HIV/AIDS disproportionately affects black Washingtonians

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Thursday March 26, 2009

As public health officials continue to express concern in the wake of a report that found roughly three percent of the District's residents live with HIV/AIDS, the epidemic continues to exert a disproportionately high toll on black Washingtonians.

The report, which the District's HIV/AIDS Administration released last Monday, indicated 6.5 percent of black men in the city live with HIV/AIDS. This statistic compares with 3 percent of Latinos and 2.6 percent of white males. The report further indicated men who have sex with men accounted for 37 percent of all transmissions.

Ron Simmons, president of US Helping Us, told EDGE in a recent interview these statistics are no surprise. His organization, which has a $1.7 million annual budget, offers HIV/AIDS prevention and care services to black gay and bisexual men in the District, suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. Simmons stressed he feels the rates of HIV/AIDS among the District's black residents are not indicative of behavior. He conceded, however, delivering safer-sex messages remains a challenge.

"We've got to get them to understand doing this is not only for your sake, but for your community's sake," Simmons said.

Wards 5, 6 and 8, which encompasses large swaths of Southeast, reported the highest overall rates of HIV/AIDS. Ward 3, which includes Cathedral Heights and Tenleytown, reported the lowest percentage of residents who live with the virus.

Simmons said low socio-economic status often correlates with higher HIV/AIDS rates.

"If you look at a city and map out all the poor areas, they are usually going to be the same areas with high HIV/AIDS rates," he said. "There's a reason for that."

Jason Bartlett, deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, pointed out he feels cultural homophobia is another factor that contributes to higher rates of HIV/AIDS among black gay men and MSM. Activists, HIV/AIDS service providers and even public health officials have been critical of the black church for institutionalized homophobia and what they contend is an inadequate response to the epidemic. Bartlett stressed he feels religious leaders and others have a responsibility to address these concerns.

"Our churches, our leaders are afraid to say gay, say LGBT. When you're afraid to say it, it's going to affect public policy."

"Our churches, our leaders are afraid to say gay, say LGBT," he said. "When you're afraid to say it, it's going to affect public policy."

The District's report comes less than four years after the Centers for Disease Control released the findings of a controversial survey that found nearly half of black MSM in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco tested HIV-positive.

The economic stimulus package President Barack Obama signed into law last month contains $1 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services' prevention and wellness fund. HIV/AIDS service providers in Washington and around the country remain optimistic HHS will use some of the money to augment local prevention programs, but Rahim Briggs of Al Sura, an organization that seeks to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among black Washingtonians, contends local and federal officials alike need to do more to curb the epidemic.

"They need to identify the organizations who are at the grassroots," he said.

Briggs added he would like the president to use his experience as a community organizer to intervene in areas where he feels District officials have failed.

"Obama needs to talk to people in the trenches and then give a directive to federal and local government," he said. "We're here. We're waiting for them to step up to the plate."

Bartlett agreed.

"I would hope the federal government would do the same and invest in our people in this country-and make greater efforts in the African American community," he said.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.