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Courtney Herring: Shaming and Lack of Education in the Black Community Contribute to High HIV Infection

By Courtney Herring

A recent CDC report indicated there is a rise in HIV cases in this country among young people. In fact, each month the CDC estimates 1,000 young Americans (aged 13 to 24) will become infected with HIV. This demographic made up over 25% of the newest HIV infections in 2010, while instances of infection among other demographics remain relatively even. Troubling still, is the fact that over 50% of those young people infected with the disease don’t know they have it. Unfortunately, the sub group hardest hit in these newest cases are young Black men, which account for 45% of the newest diagnoses in this age group. The study indicates many of these infections occur because of involvement with illegal drugs and alcohol as well as risky behaviors, like being intimate with multiple partners while unprotected. The CDC says that those who are most likely to engage in these risky behaviors identify as gay and bis*xual.

Since learning of HIV/AIDS over 30 years ago, researchers and health and human rights activists have been fighting to place this disease on the national agenda, while educating people about how to prevent themselves from contracting it.  A war on HIV/AIDS was therefore declared after hundreds of thousands of HIV/AIDS related deaths, but yet, 30 years later, it is evident that people are still becoming infected  –  most of them within the Black community.

We know what’s needed to reverse the trend: more testing and education. But, the CDC report says that only 13% of high school students get screened for HIV/AIDS each year and the number is only slightly higher among those who are sexually active. We know, too, that there are antiretroviral drugs that are now available to control the disease in the body and allow those living with HIV/AIDS to live normal lives.

We also know that in the Black community, there is a type of shaming shadowing those with certain identities – especially those identifying as LGBTQ that I believe contributes to this growing problem among our young Black men. Many of us as African Americans grow up on church pews and within families that vehemently condemn same gender intimate relationships, which leads those who identify as such to be ashamed of having that identity. What’s even more troubling is the fact we have such narrow views of masculinity, that our youth believe in order to be a “man,” one must prove their male identity in ways that are not true to them. This type of shaming is not only contributing to killing the spirit of our youth, but also killing us physically. When individuals are not free to disclose their sexual orientation, many turn to living double lives and faking identities just to blend in. It’s a vicious cycle that is killing us. When our men become infected with this disease, our women do as well.

What makes matters worse is, even for those who identify as heterosexual, sex is still a taboo subject in our communities – especially among our youth. The prevailing ideas are if “we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” and “if we talk about it, we are condoning such behaviors,” which can’t be any farther from the truth. Not only are intimate relationships not being brought up and discussed in an effective manner in our homes, but in many schools, abstinence-only s*x education prevails. It’s not working. This problematic combination of shaming, secrecy and lack of education in our community  are what I believe are major contributions to many new infections – even during a time when so much information about HIV/AIDS is available. How many more people have to die from this preventable disease before we take it seriously and become proactive instead of reactive? When will we become more aggressive about getting education and prevention about HIV/AIDS on our community agenda?

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