“The Other Side” is a monthly column I write covering issues faced by gay people of color for Outlook Columbus, Central Ohio’s premiere LGBT publication.
Research by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that there are more new HIV infections among young black men who have sex with men (MSM) than any other racial or ethnic group of MSM. And that the number of new infections among young black gay men is nearly twice that of young white gay men.
This is a statistic that’s kept me up at the night for the better part of three years, when I first started volunteering in the prevention department at AIDS Resource Center Ohio, and has stumped decades of HIV prevention specialists and researchers from across the nation.
I recently took a full-time job with ARC Ohio’s newly developed Greater Columbus Mpowerment Center that will address this problem, and with National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day being February 7, outlook and I thought addressing this issue apropos. But hopefully by the end of this article you’ll realize this struggle is one that deserves your attention year-round.
There are 50,000 new HIV infections in America each year. Of those new infections, nearly 44 percent are African American. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that roughly 14 percent of Americans are black. Clearly black America has become disproportionately affected by HIV. But in the last few years, the infection rate among black gay males has reached epidemic levels, on par with the infection rate of white gay males during the initial “AIDS scare” of the 1980s. The CDC reports that in major U.S. cities nearly one in three black gay/bisexual men are infected with HIV, and 60 percent of them don’t know it.
Unfortunately, Columbus is at the forefront of this pandemic. Franklin County has the largest number of people living with an HIV diagnosis in Ohio (around 3,400), and the 25th highest rate of new infections in the nation. MSM still account for the highest affected demographic, actually rising from 63 percent of the reported HIV infections in Franklin County to 72 percent between 2003 and 2008, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The data also shows that of the 3,000+ living cases of HIV in Central Ohio, 25 percent are African American males, while 3 percent are “non-white.”
HIV is no longer The Boogey Man it once was. Information on how HIV is transferred, treated and prevented is now considered common knowledge. In November, Bill Hardy, ARC Ohio’s executive director, returned from the U.S. Conference on AIDS in Chicago with this quote from a researcher presenting there: “We really do now have the means to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” So why three decades after the first AIDS diagnosis, are we seeing it ravage another marginalized demographic?
There are many theories: Not enough funds are being focused on HIV advocacy and awareness in the MSM, amongst MSM, including black MSM. The stark and belligerent homophobia that often pervades the African American community, often perpetuated by the “black church.” Along with an unfortunately common habit among black churches to ignore any issue dealing with sexual or mental health. Also the “down low” phenomena; and not the myths or media hype, but the oppressing reality of a group of men trapped in a debilitating cycle of self-hate and secrecy.
These hypotheses have been debated for years, and we may never reach a consensus, but regardless something needs to be done now to curb the devastating reality of the statistics.
The CDC has recognized the need for immediate action and back in September awarded $55 million ($11 million annually for five years) to organizations around the country for HIV prevention programs aimed at young gay men of color and young transgender persons of color. As many are aware, ARC Ohio was recently awarded $1.6 million (approx. $333,000 annually for five years) to create one of these programs. (With nine offices, ARC Ohio is the state’s leading provider of HIV awareness, advocacy and care.)
ARC Ohio CEO Bill Hardy has been a strong advocate for more prevention and testing resources to reach gay and bisexual men.
“Gay and bisexual men still bear an enormously disproportionate burden of this epidemic. Two-thirds of all new HIV cases in Ohio are among this population, but less than a third of state HIV prevention dollars over the past years have been allocated to HIV programs specifically designed to reduce HIV among gay and bisexual men,” he said. “We have got to change the fact that every 25 hours someone in Central Ohio – most often, a young, gay man – becomes HIV-infected.”
It was this disparity, Columbus’ large gay population, and our unfortunate distinction of having the 25th highest rate of HIV in the nation that led ARC Ohio to apply for the CDC grant.
The Greater Columbus Mpowerment Center’s mission is to be at the forefront of HIV prevention, education and advocacy for the same-gender-loving (SGL) black and Latino male community. We also strive to be a visible voice and a vehicle for accountability with the goal of ending stigma and providing mental and social support. The center provides free HIV testing, prevention programming, social and educational events and a general safe space for black and Latino men to congregate. GCMC is currently operating out of ARC Ohio, 4400 N. High Street, Columbus, but will soon move into its own yet-to-be-designated location. We hope to be located near downtown Columbus, and plan to be fully operating from there by March.
“In order to address the impact HIV is having on the youth and men of color a community-level approach is needed to address the various and complex issues faced by this community,” said Malcolm Varner, GCMC’s new director, formerly an Outreach Coordinator with Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Family and AIDS Clinic and Education Services (FACES) program.
The need for GCMC has been a long time coming. We’ve seen great work done on this issue by other community organizations but there’s never been a center that focuses not only on the need for HIV prevention, advocacy and awareness, but also focuses on the need for a collective mobilization within our community to combat this epidemic.
“I have witnessed firsthand the decimation of our community,” said Ron Murray, the center’s Mpowerment Program Coordinator, a born and bred Columbus native who’s been in the social work field for more than a decade. “What has remained a constant is that the numbers of new infections continued to rise. The uniqueness of GCMC and programs like Mpowerment is that it allows participants to identify the issues they’re dealing with – whether it be HIV prevention, treatment, dating or participating in high risk behaviors – and look at solutions from a more social and collective aspect.”
Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is February 7 and was established many years ago to shine a fierce and necessary light on the staggering statistics mentioned above. The CDC has taken a great first step, but this needs to only be the beginning. My personal hope is that by this time next year the doomsday media coverage of increased infection will be replaced with human-interest spotlights on decreases instead.
Please join ARC Ohio at Columbus Public Health, 240 Parsons Ave., Columbus, Thursday, February 9, 6p-7:30p, for a Community Information Session about the new center featuring the GCMC staff. Can’t attend? More information about the Greater Columbus Mpowerment Center can be found at Facebook.com/ColumbusMpowerment, email email@example.com or 614.340.6717. More information about the work of ARC Ohio log on to http://www.arcohio.org. Info on the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day visithttp://www.blackaidsday.org.
~from Outlook Columbus