President Obama has instituted an AIDS plan of action that directly acknowledges and attempts to address AIDS in the Black community. Outside the realm of government, groups like Phill Wilson’s Black AIDS Institute seek to help where federal authorities can’t. And now, one of America’s oldest and best known Black groups, the NAACP, is putting the fight against AIDS into church pews.

As we told you this week, the NAACP this month released its first-ever manual telling Black pastors, who are deeply important to so many African-American communities, how best to talk to their congregations about AIDS. Composed of 61 pages and put together by a team of Black pastors brought together by the NAACP, the manual is a guidebook for religious leaders who may feel squeamish talking about a sexually transmitted disease.

"People look at us as just civil rights, and what they're missing is that health is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time," Shavon Arline-Bradley, director of health programs for the NAACP, told the Associated Press.

So far, 400 of the manuals have been printed for distribution, and it’s also available online [PDF]. Overall, the publication, which frames AIDS as a social justice issue, is a good step in working to combat an illness that’s wreaked havoc on Black communities nationwide. There’s just one problem: Many Black churches—just like many white churches—are still very homophobic.

It should go without saying that getting Black pastors to mention AIDS at all after so many of them have ignored the problem for years is a milestone to be celebrated. What’s more, the church is a foundation in the Black community, so involving them to fight the illness is a smart and necessary move. That said, offering all this support could prove a hollow gesture if the homophobic pastors don’t want to change their anti-gay ways.

Part of the reason some African-American men with HIV stay in the closet about their illness is because they’re ashamed of the fact that they got sick by having sex with other men. They don’t want to be shunned by their families, friends and churches, and so rather than being honest, they lie or don’t say anything at all. And when it comes to AIDS, silence is deadly, because not telling your partner you’re infected—or not getting tested out of fear—is how one infected person accidentally infects dozens, and then hundreds.

It’s definitely not the NAACP’s place to dictate to churches how to preach. And even if Chairman Ben Jealous et al. did ask homophobes in the Black church to give it up, it’s unlikely many would listen. Nevertheless, it’s hugely important to recognize that convincing churches to talk about sex is only half the battle. You also have to get them to accept that that sex can and does include men having sex with other men.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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