The South brings you good eating, good music and a rich legacy of civil rights movements. Unfortunately, it also brings you higher rates of diabetes, racism, a struggling health care system, alarming rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among African Americans — and HIV stigma. As proud, Southern, black gay men living with HIV, we are all too familiar with the challenges facing those living in the region. We are motivated by our experiences to work as leaders in our communities and steadfast in our commitment to end the HIV epidemic in the United States, particularly in the South.
A personal endeavor
For both of us, this work is personal. We saw a need to increase visibility of black gay people living with and affected by HIV and we stepped in to serve. Marvell’s work started in Memphis, building the non-profit Red Door Foundation to provide visibility for black gay men in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Venton launched a community center for young black gay men, United Black Ellument, and founded the non-profit Dallas/Fort Worth Pride Movement to promote unity, self-empowerment, mentorship and positive visibility throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth LGBTQ+ community of color.
Our work challenges the stereotype of HIV in the South by changing the narrative. HIV is not only a public health issue, but one that requires communities in the South to address critical issues such as health policy, social justice, racism and HIV stigma as a pathway to ending the AIDS epidemic.
Challenging societal taboos
HIV stigma in the South is the “elephant in the room” and perhaps the most significant barrier to effective HIV prevention, care and treatment modalities in the region. There must be strategic and intentional outreach to key institutions, such as faith communities, fraternal organizations and academic institutions, like historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs). These groups can help build our community’s capacity to have affirming conversations about the needs of people living with HIV and how to prevent its transmission, especially among LGBTQ+ black men.
To break down HIV stigma, we must spread the word that HIV treatment works. Not only is HIV treatment saving lives, it allows people to live long and healthy lives. And when someone’s HIV is fully controlled by treatment, they cannot transmit it. Too many people don’t know about these advances. We must break the stigma and start talking about HIV in our living rooms and at our kitchen tables.
We can end this epidemic. But to do so, we must not be afraid to start talking about HIV.