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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

AIDS, Race, and Victim Psychology

Several leaders of America's black community say the time has come to take AIDS seriously. "Now is the time for us to face the fact that AIDS has become a black disease,'' says Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP. "It has invaded our house, and our leaders must accept ownership and fight it with everything we have.'' What Mr. Bond appears to be saying is: When black people engage in high-risk (unprotected) sex, they increase their chances of contacting HIV. Being an opportunistic virus, HIV does not discriminate on the basis of race. Welcome to the human family, Mr. Bond. Your comment amounts to a belated acknowledgment of Dr. King's core message: Suppose we get busy recognizing we're all humans on this bus. Oh, but let's not give up a chance to play racial politics. As usual Jesse Jackson just can't help himself. "It is now time for us to fight AIDS like the major civil rights issue it is,'' he insists. And let's not miss an opportunity to link the importance of testing with a new entitlement. Jeff Sheehy, HIV/AIDS advisor to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, says "more robust testing" has got to be linked to "guaranteed access to care." Imagine a spokespersons for cancer, cardiac health, or diabetes making the same demand. It wouldn't happen because those three health problems are not understood to have civil rights. Heart health activists generally do not stand up to boo at American Heart Association conventions when speakers urge heart attack patients not to eat salt-laden Crisco as a staple or when speakers recommend exercise as a heart health enhancer. So, imagine how charming it must have been for Bill Gates to be booed at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada, when he endorsed abstinence and fidelity within marriage as two possible strategies in combating the deadly disease. "This approach has saved many lives, and we should expand it." Gates' comments were received with loud cries of contempt from audience members who oppose anything but the promotion of condoms as a means of combating the spread of AIDS. Well, guess what? A Philadelphia study found that an "abstinence only" sex-education curriculum was more likely to persuade black junior high school students to put off initiating sex than a curriculum dedicated to the "use latex if you're gonna do it" message. You see, where's the fun in abstinence? As for fidelity: awfully boring. In his book Virtually Normal, Andrew Sullivan actually argues that once same-sex marriage is legalized, society will have to develop a greater "understanding of the need for extramarital outlets between two men than between a man and a woman." Sullivan adds (pp. 202-203): "The truth is, homosexuals are not entirely normal; and to flatten their varied and complicated lives into a single, moralistic model is to miss what is essential and exhilarating about their otherness." Get it? Don't oppress us with your moralistic notions of faithfulness and abstinence, oh no. We have the right to engage in whatever sexual activities we define as "essential and exhilarating about [our] otherness." We have a right to condoms. And if the condoms break and we get sick, we have the right to "guaranteed access to care." What's not to understand? Not every gay person subscribes to this nonsense. Not every HIV/AIDS sufferer does either. Nor am I against the use of condoms as a means of reducing the likelihood of transmission. I just have this crazy idea that it doesn't make a lot of sense to roundly jeer the efficacy of 1) not having sex and 2) sexual fidelity as two means of being safer than otherwise. Kudos to Rep. Maxine Waters for having the courage to call for compulsory HIV testing for Americans who are sent to prison and again when they are released. Waters recognizes that her call for mandatory testing will "step on toes" of some of her supporters. She's right about that, and that's why I encourage her to try this as a more effective spin: "I today call for mandatory HIV/AIDS screening for prisoners because George W. Bush lied about WMD." To contemporary liberals, which is the greater evil — mandatory screening or anything related to America's current president? Does the question really have to be asked?