When Race and Sex Collide, HIV Happens
SF study says racism may help fuel HIV infection among the city's Black Gay Men—but who should address it?
By Kheven LaGrone
“Progressive” San Francisco is continuing to prove its reputation for being a cold, hostile city for African Americans. The city’s African American population, especially its middle-class, has dwindled more than any other major city in the country.
Now an article about a study conducted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) exposes the negative attitude of San Francisco’s Gay community towards African American same-gender-loving (SGL) men, and its impact on HIV rates.
SFDPH studied the social and sexual mixing between racial and ethnic groups of Gay men in San Francisco. Their report, titled “Racial Mixing and HIV Risk Among Men Who Have Sex,” appeared in the journal AIDS and Behavior (published online on 29 May 2009) and was the subject of a July 6, 2009 Reuters article titled “Sexual Barriers May Up HIV Risk in Black Men.”
The article began:
“New research hints that the social and sexual networks of black Gay men, constrained by the preferences and attitudes of non-black Gay men, may explain the risk of more rapid spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and higher sustained prevalence of HIV infection in black Gay men.
While black Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, most studies have found that black Gay men don’t engage in higher risk sexual activity any more frequently than other Gay men [. . .]”
The study reported that San Francisco Black men were the least preferred sexual partners by “other races” and that other races avoided sex with Black men. According to the SFDPH study, other races of Gay men in San Francisco see African American men as the riskier group to have sex with.
This is ironic considering that San Francisco’s numerous sexually promiscuous, risky sex venues, such as its cruising parks, glory holes, and sex clubs are predominantly White. The African American presence in those places is negligible.
According to the article, “black Gay men were also counted less often among friends and were perceived as less welcome at the common venues that cater to gay men in San Francisco by other gay men.”
That finding should not surprise anybody. Many Black men perceive this as well. This could have been concluded from studying the advertisements in the city’s Gay media that almost totally exclude African American models, especially depictions of loving Black male couples (see sidebar).
According to the SFDPH study, “black Gay men were three times more likely to have sexual partners that were also black, than would be expected by chance alone.”
The researchers concluded racism “push[es] black gay men closer together in smaller social and sexual networks—networks that are already at higher risk for HIV infection merely because the background prevalence of HIV is higher than in other groups.”
This is one of the risks with any “ghetto.” Ironically, this statement puts some blame on other races—and hence, some responsibility or obligation to solve the problem of HIV/AIDS in the African American “ghetto.”
However, other races may not agree or accept such responsibility; they might not care. They might ask, why can’t Black men be more careful? Besides, the statement may not apply to Black men who love Black men.
In February 2009, the Black Men’s HIV Summit released the San Francisco African American MSM (men who have sex with men) HIV Plan. One of the statements that stood out was this:
“Most Black MSM lack a sense of community; social networks are disconnected. Some Black MSM engage in ‘survival sex’ or are desperate for intimacy (and so ‘don’t think about partners’ HIV status’).”
This, to me, was much more meaningful than whether or not men of “other races” wanted to sleep with Black men. Loneliness can be very painful and sex is often used as a quick, easy pain relief.
How can the “isolation and psycho-social issues,” mentioned in the report of being a Black MSM in San Francisco be addressed? How about a study of how often Black MSM in San Francisco use sex to lessen loneliness? Why is finding Black on Black love so difficult?
The Reuters article concluded with one of the SFDPH researchers, H. Fisher Raymond, saying “The racial disparity in HIV observed for more than a decade will not disappear until the challenges posed by a legacy of racism towards blacks in the U. S. are addressed.”
But why should other races address a “legacy of racism”? Other races are addressing the racial disparity by avoiding sex with African American SGL men. So African American SGL men must address the racial disparity themselves. And when it comes to African American HIV prevention efforts, San Francisco may be the place to study what NOT to do.
Kheven LaGrone is the editor of “Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,” a collection of literary criticism by American and Asian scholars of the controversial novel.