HIV and the Black Female
The alarming spread of HIV among heterosexual African-American women and how the stigma surrounding the virus potentially puts the entire black community at risk were topics of a recent panel discussion held March 23 at Pasadena’s First AME Church and sponsored by AIDS Service Center.
“HIV and the Black Female” was the specific focus of the panel discussion, the first in a planned series of communitywide talks on why African-American men and women account for just 12 percent of the US population, but 47 percent of all HIV infections, and what can be done to reverse that trend.
“It’s very important that we have this conversation, that we get this conversation going and keep it going in the area of prevention,” said panel speaker Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a former UCLA immunologist who authored the 1981 report to the Centers for Disease Control first identifying AIDS as a syndrome.
Other panelists included Karen Tinsley, a licensed clinical social worker and former Director of Mental Health Services for ASC; Marva Brannum, a clinical pharmacist who served on the Service Center’s Board of Directors; and Dana Edwards, ASC’s Outreach and Prevention Coordinator. In addition to the discussion, HIV mouth swab tests were provided for free, courtesy of ASC, in an upstairs room of the church.
Moderated by Rev. Nikia Smith Robert of the First AME Church: Bethel in Harlem, N.Y., the panel discussion covered the genesis of the virus and how it was initially thought to be contracted only through homosexual sex. That the first widely reported cases in the mainstream media were white, gay men may have inadvertently spawned the misconception that it was not affecting the black community, Gottlieb said.
“HIV/AIDS in African-American men was present from the get-go, all the way back to 1981,” he added. “Several of our patients were African American, and that never found its way into print.”
Although HIV infection is still primarily spread through men who engage in homosexual sex (they accounted for about 71.5 percent of the 39,850 new cases recorded by the CDC in 2010), black women are the most likely of all heterosexual groups to become infected.
They make up 29 percent of all HIV cases in the US, and are 20 times more likely than their white counterparts to contract the virus, according to TheBody.com, an online information resource for HIV/AIDS.
The reasons behind those figures are many and complex, Edwards said, ranging from covert homosexuality and a general mistrust of doctors to a lack of education among young people and the thinking of some heterosexual women that being in a committed relationship is a safeguard against infection.
“(Older women) seem to be under the belief that, ‘I’ve had a boyfriend for years, I don’t need to get tested,’” Edwards said.
The statistics do not support that misconception — the CDC estimates about 87 percent of all African-American women living with HIV are heterosexual.
Although the panel discussion mainly addressed issues related to women’s health and HIV prevention, the conversation generated by audience members quickly expanded to encompass deeper issues within the African-American community, including the persistent cultural shame surrounding homosexuality, the health risks black men are exposed to in prison and socioeconomic barriers to education and prevention — all factors that can and do affect women.
Some members of the audience asked about the dangers of men having sex with men on the Down Low (or DL) and then coming home to wives and girlfriends. While there is no direct data on the prevalence of that as a primary cause of infection, Gottlieb said, it certainly is a concern.
“Anytime there’s something you can’t talk about, something that has to go underground, it becomes a danger to public health,” he added.
Brannum stressed the importance of the community’s coming together to create a conversation that is open and inclusive of all, regardless of their sexual identity.
“As a culture, we need to find a forum that will allow us to speak openly and honestly about sexuality,” she said.
Finding a Pasadena area church to host the panel discussion was an important first step in opening up a dialogue around HIV awareness and prevention in the black community, according to ASC Executive Director Anthony Guthmiller, who worked with Pasadena First AME’s pastor, Rev. Allen Williams, to make the event a reality.
Guthmiller said he hopes to hold more discussions like this, perhaps on a quarterly basis, so church and business leaders can be a part of spreading the vital message of prevention and education.
Tinsley suggested audience members ask themselves a few hard-hitting questions about their acceptance and tolerance levels. “How does the community receive people at risk and who have alternative lifestyles?” she asked. “Do you isolate them? Support them? Create a safe place in church to have discussion? Do you advocate for systemic support?”
Edwards shared some advice for parents and family members, saying that knowledge and education start with the family. She encouraged parents to build confidence in young women and talk honestly about sex and at-risk behavior. If you don’t talk with them, she said, they’re going to do it anyway, and they’re going to do it wrong.
After the panel discussion was over, and all questions from the audience had been answered, Rev. Smith Robert led the entire room in a call to action, in which she asked people to share what they would do to help spread the word in the community.
Pastor Jean Burch from the Community Bible Church of Greater Pasadena took the mic. She’d taken a break from planning her Palm Sunday sermon to catch the end of the discussion and addressed the crowd about the vital role churches can play in educating their congregants.
“Churches have to take this on as a ministry opportunity. We have to be educated as pastors and bring this to our pulpits,” Burch said. “I’m listening to these statistics, and they are staggering. We are moving to become an extinct species if we don’t do something about it.”
The pastor said she was grateful to have heard such valuable information and would bring it up at the next meeting of the Clergy Community Coalition, a Christian group of pastors representing the Pasadena area.
“I think it’s a beginning, and I think we need to do this with the churches,” Burch said. “If the schools can’t do (HIV) health education, the church certainly can. Our kids need to hear this.”
By Sara Cardine