AIDS’ Troubling Gender Factor

December 1st was World AIDS Day around the globe. Ever since 1988, when the World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programmes for AIDS Prevention vowed to stop its spread by opening channels of communication and forge a spirit of social tolerance, we have been observing World AIDS Day. I am reminded of the English poet John Donne who wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I’m involved with all of mankind.” December 1st is a day that makes us all pause for a moment to see our interconnection to one another.

This year’s theme, focusing on stigma and discrimination, was chosen to help us stay connected to one another by seeing the various ways the virus is spread — which make us all vulnerable.

Once highly concentrated in gay male enclaves in the United States, and so thought, at that time, to only be transmitted by male-to-male anal intercourse, the AIDS epidemic has become an equal opportunity infectious disease that now plagues various communities with different characteristics throughout the world. Whereas in the former Soviet Union the AIDS epidemic is primarily transmitted by intravenous drug use, and in Mexico the epidemic is spread by way of unprotected homosexual sex, according to recent data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention another alarming characteristic about the disease that is now being disclosed is its rapid spread from male to female heterosexuals.

That’s right. Women are becoming the next largest group. Right here in Fall River, a town north of Boston, Massachusetts, 57 percent of the HIV cases are women, which is the highest in the Bay State.

And with this disease comes the toll that sexism exacts on women’s lives. Since women are perceived to be the carriers of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), especially in Third World countries, they are often abandoned not only by their husbands, but also by their families and communities. The banishment and victimization these women receive from their families and communities fling them immediately into a downward spiral of poverty along with the burden the stigma and shame brings with it.

“My mother-in-law has kept everything separate from me — my glass, my plate, they never discriminated like this with their son. . . For me, it’s ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t touch that,’ and even if I use a bucket to bathe, they yell, ‘Wash it, wash it!’ . . . But what can I do? My parents and brother also do not want me back,” AVERT, an international HIV & AIDS charity, reported a 23-year-old, HIV-positive woman in India as saying.

The feminization of this disease makes many of us AIDS and feminist activists wonder if the same amount of monies, concern, communication, and moral outrage that was put into white gay men with the disease will be put into curbing its spread among women.

The feminization of this disease makes many of us AIDS and feminist activists wonder if the same amount of monies, concern, communication, and moral outrage that was put into white gay men with the disease will be put into curbing its spread among women.

No group of women is as affected by this epidemic than women of African descent throughout the U.S. and on the continent of Africa.

In a letter sent to AVERT dated November 26, 2002, Thabisa of South Africa wrote about a female friend who recently succumbed to AIDS:

“Once again the virus has taken a friend and a dear person to me. . . She died in her sleep. . . I nursed this woman back to life last week. She was so cold and kept telling me to put on extra blankets. The room was so hot I was sweating from trying to make her warm. . . I had to go inside her blanket and sleep with her to try and bring her at least the body temperature while waiting for an ambulance. I cannot believe that she did not make it!”

In the 2000 Boston Globe series “AIDS and the African,” the newspaper reported, “Hiding behind a historical reluctance to speak openly about sex, African political and religious leaders have failed to acknowledge their deeper cultural crisis at the root of the AIDS epidemic.”

This also holds true of African Americans.

Because of the shame and stigma associated with the AIDS virus, most African Americans with the virus dare not to mention they have it. Black cadaverous bodies hide from the community and each other. . . The community knows them all, and the community — with its silence — in silence watches them all die.

I personally know the impact of this epidemic on African-American women. In my pastor’s study one day in 1989, I heard a faint knock on my door. I yelled to come in, but the person just stood there on the other side of the door from me. Thinking it was one of the kids from Sunday School horsing around, I continued with my work. Then minutes later, again, the faint knock. Annoyed and certain now that it was one of the kids, I rose from my seat with the intention to tell the kid to stop. I swung open the door, and to my surprise there stood in front of me a vaguely familiar image. With Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions splattered about on her face and neck, sunken eyes with dark rings, 40 pounds thinner, and a once tight, kinky, big and vibrant Afro (that the community folks nicknamed her Sister Angela Davis) now transmuted into straight, willowy, thin hair that was mostly gone, I greeted her as if she were a stranger. When she told me who she was I had to fight back the tears.

Desperate to see me because she heard I did not discriminate in doing funerals for those who die with AIDS, Bernice (not her real name) wanted to set up her arrangements. And we did. Approximately three months from the day I heard her faint knocks on the door, Bernice died.

Because of the African-American community’s silence and shame about the disease, and its harsher judgment against women with it, African-American women are less likely than any other group to seek help. Thus, they are dying with the virus at a disproportionately higher rate than any other group of women in the U.S.

In March of this year, one of our sister warriors in Boston, Belynda Dunn, 49, died of AIDS. As a tireless AIDS activist, Dunn was the driving force behind making the African-American community confront its homophobia and “AIDSphobia.”

Why? Because as an African-American heterosexual woman, Dunn was the wake-up call to the African-American community and Black Church that HIV/AIDS is not solely a gay disease. As a beacon of hope and inspiration to our community, Dunn spoke truth to power and made us see life that was at times both raw and unrelentingly real. She also pointed out that a lot of “heterosexual” African-American men are not honest about their sexuality, and the lie they are hiding shows up in the women they are sleeping with.

Because of the shame and stigma associated with the AIDS virus, most African Americans with the virus dare not to mention they have it. Black cadaverous bodies hide from the community and each other. Although the community averts its eyes pretending to not see, the community does see. The community sees them all. The community knows them all, and the community — with its silence — in silence watches them all die.

The shame about HIV/AIDS is not with the men and women who have contracted it, but the shame is with a society that stands by in the face of this tragedy and lets its people die. Let’s hope that theme for World AIDS day, “Stigma and HIV/AIDS: A Public Dialogue,” serves as a wake-up call, helping to stop the world from becoming a public disgrace.

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