I am currently working as co-producer and outreach director for a documentary called Thirteen Percent, now in post-production by Dream Factory, a minority-owned media production company. We seek to answer how 13% of the population (African-Americans) have come to account for 50%of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses. Along the way, we have gained many insights…
One of the common threads that has emerged from all of the interviews we have conducted during production of Thirteen Percent has been the reluctance of the African-American church to discuss HIV openly and nonjudgmentally in its sanctuaries, or to fully accept the infection among its congregants. Thirty years after HIV first erupted in America, leaving death and destruction in its wake, the black church continues to be more of a problem than the source of sustenance and solutions.
While the U.S. is generally considered a highly religious nation, polls conducted by both Gallup and the Pew Research Center have repeatedly shown that African-Americans are markedly more religious than the population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s perceived importance in life. In the most recent such survey (July 2011), Gallup found that 53 percent of black Americans self-identified as being “very religious,” with 33 percent saying they were “moderately religious.” That stands in stark contrast to the 39 percent of white Americans who said they were “very religious” (and 26 percent who described themselves as “moderately religious”).
As a white, such strong affiliation by blacks with an institution that was originally literally forced on them by colonial missionaries and slave masters has long puzzled me. However, according to Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a historian of African-American Christianity from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Christian church was one of the few “sanctuaries” where slaves were allowed to congregate without suspicion and constant supervision. And, despite a contrary reality, they were drawn to the teaching that all Christians are equal in the sight of God.
“The (early gatherings) freely mixed African rhythms, singing and beliefs with evangelical Christianity. It was here that the spirituals, with their double meanings of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, developed and flourished; and here, too, that black preachers, those who believed that God had called them to speak his Word, polished their “chanted sermons,” or rhythmic, intoned style of extemporaneous preaching,” writes Maffly-Kipp. “Part church, part psychological refuge and part organizing point for occasional acts of outright rebellion (Nat Turner, whose armed insurrection in Virginia in 1831 resulted in the deaths of scores of white men, women and children, was a self-styled Baptist preacher), these meetings provided one of the few ways for enslaved African Americans to express and enact their hopes for a better future.”
This legacy has shaped the response of the African-American community to the AIDS epidemic in two important ways:
- Strong homophobia. Although stigma associated with homosexuality is found among all conservative believers, a 2009 Pew Charitable Trust poll revealed a slightly stronger bias among blacks. Overall, almost half of African-Americans (46%) said they think that homosexuality should be “discouraged.” In contrast, among the public overall, those who said homosexuality should be accepted outnumbered those who said it should be discouraged (50% to 40%).
Polls conducted by the Pew Research Center prior to President Barack Obama’s decision to support legalization of gay marriage found that blacks were the ethnic group least likely to support same-sex marriage. Only 30 percent said they back the unions, compared with 53 percent of all Democrats, 44 percent of whites and 41 percent of Hispanics. When same-sex marriage was rejected in California in a popular vote in 2008, gay rights activists pointed to one factor: religious African-Americans who largely voted against the proposal, according to exit polls.
This attitude was not monolithic. For example, the vast majority of members of the Congressional Black Caucus—such as Maxine Waters, Sheila Jackson-Lee, John Lewis and Alcee Hastings—have stellar records in supporting LGBT rights.
However, the tension was real and it created a metaphorical tug of war.”(Gays and lesbians) would rather suppress their identity than denounce their church,” Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBT advocacy group, told National Public Radio in a recent interview. “I’ve seen people refuse to divorce themselves from their church in spite of the ignorance that spews from the pulpit. … It’s their way of repenting. They victimize themselves through self-oppression.”
HIV first gained notoriety among men who have sex with men — a group that (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) currently accounts for 73 percent of new infections among black men. Thus, it is easy to understand why an “HIV-positive” status is often automatically associated with being gay. (It’s a false leap, however. In 2009, black women accounted for 30 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among African-Americans, and most — 85 percent — acquired the infection through heterosexual sex.) In a culture that has traditionally rejected homosexuality, that has translated into a continuing stigma and an associated silence. Many young people, we have been told, don’t want to get tested or reveal their HIV status for fear of being “labelled.”
Fortunately, that is now changing. Two weeks after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People passed a resolution endorsing same-sex marriage as a civil right protected by the U.S. Constitution. That action paved the way for a number of influential hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z, 50 Cent and T.I., to voice their support for equality. In the wake of these developments, a survey conducted for ABC and the Washington Post showed a startling increase in support for gay marriage among African-Americans, to 59 percent.
“Obama’s ‘evolving’ toward full marriage rights has had a ‘halo effect’ across Black America,” writes blogger Rod McCollum in Ebony. He quotes political analyst and author Keith Boykin as commenting, “The tension between our political progressivism and social conservatism seemed to exist for decades, but that’s starting to change now thanks to President Obama.”
- Delayed activism. As Pernessa Seele, founder and CEO of the Balm In Gilead points out in her interview with the Thirteen Percent team, blacks responded to the first onslaught of the epidemic by turning inward, to family and church — institutions that, for the reasons described above, have been loath to advocate loudly and adamantly on behalf of those with HIV/AIDS. In contrast, white gays responded with in-your-face demands for dignity, equality and access to treatment.
It didn’t hurt that the gay community tends to be more affluent; the ability to give generously to candidates has translated into significant political clout, from the local level to the White House. And then there is a phenomenon termed “familiarity.”
According to the ABC/Post survey, 71 percent of Americans now say they have a friend, family member or acquaintance who’s gay, up from 59 percent in 1998. People who know someone who is gay are 20 points more likely than others to support gay marriage.
Gays and lesbians “are born into straight families and live in straight neighborhoods and go to straight schools and work in straight businesses,” Kenneth Sherrill, a professor at Hunter College in New York and a longtime gay activist, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a kind of familiarity that’s exceedingly difficult to achieve in the case of race.”
Meanwhile, however, the incidence of HIV infection among the African-American community has reached epidemic proportions. Familiarity or not, the crisis has reached the point that I believe the African-American community must borrow a page from the gay rights movement and begin to “act up.”
Legendary gay AIDS activist Larry Kramer once wrote in the New York Native: “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” Replace “gay men” with “black people” and you have a sense for the urgency that is required. We hope Thirteen Percent will serve as the catalyst for a new community dialogue that will change the current trajectory.