Gay, black and HIV positive: America’s hidden epidemic

December 5, 2019

Its is Mecca,
It’s Wakanda It is a refuge. If you live in the south
and you happen to be black and gay This is as free a city
as you’re going to find. I think it’s the greatest place on earth. When I moved here I was like,
‘Oh, thank God, yes.’ I’ll have a new clean slate,
I’m able to reinvent myself, I’m able to be comfortable
in my own skin. You have all these black gay men
rushing to Atlanta and Atlanta is not the land of milk and honey
they thought it was going to be. Who thinks that they’re going to be diagnosed
with an illness that could possibly kill you? That you may not see 30
or you may not see 40. White America believes that this is over. You actually hear people say,
‘the height of the epidemic.’ There is no way that 1989
was the fucking height. We’re not just going to sit back and watch our brothers die. We’re going to do something about it. If you’re a gay black man
in America today your risk of contracting HIV
is one in two. I’ve come to Atlanta, Georgia.
Long seen as a mecca for gay black men, thousands move here each year from
across the country to start a new life. Alright so y’all,
I’m gonna do a little dance for y’all. It’s a little j-sette… This is 25-year-old Daryon who moved to Atlanta
from Huntsville, Alabama, in 2014. I came out in seventh grade in middle school.
I had a crush on this guy. And someone told him I had a crush on him.
So he went back and told his mum who told the principal,
who told my parents. And he pulled me into the principle’s office
and was like, ‘We don’t accept that going on in our school.’ My stepdad, he’s from that hood,
urban side of town. He was like ‘If I hear one more thing
about you being gay I’ll ship you back to your dad.
– How old were you when that happened? I want to say 13 or 14. At the age of 21, Daryon left the conservative
city for Atlanta where he could live freely as a gay man. Are you different now than the Daryon
that lived in Alabama? Yes, I was very shy.
Growing up, I was antisocial. I was very skinny like a twig.
When I moved here I started working out more just to build my muscle up.
Started getting tattoos everywhere. I feel like when I said I was gonna revamp
myself I really revamped myself. So I like the new me. After three years in the city
he contracted HIV. I was feeling very sick. So I remember
leaving work, I went to the doctor’s office. They said, ‘okay, you have gonorrhoea
and acute HIV.’ I was so shocked. I would just break down crying.
It was like Daryon, how did you get yourself to this point
where you contracted HIV? So had you been using condoms
consistently before this happened? A few times, like two or three times,
I would slip up and not use them. But I would get tested on a regular basis.
I would get tested between three to six months and every time I got tested it was negative
so I wasn’t really worried about it. Like many young people
Daryon was careless with condoms two or three times. But unlike most young people,
his risk of HIV was so high because of who he is
and where he is. I’ve come to meet Tori Cooper,
an HIV prevention specialist on the frontline of the epidemic in Atlanta. Some people like black condoms,
some people like non-latex condoms, some people like insertive condoms,
some people like the larger condoms. A personal favourite – have you ever seen
this before? – I have not. This is a condom – I want you to
open it. We’ll open one together. This is great because it goes inside
of the receptive partner. And I always tell people:
if your partner is bigger around than that then you probably should not date him. How much more at risk
of contracting HIV are you as a black gay man than
as a white gay man? So a black gay man in the south,
his chances of getting HIV are about one out of two. For white gay men it’s closer to about one
out of 11. So that’s really a startling statistic. Sometimes because of their skin colour
they have access to things black gay men don’t generally. I’m generalising here. And sometimes that includes access
to stuff like PrEP which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis. That’s for people
who are HIV negative. It’s a pill they take once a day that keeps them HIV negative.
Keeps them from getting HIV. And what we’re finding is,
as PrEP continues to roll out, there are a lot more people who are white
who may not be as high risk who have access to PrEP. If you’re someone for whom 85%
of the billboards are aimed at you, they have pictures of you on there,
you start to realise, ‘Hey, this is a message for me.’ We’ve had 35 years of messaging for white
gay men. They’ve gotten it, or at least they’re getting
it. And they’re far ahead than everybody else. Lower rates of health access, education and
income have all been found to play a role in the
HIV rate among gay African American men.
But these systematic and historical factors are not enough to persuade everyone.
Some people place the blame for the HIV epidemic solely on the gay black men living through
it. We live in an era where the morals
have vanished out here. And everyone’s fucking and sucking
everything they can get their hands on. This is Walter Lee Hampton II,
a controversial YouTuber on Atlanta’s gay scene. As someone who is HIV negative,
he is often accused of demonising gay black men and ignoring the evidence of what is
really behind America’s HIV problem. How do you explain the fact that it’s still
such a problem in the black community and not the white community?
Because for a lot of people that shows that it isn’t just about behaviour,
it’s about things like healthcare and education. I’m a member of the black gay community.
I understand and I see what’s going on and it’s unfortunate what I see
going on in our community. These guys are not trying to build relationships.
White guys are more prone to get into relationships. I mean, I don’t know if that’s true.
– Oh, I know it’s true. There have been studies done that show
that black gay men actually have fewer sexual partners than white gay men.
Well nobody’s going to walk into a study and talk to a person who’s taking the study
and say, ‘You know I just slept with five people in the last 48 hours.’
People are not going to tell the truth. I know what these guys are doing.
– This is like an America-wide study that shows that black men engage in less risky
sexual behaviour, have fewer partners… I would take that study and toss it into the
trash can and I’m being very serious with you. Because I know that’s not accurate.
I talk to too many people nationwide who tell me partner after partner has insisted
that they do not have protected sex – But maybe that’s the same in the white community.
– Oh it could be the same in the white community. I can’t tell you nothing about what’s
going on in white America. So in white America, men have more sexual
partners than black men. They’re just as likely to
use a condom. I couldn’t tell you anything about their sexual
practices because I’m not a white man. My point is, if the behaviour doesn’t differ
why is the problem so big in the black community? Is it not something systematic as well as
this ‘promiscuity’ that you see? When you say systematic, you think somebody’s
going round injecting these guys with HIV? No.
Okay so when you say systematic what do you mean? Explain it to me.
I mean education, access to healthcare, historical interventions being targeted
at the white community. There are a lot of factors that
a lot of other people see. Well, because I’m black and gay
and I’ve sat here in Atlanta since 1989, and I’ve witnessed and watched friends all
over the United States within the black gay community I can honestly say promiscuous,
risky sexual behaviour is the problem. That is the problem. This is my HIV medicine.
I take one a day. What would happen if you didn’t stick to this? If you don’t take your medicine you will develop Aids and then it will really kill you. So if you take your medicine, eat right, live right, you keep your T cells higher
and your viral loads down. With that you’ll be able to maintain an
HIV-positive undetectable status. What does it mean to have an undetectable
viral load? You’re not able to transmit the virus to somebody
else. So if you’re undetectable as you are now,
if you sleep with somebody, even unprotected, they would not get HIV? So it’s basically impossible for you to transmit HIV to anybody else?
As long as I take my medicine, there’s no way they can get it. There’s no way.
How much does it cost? Ooh, it costs a lot. There are different programs
out there but this costs $2,000. – Per? Per bottle. Yeah, $2,000. In the months following his diagnosis,
Daryon has joined a group called Thrive. They hold regular meetups where black gay
men socialise and talk about their experiences
living with HIV. Daryon is one of their youngest and newest
members. Some of us were just diagnosed last summer
and some of us have been living with HIV three-plus decades. The stigma then was so thick.
Because families were rejecting them, preachers were preaching that this was God’s
plague. I had friends dying and the church would not do their services. We would have memorial
services in bars, in our backyard, because they wouldn’t
do it. And then with the medicine making people so
sick a lot of people wouldn’t take the medicine. I wouldn’t take it. I took AZT for two days.
I said, ‘No, if I’m going out bring me a bottle of
scotch. I’m gonna go out with a bang.’
Well for me being newly diagnosed I was kind of scared at first. My mum, she’s a registered
nurse so she sees this all the time. And she would preach it to me:
‘make sure you wrap it up.’ So she was the first one I told and
I feel like I slapped her in the face. I get angry because I feel like
my generation didn’t do enough to protect you. That’s just me.
The first thing that goes through my mind is: you should not be positive. And young men
should not be leaving this planet with Aids, with
this disease. White people, or white men specifically, aren’t
getting it as much so the response is totally watered
down. When we think about all of the other things
that affect black men, when we do the ‘what if?’
around them, so like, what if said thing – what if police
brutality were happening against mostly white men – what
would the response be then? The onus is always on
us: ‘You should have done more to avoid you getting
it.’ We don’t challenge or question the systems
that are set up that leave us predisposed to getting HIV. Support systems like Thrive are often lifesaving
for people living with HIV. But for the most marginalised communities,
a lack of support can have dangerous consequences. For black trans women, the HIV rate is also
one in two. But their risk of homelessness, drug addiction and prostitution is higher. And each of these
make it harder to access the HIV care they need. I met Pearl in Piedmont Park as she did her
weekly outreach for the homeless women who live there. We have jeans, short pants, sweaters, dresses,
skirts… These are gift bags which consist of condoms,
lube, makeup, literature, eyebrow pencils and all
those little accessories that every girl needs. There’s not too many organisations out there
who are helping transgenders who are homeless and living with HIV. So I took it upon myself to do something like that because I was also homeless and I am living with HIV. So I was down there with them at one point.
– Were you in this park? Yes. I was on drugs, prostituting, doing
whatever it took to survive. What do you think it is about being trans
as well as black that makes people more likely to end up homeless? Well, you’re dealing with HIV, being trans,
being black. You have all them strikes against you. A lot of these trans was damaged from their
home, parents putting them out at young ages. And I know it’s got to be a deep-down hurt.
So I don’t think it’s never over and I think that’s what holds them still
into that bad spot where they at. [raps] Next year, Daryon will come off his mum’s
insurance policy leaving him unable to pay the $2,000 a month he needs for his medicine.
Through his support network, he has found out about programmes that can help towards the
cost. But for other young, gay black men across
America, these resources simply aren’t there. Right now I feel like with the younger generation,
they feel so isolated from people who have information about medicine, or who can afford
medicine so they don’t take it. That’s why it’s more
the younger generation dying now quicker than the ones
who lived through it back in the day. So if everybody had their viral loads low,
nobody would be contracting HIV? – Mm hmm. I think for a long time, people have simply
not cared. When we talk about the first initial cases, we forget that there were black people
suffering and dying from the very beginning as well. And so we became an afterthought
even from the beginning. I remember a time with communities
rallying around young men who were dying and holding them up.
To look into faces like Daryon and to think: you may not be in this situation
if people saw value in your life.

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