January / February 2012
by Tomika Anderson
Rates of HIV among young black men who have sex with men continue to skyrocket, leaving people wringing their hands and asking, "What are these men doing?" But the problem is not so much what young black men are doing but rather what is being—and what has been—done to them. And what hasn’t been done for them.
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Michael Tikili remembers vividly the night he lost his home and his father.
After an evening out with friends two years ago, Tikili, then 23, was confronted by his Pentecostal minister dad in the hallway of their Brooklyn home. Tikili was chastised for missing two Sundays at church, for being generally disrespectful—and for being caught in bed with another man.
But before Tikili’s parents could march him upstairs to pack his belongings and leave, he decided to give the man who’d raised him and his four siblings a piece of his mind.
“I told him that the reason most of my life had been shit was because of his so-called church,” says Tikili, whose family hails from Nigeria but who grew up here.
“I told him all he did was preach hate. I told him I felt my entire existence was an abomination, and that was why I had tried to commit suicide [as a child].”
And then Tikili lowered the boom: Not only was he queer—he was also HIV positive.
“I think that was the first time I saw my dad have any sort of emotional reaction,” recalls the MBA graduate, now 25, who was diagnosed the summer before grad school. “He just sat there, stunned and silent. Then it was like, ‘Alright, well, thanks for the conversation. See you later.’”
Although Tikili’s father would later apologize for “all the things he’d done wrong” in his life—including not believing him when Tikili revealed that a male friend of the family had sexually molested him at the age of 10—the damage that had been done to their relationship over the years was irreparable.
To this day Tikili’s voice cracks when he speaks of the day he divorced his father in his heart.
“What kind of shitty parenting is that?” he exclaims. “When you finally accept that I was raped, the only question you have for me is, ‘Did it affect your sexuality’? What about my well-being, my mental stability, my human interactions—my effing life, for crying out loud?” (It’s a common misperception that childhood sexual trauma makes a person gay.)
Gjvar Payne, a 24-year-old senior at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, tells a similarly painful tale.
Originally from a small town in Illinois, the soft-spoken Payne says he chose a school on the other side of the country to escape the strict household run by his father, who is in the Army.
“He was really hard on us,” says the bespectacled, baby-faced Payne, referring to the strict curfews his dad imposed on him and his four brothers—even on prom night—and the white-glove-type dust inspections they’d be subjected to after cleaning the house every Saturday. “It was pretty miserable,” he says. “I grew up feeling like no one really loved me.”
Payne says he tried to win his father’s affections by enrolling in activities he thought he’d approve of. “I was always trying to prove myself,” he recalls, “becoming drill team commander in ROTC [the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps] and the choir director at church—anything so that somebody would be proud of me.”
Fear of further disappointing his dad was one reason Payne opted not to tell him he was gay. Besides, with so many other pressures—including financial problems—on his family, “it just never came up,” he says. “Telling him [I was gay] would have just been the icing on the cake.”
To block out the disappointment of family life, Payne began immersing himself in marijuana and booze. During his first semester at Southern he began taking weekend road trips with his new “gay family”—a group of college friends—to party in nearby New Orleans.
“That’s when I really started drinking,” the business management major says. He became such a “master at mixing drinks” that people would ask him to bartend at parties.
Payne basked in all the newfound attention.
“I never thought I was cute [before then],” he says shyly. But once away at school, he switched up his wardrobe and discovered his own style. And it worked, he says: “People started noticing me.”
Payne admits he would have unprotected sex with other guys simply because they told him he was cute. “I wasn’t worried about asking, ‘Do you have any STDs,’ [sexually transmitted diseases] or anything. We’d be drinking, and you know, that all played a part in [my contracting HIV].”
Tikili and Payne are just two of hundreds of thousands of faces behind a three-alarm-fire: the HIV crisis ripping through the black community.
In August 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was the official bearer of bad tidings. It released a report that showed an upward tick consistent with what researchers have seen during the 30 years since AIDS emerged: The rates of infection among young black men who have sex with men (MSM) are skyrocketing. The CDC estimates that each year, about 56,300 people contract HIV in the United States. African Americans, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, comprise 44 percent of these cases, and MSM comprise a whopping 73 percent of the total cases among black men. What’s more, rates of infection increased 48 percent between 2006 and 2009 among black MSM between ages 13 to 29. (Based on the CDC’s projections, young MSM in general were the only group to experience an uptick in infection rates during this time.)
But these black men don’t get the sympathy afforded to some heterosexual black women who’ve contracted HIV from male partners (the “down low” myth, discredited as the main driver of HIV among black women, continues to stigmatize black MSM). In fact, many activists and academics say, too few people care about what happens to black MSM, in part because of judgments made about their sexuality.
“Without a doubt homophobia is contributing to the problem of high rates of HIV among black MSM,” says Linda Villarosa, who is the journalism program director at the City College of New York. A former New York Times reporter, Villarosa is contributing to a documentary on HIV/AIDS in the black community, to be broadcast on PBS this year. “Where there is judgment and sexual shaming, there are high rates of HIV,” she says. “Where there is fatalism, fear and secrecy, there are high rates of HIV. In a conversation about high rates of HIV among black MSM, I once heard a young man say, ‘Nobody cares about us, including us.’ That’s not entirely true, but it is sad.”
Kai Wright—a black gay activist and the editor of the political e-zine Colorlines—says a prevailing sense of hopelessness puts young black gay men at risk for HIV. “Young, black gay and bisexual men are among the most economically, emotionally and culturally beat-up groups in the United States,” he wrote in an essay published last August by Colorlines and the Black AIDS Institute. “They are uniquely at risk for a long list of social ills—hate crimes, homelessness, honestly just about any of the things researchers look at when measuring health risks among young people. So of course they are uniquely at risk for HIV, too.”
Kenyon Farrow, former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, agrees. He says getting HIV is generally just one symptom of much larger life issues.
One common scenario, he says, is that kids get kicked out of the house once their families find out they’re gay. As a result, they’re cut off from traditional support networks—and once they’re homeless, they’re subjected to a range of situations where they’re more likely to contract HIV. “If you’re black and you get ostracized from the black community,” Farrow says, “you’re screwed.”
Farrow adds that the church—which has been the backbone of the black community since Africans were brought to this country in chains—often exacerbates the problem. “[In church] gay people are taught that they’re going to hell,” he explains. “As a result, someone who’s gay may have serious mental health issues to work out. And those issues can impact their relationships. Someone who doesn’t feel good about themselves may not use condoms all the time or learn to negotiate their own body and what safety means to them.”
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