Sex and Relationships - A Brief View of Black HIV Advocacy

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If there's one important thing about sex and relationships, it's sexual health. There's a reason the SU is so keen on free condoms.

With any physically intimate relationship, sexual health is a vital conversation. But this isn't a 'wrap up' talk. This Black History Month, I invite you to challenge the often white-washed view of sexual health - especially the modern view on HIV and AIDs. When talking about sexual health and STD prevention, the mind goes straight to the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. In America, a poor public response nearly destroyed their queer community. When the past and present of HIV/AIDS in America is discussed, it's often through a White lens. The reality, though, isn't nearly as White as Philadelphia would have you believe. 

Since the epidemic was first recognized, Black Americans have been disproportionately affected. There's evidence that AIDS had been already affecting Black communities for a decade before it became a global crisis. The first American to be diagnosed with AIDS was Black: Robert Rayford was diagnosed in 1969, though the disease wasn't recognized until 1981 - when it began to sweep through visible gay communities. Racist gatekeeping meant these visible communities were predominately White, resulting in an understanding of AIDS as a 'white boy's disease.' Indeed, the public perception was that AIDS only impacted white gay men, yet this was an inaccurate picture: AIDS ravaged Black America, and not just gay men. Straight men and women, particularly transgender women, contracted HIV at record numbers within the Black community.

Black American's vulnerability to AIDS and HIV is rooted in systemic racism. In the 1950s and into the 60s, cities adopted the 'urban renewal' program: federal funding allowed cities to repossess 'slums' in the city to make room for better housing. The neighborhoods that were targeted were often predominantly Black, with Black families being displaced at high rates. They received limited support, and had no choice but to move into already overcrowded, segregated neighborhoods. The high rates of poverty and homelessness that resulted was damning. Black trans sex workers, for instance, found themselves living in unsafe conditions: poor, homeless, and fearing physical harm, they could not ask clients to wear condoms, favoring the spread of HIV. Institutionalized racism had its fingerprints all over the harm AIDS did to the Black community. 

Unfortunately, the disproportionate impact of AlDS on the Black community wasn’t restricted to the 80s. In 2019, roughly 13% of America's population was Black; that same year, Black Americans accounted for 42% of all new HIV diagnoses. This overrepresentation of Black Americans is nothing new, yet has always gone largely unacknowledged. In spite (and because of) this ignorance, Black AIDS activists are plenty and very mobile.

The words 'Black', 'queer' and 'activist' are likely to conjure up one name in many people's heads: Martha P. Johnson. You can't talk about American queer history, especially Black queer history, without mentioning her. Aside from her role in the Stonewall riots, Johnson was a powerful voice during the AIDS crisis. She worked with the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) long before being diagnosed with HIV in 1990. Johnson, however, isn't where black AIDS activism ends. 

Reggie Williams was a gay man who worked to address the failure of AIDS activists to effectively reach queer men of color. He spearheaded many educational programs aimed at minority communities and pushed for policy change that would amplify queer men of color's voices. Williams passed away in 1999, but the fruits of his activism can still be felt today.

Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe are both prominent Black athletes who publicly came out as HIV positive. Their position in the public eye and sexuality (both men were married to women when they contracted HIV) was vitally important: they destigmatized AIDS and HIV globally, but especially among Black Americans. Both athletes campaigned for better care for those living with HIV. Ashe died in 1993, but Magic Johnson remains an active HIV activist.

Black HIV activism isn't just limited to America. Simon Nkoli was a South African man whose work inspired monumental change. He died in 1998 due to complications associated with HIV. And today, there's Black voices like Winnie Sseruma, Marc Thompson, and Tiwa Savage. These are just a couple names, as there are far more black activists that shaped, and are still shaping, their home countries and the world as a whole.

These are just a handful of stories. But these stories don't have to be limited to one person. Beyond individuals, numerous organizations cropped up in Black communities. The Black AlDS Institute, SisterLove, and BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health) are just a few groups formed in response to the white centered response to HIV and AlDs. 

This is naturally a very grim topic. It's likely that this article might leave you unsettled, yet I'd argue it should inspire you: 40 odd years of advocacy has had an immense impact. Recent statistics have shown a relative decline in HIV diagnoses among Black Americans. Not only that, but many of the current names in HIV advocacy have lived with the disease for decades, which would have been unthinkable forty years ago. At present, HIV isn't an automatic death sentence. There's hope, and that's what the new generation of HIV/AIDS activists are proving. That's just as important as education or social change. 

If there is anything to take away, it's the scope of Black HIV and AIDS advocacy. Of course, this article isn't comprehensive - it hardly scratches the surface. I'd highly encourage you to do your own research, especially if you are interested in LGBTQ+ history. There's a trove of information to be found online.