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The Stigma of HIV/AIDS in the African American Community

By Leah Smiley

Every year, December 1st is World AIDS Day.

In 2005, my husband and I renewed our vows. During the receiving line, I remember shaking a young lady’s hand who was thin in a sickly way. Her hair was disheveled and her clothes did not fit well. After all of the festivities, I asked my husband, “Who invited a crack-head to my wedding?” My husband simply replied, “That was Bill’s wife.”

Bill (his name is changed to reflect confidentiality) was a groomsman and I never met his wife before my big day. That would actually be my first and last time seeing her though. Within a year, Bill called my husband and said that he had devastating news. His wife had been very sick for a while and she was admitted to the hospital. When he went to visit her one day, the nurse made him put on protective clothing. He didn’t know what was going on. The doctors eventually informed him that his wife was in the final stages of AIDS. She died within days.

Bill was crushed– sad, confused and angry, all at the same time. He heard rumors that his wife had AIDS, but when he confronted her, she denied it. They had a child together, and she and her family conspired to hide her medical diagnosis for eight years. She eventually admitted that she contracted HIV from an ex-boyfriend but she didn’t disclose it because she feared that she would never marry or have children. Those were among her last words.

Fortunately, Bill and his son have been tested several times and the results have been negative. However, every story does not work out like Bill’s.  According to a 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 46% of U.S. adults aged 18-64 have never been tested for HIV.  Although Black and Latino survey respondents were much more likely than whites to report having been tested, there still remains much work to be done.

I have been tested 3 or 4 times in my lifetime. The most recent test was the last time that I was pregnant. Although I have been married for over a decade and I believe my husband has been faithful, you can never be too sure; so I actually requested the test during both of my pregnancies and both times, the results were negative.

AIDS is an epidemic in the African American community. I believe there are several reasons for this, especially among youth ages 13 – 24. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of this demographic represents new HIV-infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So that means that our children, my children, are the ones who are at the highest risk because:

1)      Sex is casual. Forget about working up to sex; today, some youth approach sexual relations as something that you change as frequently as your underclothes. They’ve seen parents change partners frequently; they watch it on TV; and they see it all over the Internet. It’s like entertainment.

Now, to say that African American youth are more promiscuous is simply not true. In my opinion, this issue affects ALL youth as a whole—white, black, purple, or green. The issue is that other behaviors and attitudes are at play– which affects the prevalence of AIDS in the black community. This leads me to my next two points.

2)      Young black men are disproportionately locked up in prison and what goes on there becomes ingrained in their behaviors. No one wants to talk about it, but men who have sex with men in prison is the norm and not the exception. In many cases, it is rape; but in some instances, sex in prison is consensual.

It has been well-documented that a person who has been institutionalized adapts to the environment for survival purposes. When these individuals are released from prison, their behavior doesn’t change just because they are free. It just becomes more covert because it is not acceptable behavior in the larger community outside of prison.

Keep in mind that prison is not a determining factor in whether or not a black man is gay. But, prison is one place that we don’t talk about men who have sex with men.

The expectation for many black men is that they are strong and manly. So the first thing that a black man says is, “I’m not gay.” Yet, he may regularly engage in sex with men while he also maintains a relationship with a female (or two). The African American community has to be honest about this paradoxical behavior in, and outside of, prison.

3)      There remains a negative stigma about being gay in the black community. Throughout the U.S., stereotypical attitudes about gay individuals are not as prevalent as they once were. BUT, within the African American community there is still a lot of hateful behavior, words, and mindsets. If black individuals consider themselves to be more moderate, they may view being gay as good for “entertainment”. Consider the popularity of the show “Empire”.

My husband and I debated these last two points. Keep in mind, these are my opinions. At the same time, the reality is that HIV/AIDS hits the African American community disproportionately hard in comparison to their representation in America—and it breaks my heart.

While there has been much progress made with an epidemic that affects millions around the world, there is still more that we can do. First, service providers must continue their outreach efforts. HIV/AIDS service providers and healthcare workers have been so effective with education and outreach that it behooves them to continue and advance their work. Two, the general public must continue to support these service providers with donations of time, treasury and talent.  HIV/AIDS is not an African American epidemic, it is a disease that does not discriminate. And three, we need to talk about the attitudes and actions that perpetuate the spread of HIV/AIDS. Ignoring and dismissing the facts do not help. Neither do mean and hurtful behaviors.

As we look to the future of reducing the occurrence of this disease with quicker diagnoses, better treatment options, and greater prevention efforts, we can mitigate and contain the effects of HIV/AIDS in virtually every community throughout the world.

Following is an infographic produced by Healthline Media Inc. For more information about this data or for questions about HIV/AIDS, visit their website at:


Leah Smiley is the Founder and President of the Society for Diversity, the #1 professional association for diversity and inclusion. For more information about the Society for Diversity, log onto

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