There is an epidemic of HIV/Aids in the United States, and the reason you may not have heard about it is because of who it harms: black men who have sex with other men. If white men were being infected at the horrifying rate that African-Americans are, it would be front-page news.
When I give lectures on Aids, I will often tell incredulous audiences early in my presentation that one in every two gay and bisexual men in the US are projected to become HIV positive in their lifetime.
Later, I tell them that, more specifically, the Centers for Disease Control predicts one in every two black gay and bisexual men is projected to become HIV positive in his lifetime if current trends continue. I do this not to deceive, but to point out how Americans imagine men who have sex with men to be white – and to highlight how invisible black gay and bisexual men are in the American zeitgeist even while facing existential suffering.
If one of every two straight white men were projected to become HIV positive, nothing else would be covered in the news. Ever. MSNBC, covering the pandemic 24/7, would rebrand itself MSHIV. But, as only one in every 2,500 heterosexual white men are projected to become HIV positive – and as many white Americans imagine themselves immune to the kind of virus black gay and bisexual men would bring upon themselves – the black plague of HIV is not considered newsworthy.
In conducting doctoral research on the criminalization of HIV over the past four years, it has pained me to learn that lack of interest in the ongoing plight of HIV/Aids in black queer America is not confined to heterosexuals, but affects powerful white gay men and the organizations they run too.
Aids was a unifying force in gay politics from the early 1980s until the mid 1990s. Then, effective antiretroviral (ARV) drugs came to market that not only saved the lives of the millions of people who took them but – because ARVs can suppress HIV so effectively that virus levels become “undetectable” and thus “untransmittable” to others – they dramatically slowed rates of HIV transmission within certain communities.
However, these ARVs only helped the individual and communal bodies who got the drugs. And in the US, this largely meant that white gay men got the drugs early and often, while black gay America largely never got them. The inability to end HIV/Aids isn’t a failure of medicine, but a failure of racial capitalism.
Hence, as Aids deaths and rates of new HIV infections declined among white gay activists, many invested their social capital in fighting for causes such as marriage equality or “corporate equality” – positioning gay identity ever closer to middle-class ideals and imagining gay life as white, upwardly mobile, homonormative and HIV negative.
Over the same period, the epidemiology of HIV got worse in black America. But just as how the estimated 35 million people who have died of Aids, the 37 million people currently living with HIV, and the million people who still die from Aids every year globally are guilty of no moral failure, the half of black queer American men who are becoming HIV positive are not doing so due to particularly risky behavior.
Indeed, black gay men have “fewer partners and lower rates of recreational drug use than other gay men”. It’s just that not enough of us got the drugs, and the things that structurally make people most at risk for HIV – homelessness, incarceration, and a lack of access to good education, employment and medical care – are experienced at high rates by black people.
In a landmark article published by the New York Times magazine last year, America’s Hidden HIV Epidemic, the journalist Linda Villarosa put the dire nature of the plague in perspective, noting that if gay and bisexual African-American men made up a country, its rate of HIV would be more than “all other nations” on earth. But as she explained in a subsequent keynote address at a conference on Aids at the City University of New York, it would be a mistake to think that this plague is really hidden. Black Americans living with HIV – and the forces which cause black Americans to contract HIV – are all around us. To not notice is willful ignorance.
And, while celebrated works of American art such as Angels in America imagine Aids to be white and in the past, black gay poets from Craig Harris and Essex Hemphill to Danez Smith and Justin Phillip Reed have been sounding a clarion call about this scourge for decades.
Hiding this epidemic is a choice, and Mike Pence and Donald Trump have made it worse. Denial, stigma and shame don’t help. This crisis requires using treatment as prevention, increasing sexual education, and undoing the homophobic health disparities caused by racial capitalism in general and the apartheid-like US healthcare system in particular.