I’ve been alive as a gay black man for 25 years—and have lived with HIV for the past six. It didn’t surprise me when I read in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes that a survey found that 54 percent of black men who sleep with men (compared with 27 percent of their white counterparts) believe that HIV is not what causes AIDS. Some 56 percent of my brothers believe that HIV/AIDS drugs do more harm that good, and 58 percent believe that there is a cure out there right now—if only drug companies would release it.
So why wasn’t I surprised? Well, there are some things you come to expect as a double minority—one of which is that The Man will keep you down however and whenever possible. Ask brother Malcolm about it, and he’ll tell it to you straight. If the system has lied to you and your ancestors often, it’s awfully tempting to keep disbelieving whatever the system has to say. It’s no surprise that after so many years of oppression, people of color from South Africa to South Central L.A. won’t believe a word they hear about HIV. But for us, I think, it’s even more important to look at all the evidence, and separate the illusion from the fact, the solid from the ethereal, and the healthy doubt of every freedom-loving American from the mad paranoia that can make the writing on the wall illegible.
When I told my father I was HIV positive he demanded that I get a second opinion, and I think a part of him still doubts that it’s true. Couldn’t it be a mistake? What if people are misdiagnosing patients to addict their bodies to drugs so that companies can make a profit? Couldn’t the government be plotting to keep the black man down? It wouldn’t be the first time (remember the great crack conspiracy?). I love my father, but I was less than pleased with him for saying all this to me. It gave me false hope. Hope that I would never get sick, hope that I had been deceived, hope that I wasn’t HIV positive at all.
HIV denialists feed upon the desperate need we have for hope. They’re feeding off the fear that if we have HIV, we deserve to be sick and furthermore that if we take these medications, we’re giving in to The Man we’ve all been trying to fight for so very long. HIV denialists tell us that HIV doesn’t exist and therefore that all those fears that we, the HIV-positive people of this planet, have don’t exist either. But that’s just not true. HIV does exist, and those fears (however false they may be) exist too. Ask a Buddhist: Hiding from your fears won’t make them go away.
We just need to tailor our hope, a lesson I learned from the CEO of an advertising firm. After I’d been working there for years, she offered me a promotion—so I told her I was HIV positive. I wanted to make sure that she knew why I had been ill for months and would continue to be ill until…who knows? I wasn’t required to tell her. But I wanted to. She smiled and took my hand. “So they’re finally going to find a cure for this,” she said. I stared at her, palms sweating, fighting tears with deep breath. “I just know,” she continued, “that this world wouldn’t let a person like you die before their time.”
In the end it’s about blinking into the healing light of reality, although everything except the truth might be blinding you. And if we can do that, a beautiful thing can happen—we can regain our hope, hope sprung from truth, more powerful than the face of failure and falsity, a hope that is a stronger beast than any other.