The Invisible Risk
To be young, black, and gay means to face denial and AIDS
By Mubarak S. Dahir
JUNE 21, 1999: Demond Anthony grew up the oldest of nine kids in poverty-stricken East St. Louis, a city on the Illinois side of the Mississippi and long the ugly stepsister of St. Louis, facing it from the Missouri side of the river. East St. Louis is a city almost entirely African-American and one that has suffered the all too familiar bruises of racism.
In such an atmosphere, it is neither uncommon nor surprising that race and sex should be so closely intertwined with the cultural definition of masculinity, of what it means to be a man. Growing up, Demond learned early that being a man meant standing up to the "whiteys," having a lot of sex, and not being a fag.
"In the African-American community, it is such a taboo," says Demond, today 23, "that you either hide it, or you are ostracized. There was no strength for me from my black family. I was pushed away."
Demond became sexually active at 15. It was 1990, and he knew about AIDS. But the cultural pressure to deny his sexual orientation kept him from practicing safer sex. "I'd always heard AIDS was a gay disease, and white people were gay, there weren't any brothers who were homos," he says today. "I couldn't be gay, right, so how could I get AIDS?"
But his denial was no protection against the virus. And the same kind of denial that used to keep Demond from protecting himself still runs rampant in the African-American community, where two epidemics rage hand in hand. One is AIDS. The other is denial.
Though blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 57 percent of all new HIV infections. And while AIDS deaths are declining in the overall population, it is still the number-one killer among blacks ages 25 to 44. Among young blacks ages 13 to 24, the situation is even more dire; nationwide, they account for 63 percent of all new HIV infections.
But even as the virus and the denial course together through black America, the three most powerful African-American institutions -- black churches, black politicians, and black civil-rights groups -- remain, for the most part, silent.
The problem is particularly acute in the black churches, says the Rev. Cornelius Van Smith, pastor of a Baptist church. Smith got introduced to AIDS in 1988, when large numbers of people started flooding him with requests to preside over funerals of family members.
"I have seen many black ministers get up and leave the room if they know a homosexual is in it with them,"says Smith.
Meanwhile, black gay and bisexual men make up the largest single group of black males infected with the virus -- nearly half of all cases between 1986 and 1996, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is long past due for civil-rights, political, and religious leaders in the African-American community to break the code of silence. Groups like the Urban League and the NAACP have a moral responsibility to take up AIDS. Both organizations are holding national conventions this summer; AIDS is not on either's agenda.
Black politicians, too, must take on the AIDS battle. Some have already started on a national level, with the Congressional Black Caucus asking President Clinton to declare AIDS a national public health emergency among black people. But more needs to be done on a local level -- where the issue is often harder to raise, but will have the most impact.
Finally, black ministers must overcome homophobia and speak directly on AIDS from their pulpits. Black churches "must replace prejudice with compassion, as part of their mission as Christians," says Smith. For faithful black gay men like Demond Anthony, a Pentecostal, "what's kept me alive has been my faith in God."
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