Will the Black Church Break Its Silence on AIDS?

In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was labeled as the “Gay Plague” that was thought to affect only white gay men in this country, the Black Church turned a deaf ear to this community’s laments for help.

When African-American gay men made it known that they too were affected by the disease, the Black Church did not offer their sons sympathy or prayer.

Today African Americans who comprise only 12 percent of the U.S. population make up 34 percent of all AIDS cases in this country, and its heterosexual population is beginning to outnumber its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

The Black Church now understands there is a problem. However, because of its discomfort in addressing issues related to sexuality, the Black Church’s “outstretched hand,” when extended, is offered passively toward people who contracted the virus through intravenous drug use and not those who contracted it sexually.

AIDS is the leading killer of African-American men between the ages of 25 and 44 and it’s the second leading killer of African-American women of the same age. In a recent study, released in February 2001, conducted in six major cities on young African-American gay men, 30 percent were infected with the AIDS virus.

What makes this news so heart-wrenching is that as African Americans we as a people have always risen in the face of adversity and have learned that with nothing we can still make a way when no way is apparent. Our tenacity speaks volumes about our survival here on this American soil after centuries of slavery, decades of lynching and years of racial profiling. In knowing this history and in seeing what African Americans have done in the decades I have been alive, African-American apathy around the AIDS epidemic in black communities revolves mainly around shame and stigma associated with being queer.

Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University in Atlanta, who studies AIDS in inner cities, told Associated Press, “In African Americans, there is a much greater stigma about being homosexual than there is among whites, that makes them even more marginalized.”

Shame also allows for behaviors of denial, neglect, and abuse. While the prevailing myth in the African-American community is that homosexuality is the pernicious result of black bodies being colonized by white society, labeling homosexuality as a “white disease” is no excuse to turn a blind eye to the everyday reality of African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We not only live in these black communities, but we die in them as well because there are no AIDS outreach programs.

The Black Church colludes in the death of our African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The Black Church’s intentional silence on the AIDS crisis is unconscionable since it is a church born out of struggle and it has historically been the leading institution in the black community to see to the health and welfare of its people. And while the Black Church can argue that it stands on the literal word of God and therefore has justification to erect its homophobic stance based on biblical passages, the Black Church literally discards all damning racial references.

Rev. Franklin Hobbs Jr., who is HIV-positive and an AIDS activist working with black churches, told the Boston Globe in 1999, “We’ve lost so many people from this disease and nobody talked about it.”

Ken Reeves, an African-American gay city councilman and former mayor of Cambridge, attended the two-day Harvard University AIDS conference in March 1998 titled “The Untold Story: AIDS and Black Americans — A Briefing on the Crisis of AIDS Among African Americans.” At the time, he told the Washington Blade, “African American male ministers over 40 are a tough nut to crack . . . if we wait for the Black Church on this, we’ll all be dead.”

Sexuality has never been a comfortable topic of discussion in the African-American community. This is largely due to slavery, and then to what we African Americans appropriated from the dominant culture about sexual behavior in order to redeem ourselves as human beings after slavery in the eyes of our oppressors. First bred as cattle during slavery, and later either touted out as sex sirens or taunted as sex predators, black sexuality has never had a chance to evolve in a milieu free of abuse, violence and stereotypes.

The raping of black women and the lynching of black men in this country by white men have always kept the control of black bodies away from us.

In carving out a racial identity, we African Americans have done it at the expense of leaving our bodies and sexualities behind.

With the embrace of fundamentalist Christianity that has embedded in its tenets an asexual theology, African-American bodies and sexualities that were once systematically usurped by white slave masters are now ritualistically harnessed by the Black Church.

Right now, the state of Black America is in a crisis. With African-American gay men at younger and younger ages being infected with the AIDS virus, along with an increase of the virus in the black heterosexual population, the life expectancy rate of African Americans will decline. Soon we will no longer expect today’s young African-American men and women to become the elders of the community.

The Black Church will never be able to adequately deal with the AIDS crisis until it deals with its angst around sexuality, and especially the sexuality of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The Black Church has allowed shame to foster a climate of apathy. Shame, however, serves no purpose other than to ruin the psyche and to ravage the soul of a people. My fear is that the Black Church is all too willing to let its communities die with this disease than to help us live with AIDS because of the shame and stigma associated with it.

As a faith community that rests on the theological premise that God is on the side of the oppressed, the Black Church must rid itself of this demon before it is too late, or else the Black Church will have participated in the genocide of its people.

And that would be a shame!

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