The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released new data regarding the HIV infection rate in the USA. The data, covering the years 2003 through 2009 showed that the HIV infection rate is holding steady at about 50,000 new cases per year. However a breakdown of the numbers revealed a shocking disparity in the HIV infection rate among Black men who have sex with men (MSM). During this period, the infection rate for Black MSM nearly doubled! Within Palm Beach County, similar trends have been evident since 2006. A 2007 Care Council of West Palm Beach Bulletin indicated that gay, Black men had one of the highest infection rates, not just in the county, but in the country.
There are no doubt a myriad of interconnected factors contributing to the staggering HIV infection rates among Black males. Even the CDC acknowledges that there is no clear explanation as to why Black men are being decimated by HIV infections in ways that aren’t quite as prominent among other groups.
One of the factors is the lack of education, not just about sexual health or HIV prevention, but lack of education in general. The harsh reality is that many Black men, especially in the age range most severely affected by HIV (13 yrs – 29yrs), are also at risk of not completing a high school education.
Black men who drop out of high school are the leading demographic within the prison system and are 47 TIMES more likely to be incarcerated then their non-Black counterparts. Criminal records do not make for attractive employees in many organizations. Thus, Black male dropouts/ex-convicts also make up a large percentage of low-wage earners. Low wages typically mean that they also do not have access to routine healthcare, because they can not find good jobs that will cover their healthcare costs.
Another factor that plays a role in the HIV infection rate of the Black male, is cultural stereotypes and stigmatization of Black men who openly acknowledge being gay or bi-sexual. Sadly, this stigmatization often comes from other members of the African American Community. The fear of being ridiculed if they even acknowledge that they are having sex with other men keep many black men in the closet and out of the healthcare facilities. They end up engaging in risqué sexual trysts as “Down Low Brothers” instead of feeling comfortable enough to acknowledge their sexual preferences, and seek info on how to prevent and/or treat various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). This lack of a support system within their communities often contributes to a vicious cycle that, in the case of HIV infections, culminates in a 48% increase in HIV infection rates among Black MSM in a 4 year period.
In addition, and in part due to the fear of stigmatization, not all Black males who have sex with other males feel as though they fit into the “gay” or “bi-sexual” category. Therefore, even when there are resources available that specifically target gay/bi-sexual men, Black males in the community might shy away from such services because they don’t feel as if they are one of “those people”.
There are a number of organizations within Palm Beach County that provide HIV education and testing services. Some of them are primarily focused on providing service to gay and lesbian members of the Palm Beach Community. However, if the “uncategorized” Black male who has sex with other men doesn’t want to even visit one of these facilities, these services are of no benefit to him.