New York Law School

HIV Positive Black Men: The Crossroads

I have worked with HIV positive people, and specifically with HIV positive Black men, helping them access community services. Unfortunately, it seems that many people in the Black community still believe HIV is a disease that is only contracted through homosexual activity. While society has become more accepting of HIV positive gay men, certain segments of the Black community lags woefully behind in this area. This illustrates that the Black community needs to be better informed about issues of HIV status. While HIV positive Black men are stereotyped and labeled by the Black community; 1] HIV positive Black women, in contrast, are more readily accepted, likely based on the presumption that a woman contracted the disease through heterosexual contact. As a result, Black men are shunned and ostracized in the Black community and often become depressed, start doing drugs, and engage in other destructive lifestyle behaviors.

HIV positive Black men are often subjected to discrimination and exclusion from the larger society, their community, and their friends and family. Life for HIV positive Black men is often filled with victimization[2] and oppression based on an assumption of them having contracted the disease through homosexual activity. The combined effect of these social conditions – results in multiple assaults upon the personhood of HIV positive Black men – and lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion. Being stigmatized often leads to depression, loss of self-esteem, deteriorated social interactions, and broken families. Additionally, HIV positive Black men suffer from internalized shame and social anomie;[3] this type of social isolation, often leads to drinking and drug abuse [4]– which results in further breakdown of the family/social dynamic.

Additionally, that HIV positive Black men are often born into a culture that promotes hyper masculinity, contributes to the negative stigma of being HIV positive. This culture of masculinity can be hostile to anything associated with homosexuality. This culture of masculinity thrives because young Black men feel boxed in, trapped in neighborhoods that are often hostile and unforgiving.[5] To be hyper masculine is to assure that you are not bullied and beat up, and you become part of a group. Masculinity is an image and anything that threatens that image is taboo. Homosexuality threatens that image. Consequently, HIV positive Black men are often shunned because they are presumed to have contracted HIV through homosexual behavior.

Because of these combined factors, HIV positive Black men face a greater challenge integrating into their social environment than their HIV positive White male counterparts. Not only must HIV positive Black men navigate life in respect to simply being Black (an increasingly difficult task given the prevailing culture), they must also emotionally, and intellectually resist the negative narrative related to homosexuality and HIV positive status. This negative stigmatization serves to further ostracize Black men from the society and the community that birthed them.

It is axiomatic that people who are rejected and excluded from their communities will experience negative emotional drawbacks. When society tells you that something is wrong with you, and you also get rejected by family and friends from the very place you call home – depression is almost inevitable. Moreover, because of the feelings of exclusion, HIV positive Black men are less likely to talk about their condition or to seek professional help. As a result, their risks of depression, isolation, and drug addiction, increase dramatically.

HIV positive Black men can deal with the ostracism and stigmatization in many ways. The methods are referred to as “stigma management.”[6] Stigma Management can occur via a range of reactive strategies to proactive strategies.[7] Reactive strategies involves ways to lessen or avoid the effects of the stigma/ostracism, such as concealment or selective disclosure.[8] While this approach may meet the immediate concerns of stigmatization, it does not address the long-term fear of being discovered, and the accompanying associative ostracism. Conversely, proactive strategies attempt to actually face the stigma via means such as social activism.

Social activism/help requires more of a family support dynamic, as well as a socially constructed support network. [9] HIV positive Black men who have this positive reinforcing social support, are more likely to develop coping skill to deal with life’s stressors related to the stigma of being HIV positive, as opposed to those who lack social support. [10] HIV positive Black men who lack social support are more likely to have negative consequences associated with an inability to deal with life and the associated stress and stigma of being HIV positive.[11] This social activism/help is available via several means. Communities could hold engagement and education forums. Agencies could run clinics where people could ask questions anonymously. Counseling and other related services could be given which could help reduce the amount of misinformation reaching the Black communities.

The Black church community can also be of great help. The Black church community is often a group of neighborhood churches, usually of the same denomination, but not always, and they form a community of churches. Black churches often preach that homosexuality is a sin; this greatly contributes to the ostracism of HIV positive men – because they are presumed to have contracted HIV from homosexual activity. Black churches can help, first, by having a dialogue with the clergy and persuading them to recognize that the ostracism of HIV positive Black men is an important issue for the black community; and by conceding that the church is an appropriate starting place for responsible social awareness and discourse in reaction to the issue of HIV in the Black community. Second, the Leaders of Black churches can remind the pastors and other church leaders that Black churches have always served as a haven for Black issues, and as a source of cultural pride. The Black churches’ capacity to help reshape the narrative on HIV issues in the Black community cannot be overstated. [12]  While, the Black church is usually very supportive of issues that impact Black communities; presently, the Black churches’ legacy for being the vanguard of social issues that impact the Black community – unfortunately, stands in stark contrast to its current lack of enthusiasm to champion issues of HIV and perceived homosexuality.[13]

As stated, studies show that HIV positive Black men who have strong support can usually learn to cope with exclusion from the society or the community. Those that have community and family support usually fare better at coping with the stigma of being HIV positive than those that do not have the same type of support. The Black community must do better in this area.

The fate of the Black community is inextricably connected with the fate of the Black HIV positive men living in that community. This is true because every member of the Black community should be active and productive. If we change our perceptions of HIV, we can change the narrative of how we communicate the issue. If we can do that– we can (hopefully) change the lives of many HIV positive Black men; as well as begin to heal a part of the massive divide faced by the Black community.

 

[1] For the purposes of this essay, I will not distinguish between heterosexual persons with HIV and Homosexual men with HIV;

   primarily because the Black community (right or wrong) often associates men who are HIV positive with homosexuality.

[2] Perry N. Halkitis, PhD, MS, Discrimination and Homophobia fuel HIV epidemic in gay and bisexual men

Apa.org, July 17, 2015, Http://www.apa.org/pi/aids/resources/exchange/2012/04/discrimination-Homophobia.aspx

[3] Frank H Galvan, PhD, et.al, HIV Stigma and social support among African Americans,

July 17, 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831751/

[4] Id.

[5] Errol Fields, M.D., Ph. D, Pressure to Conform to Masculine Norms May Fuel HIV Risk Among Gay

   Black Men, Hopkinsmedicine.org, July 20, 2015        

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/pressure_to_conform_to_masculine_norms_may_fuel_hiv_risk_among_

gay black

[6] Frank H Galvan, PhD, et.al., HIV Stigma and social support among African Americans,

July 17, 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831751/

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Frank H Galvan, PhD, et.al., HIV Stigma and social support among African Americans,

July 17, 2015, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831751/

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Ahmed Cheers, Hate, Homophobia, and Heteropatriarchy at the Hampton’s

     Minister’s Conference, Huffingtonpost.com, July 20, 2015

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ahmad-cheers/hampton-ministers-conference-delman-coates_b_7538016.html

[13] Id.

 

 

 

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