We have been told for decades that HIV/AIDS has no bias, and that much is true. The virus could care less about racial, sexual or gender identity. But sadly, American society very much has bias, and as a consequence HIV/AIDS is quite a bit more of a threat to some than it is to others. So it is that black Americans account for nearly half of all people living with the virus in the U.S. Nearly half. It’s such a striking stat that it overwhelms. Still, here’s another one along those lines: If black America were its own country, our HIV epidemic would rank 16th in the world.
But even among black folks, there’s bias, too. And so it is that black gay and bisexual men—or, men who have sex with men in public health parlance—are today at the center of a surging epidemic.
The question, of course, is why? The answers are manifold, but I’ve always used this shorthand: HIV infection rates are an excellent measure for who societies don’t give a damn about. Worldwide, go looking for the worst epidemic and you’ll find the group of people who are hardest hit by a whole host of other bad things, too. But for a more sophisticated explanation, check out The Body’s excellent slideshow, in which several smart folks offer short, succinct explanations of key factors.
Today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It’s an annual ritual that we perhaps need more than ever. As individuals and as communities, we’ve only got so much bandwidth. And from recession to war to political upheavals worldwide, much of our mental and emotional space has been fully occupied in recent years. It’s easy for things like health, wellness and sexuality to get shoved to the back burner, put off as luxurious problems. We all know what happens when we do that in our personal lives—that health issue we say we’ll deal with when there’s more time inevitably grows worse, until it intrudes on its own terms. The process is no different for communities, cities and countries.
This summer, Washington, D.C., will host the International AIDS Conference, in which tens of thousands of scientists, treatment providers, advocates and policy makers come together to share strategies and experiences confronting the epidemic globally. It’s the first time the event will be in the U.S. since the early 1990s; it’s able to come here now because President Obama finally lifted the longstanding ban on visas for people living with HIV. The event will likely generate a rare, if brief national focus on the epidemic. Many are hoping something meaningful can come from that.
For now, Colorlines.com’s Hatty Lee offers a graphic primary for why that focus is so desperately needed right now.