Last week, more than 24,000 participants from 183 countries converged in Washington, D.C., for the 19th International AIDS Conference.
While the conference focused on the AIDS epidemic in countries around the globe, the message for Americans was clear. The Black community is the group hit hardest by the epidemic in the United States.
|WE REMEMBER—Hilary Beard reads a list of names from the AIDS Memorial Quilt of those who have passed, as Duane Cramer comforts her. (Photo by Freddie Allen/NNPA)
While African-Americans make up only 14 percent of the population, they account for nearly 50 percent of those infected with HIV. But despite these statistics, the epidemic continues to be stigmatized and ignored in the Black community.
“While it has moved beyond being a gay men’s issue, it had not reached all of us as an issue. Even when it was just a gay men’s issue, I had no problem with it,” said actor Danny Glover in a private meeting with members of the Black press. “I think we’re going to end up talking about it. The demand has to come from those people who’ve been victimized. The demand forces people to be on the right side of history.”
This year’s conference marks the first time the conference has been in the United States in 22 years. There was a previous international travel ban prohibiting people living with HIV/AIDS from entering the country, but President Barack Obama lifted the ban in 2009.
“The return of the International AIDS Conference to the United States at this pivotal time is a long overdue opportunity for our domestic epidemic to become part of a global effort working to achieve a world without AIDS,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who spoke at the conference’s opening ceremony. “From California to Cameroon, we are literally at a tipping point in the fight against AIDS—and at no time in history has our global leadership been more important to address the ongoing challenges in our own country and around the world.”
For her part in defeating stigma, Lee introduced legislation to decriminalize people with HIV. She also recently proposed the Cure for AIDS Act, a bill that would fund research and development for an HIV/AIDS cure.
Standing on the front lines of confronting stigma and mobilizing the Black community is the Black AIDS Institute. Founder and Executive Director Phil Wilson served as one of the conferences’ opening plenary speakers.
“I called for people to come out about their HIV status. The biggest way to mobilize the Black community, whether in Pittsburgh or wherever, is for people to come out,” Wilson said. “For every person who decides to live openly, it reminds people that HIV can touch them.”
Wilson contracted HIV more than three decades ago at a time when African-Americans didn’t acknowledge the virus in their community. Even when HIV/AIDS was finally recognized in 1997, Black women still thought they were immune because they believed it was only impacting Black Men having Sex with Men (MSM).
“The data says it all. Wherever you are, HIV is a tale of two cities, but the issue in the Black community is that HIV doesn’t do a credit check,” Wilson said. “We all have to be concerned because all of us have been touched in someway.”
Today, the growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS among African-American women is closely linked to the uneven ratios of men to women in many Black communities. Regardless of the stigma attached to the MSM community among African-Americans, even Black faith leaders are beginning to take the lead in ending HIV/AIDS.
“I reject the notion that talking about MSM turns people off. I believe that Black people very much understand that we are a family and if we don’t take care of each other no one else will,” Wilson said. “We have the epidemic we have in the Black community because we ignored at risk populations.”