Homophobia in Black Communities Means More Young Men Get AIDS

Social stigmas have paralyzed prevention efforts, activists and scientists say.


The AIDS epidemic is a solvable problem. Ending AIDS is not just an aspiration. But despite recent advancements in diagnosis and treatment, explained Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease at a recent Atlantic forum, the rate of new infections has stopped decreasing, remaining at a plateau over the last decade.

Why? At least part of the cause is the stigma against homosexuality in the black community, Fauci and others agreed.

“We can’t forget that in this country, the risk [of HIV infection] for a young gay man, particularly a young African-American man—the risk is really huge,” Fauci said. “But there’s still discrimination and stigma.”

Fauci described how this problem has taken shape in Washington, D.C., where about half of the population is black. In predominantly white areas, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is very low, he said, but in predominantly black areas, “the rate is seven or eight percent. The disparity is not only of African Americans who are disenfranchised from health care, but also the difficulty of social acceptance in the African American community of a gay man of color.”

51 percent of new HIV infections in 2010 were among
men who have sex with other men, or "MSM." (CDC) 

This may have contributed to a shocking statistic: As of 2013, black gay and bisexual men aged 13 to 24 accounted for more new infections than any other group in the United States. Phil Wilson, the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, cited an estimate that half of young, black, gay men are infected.

Yes, it’s as shocking as it sounds: Half of gay black men under the age of 24 may be infected with HIV. “We have a serious problem in this country,” Fauci said.

Pinpointing where exactly social stigma comes from and how it manifests is a big challenge, though. When asked whether this is largely the fault of religious communities, Wilson was careful.

“It’s a moral issue,” he said. Wilson pointed to a speech on homosexuality made by the prominent African-American pastor T.D. Jakes. “He said, ‘We can’t save their souls if we can’t save their lives.’ This is about meeting people where they are. The goal is to expand the prevention toolbox so that everyone can find something they can use.”

Others pointed to the growing stigma against the disease within the gay community itself. “In the eighties, 50 percent of [gay men] were HIV-positive,” said Peter Staley, an activist who was recently featured in the documentary How to Survive a Plague. “We felt we were all in it together—we fought it together.” Now, that openness to admitting to having the disease has changed among gay men. “There’s a sense of stigma—they know if they come out, they’ll be treated terribly by their peers.”

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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