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Opinion: For Black Women, HIV Is Still An Epidemic - One We Must Address

“HIV is a gay man’s disease.” If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times. The correlation of homosexuality being an abomination, and the designation of HIV being the universe’s way of returning karma, is one that continues to push the stigma surrounding the HIV virus against marginalized communities, forcing many to live in shame and uncertainty about their status.

Unfortunately, a by-product of this stigma is one where other people within the Black cishet community feel as if the virus does not affect them, or remain unaware of just how vulnerable they are to potentially be infected. For Black women, the notion of HIV being a “gay man’s disease” continues to keep their infection rate at epidemic levels, and a problem that will only continue to grow if we don’t begin to correct the narrative; one that is more inclusive of their fight, as well.

The CDC states that an estimated 255,900 women were living with HIV at the end of 2014, representing 23% of all Americans living with the virus. Of women living with HIV, around 12% (or 1 in 8) do not know they are infected. As of 2015, Black women made up 59% (137,998) of all women living with HIV in America. As of February, 2018, they also made up nearly 61% of all new HIV infections among all women. These numbers are jarring, as black people in total only make up 12% of the population within the U.S.

Several factors come into play with these numbers, primarily that Black women tend to have sex with the same race/ethnicity, keeping the prevalence level higher. They are also likely to not use a condom, while being unaware of their partner’s status. This all being a by-product of the public narrative not being stronger on language of HIV’s prevalence in heterosexual community.

It is also a fact that more than 600,000 gay and bisexual men are living with HIV in the U.S., and are by far the highest infected group. The CDC released a report stating that 50% of Black men who have sex with men will contract HIV over their lifetime and that 25% of Latino men who have sex with men will also contract HIV over their lifetime. Again, the situation within the LGBTQ community is dire, and does require heightened attention. But the given attention should not be at the risk of ignoring another group who also needs funding and resources.

On a personal note, I can attest to what the main population, research, and funding is designated to within HIV work. As someone who attends the conferences and reports on new information within the HIV field, studies and attention are heavily geared towards the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ people of color. Be clear, that it is with reason since those populations are also, still, at epidemic levels. The problem is that HIV should not be an “either/or” type of fight, as much as it should be one that is inclusive of recognizing all populations and demographics that continue to be infected.

This lack of acknowledgment of the problem that HIV remains in the Black community is partly due to not wanting to make HIV an issue that heterosexual individuals should be concerned with, or branded with. When a community sees the way those stigmatized by HIV, primarily the Black LGBTQ people, it is then hard to ask folks from within that population to own it, too. We watched during the early years of HIV when people were turned away by the church, the community, and their families. Many of those fears still linger despite the advancements made that have significantly reduced the virility of HIV, while drastically improving the quality of life for those infected.

Mass incarceration, stigma within the Black community, lack of resources and education have all helped in causing the epidemic to remain in the Black community. And our inability to challenge it will continue to hurt us. We must be more vigilant than ever during a time when the administration of the White House is eager to remove what minimal resources we currently have.

It is time that we make HIV an even more inclusive fight, as it will take all of us doing the work to truly put an end to the epidemic.