The Culture War in the Black HIV/AIDS Movement Is Hurting Us All

Kellee Terrell
Kellee Terrell

Last November at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), I was asked to sit on a panel that grew out of my essay, "Will This Generation's Magic Johnson Please Stand Up?" The goal was to have an in-depth conversation about how to get straight African-American men involved in HIV activism, prevention and testing.

To some extent, I knew that a conversation about sexuality, masculinity, gender inequality and HIV in black America would usher in a heated conversation. But given that the purpose of the town hall meeting was to come up with strategies on reaching heterosexual black men, I thought it would be somewhat tempered. I was wrong: While ideas and strategies were discussed, the undertone of the conversation reeked of divisive homophobia and anti-feminist buffoonery.

One man (who was gay) insinuated that gay men were not "real" or "strong," therefore we needed straight men to be the leaders. A woman stood up and stated that she didn't want her husband and son getting HIV information from a gay man. There were serious complaints about why so much money and focus are going to gay and bisexual men and not "black people" -- as though black men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender folks aren't black people too. And when I stated to the crowd that as a community we need to confront our own homophobia and correct it if we plan on getting more straight black men involved in this fight, a woman loudly asked, "Why? What does that have to do with us?"

The most outlandish statement occurred when an older woman from South Carolina insinuated that black female leaders, who have carved out places for themselves in this movement because their lives depended on it, were hogging the movement and were the very reason why heterosexual black men are not leading and participating in HIV work. She said, "Now is the not the time for feminism, ladies."

What's incredibly sad is these people spewing this ignorance were not random people from off the street who had very little knowledge or experience with HIV. Instead, they were well-known leaders who have worked in HIV for years, even decades.

I wish I could say that this was a fluke encounter, an anomaly of sorts. But in the past six years that I have been writing about HIV, I have had countless run-ins with leaders who share these same beliefs.

Just last year, a high-ranking, African-American member of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and I gave an HIV talk to a room of teens of color. During her talk, she said that numerous studies show that black and Latino men are more likely to be bisexual than men of other races and more likely to hide their sexuality from their partners, thus fueling HIV rates among young women and girls of color.

"I'm not making this up, the studies are out there," she declared.

Now, I have never seen -- or even heard about -- these studies. (Most likely because they don't really exist.) Lying to impressionable children is completely reprehensible, of course. But what's truly terrifying is that this person and her problematic politics continue to shape how New York City responds to its own HIV epidemic.

Whether you want to admit it or not, it's not just our country as a whole that is engulfed in a bitter culture war -- so is our black HIV leadership. And just like in American politics, the conservatives in the black HIV movement seem to be the ones with the loudest bark, and the ones who are shaping the conversation.

What's incredibly ironic is that there is absolutely nothing conservative about this disease. HIV is about fluids, raw vaginal and anal sex, intravenous (IV) drug use, needles, systematic oppression and sexuality -- stuff that makes many people uncomfortable. And yet those very people who are uncomfortable with these issues are the ones leading powerful HIV organizations in our communities.

How productive is it to run programs for black women and tell them that HIV rates are so high because of men on the down low, when studies show that it isn't the case? Or if you work helping black women gain economic and physical autonomy, but then you go around saying that feminism is for white people and has no place in our lives? Or you have serious issues with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community; meanwhile your organization is a place where members of that community access their HIV care?

It's as productive as having Michele Bachmann run Planned Parenthood.

We can continue to sit in denial and put whatever optimistic spin we want on our current situation, but the reality is that we are 30 years into this epidemic and black folks are the ones who are losing. Yes, losing.

There are many things beyond our control that are to blame for why we account for only 14 percent of the U.S. population, but nearly 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses each year. But we can control the decision of who leads us -- and right now, the conservative, narrow-minded leadership and ideologies are not helping alleviate this crisis. They may increase testing and link people to care, which is very important, but when they also foster an environment filled with hate and ignorance, then they are not really helping in the long run.

Don't get me wrong. I know that there are black leaders who are doing amazing, transformative work. There are men and women who understand the interconnections of race, class, gender and sexuality, and who apply it to their research, prevention work and advocacy. Thank goodness for these people, who have adopted a "by any means necessary" approach to their activism and who in the end just really "get it." But sometimes it feels like these progressive advocates are the exception, not the rule, in terms of black HIV leadership. In public spaces, those voices seem to be muted, sometimes by their doing.

During that town hall meeting at USCA, the progressive leaders and advocates I saw in the audience were extremely quiet in the face of so much ignorance. As I sat there on the panel, I felt like I was left to fend for myself. I don't know why that was the case. Do they come across this type of ignorance more often than I do, and have come to believe that speaking out is not really worth it? Do they have to work with some of these more conservative leaders in other spaces, and don't want to rock the boat? Do they feel like their own work has nothing to do with what these random leaders say, so why should they even waste time correcting people?

Whatever the case may have been, silence is just as much of a problem as intolerant rhetoric. Now is not the time for us to keep our mouths closed -- too many lives are dependent on our ability to speak out and up.

In the end, when I think about the future of this epidemic 30 years from now, it scares the hell out of me. Who is molding the next generation of black HIV leaders? If it's progressive thinkers, then I can be somewhat hopeful. But if it's mostly the vocal, intolerant people who attended the town hall at USCA, then we are in for an extremely bumpy and dangerous ride.

Follow Kellee on Twitter: @kelleent.

EDITOR'S NOTE 1/7: Since we first published this article, the fourth paragraph was edited by the author to clarify her interpretation of the statement made by the older woman from South Carolina who spoke about the role of heterosexual black men in HIV-fighting efforts in the U.S.