In “America’s Hidden HIV Epidemic,” her recent cover story for New York Times Magazine, Linda Villarosa documents the struggles of Black gay men in Jackson, Mississippi against HIV and AIDS. The scenes she describes of young men newly diagnosed with HIV and near death are shocking. The story seems like it should belong to a different era—to 1982, not 2017. Still, after decades of medical neglect shaped by racism, homophobia, and a collective indifference toward poverty, Black gay men in the South and across the country continue to die of a disease that for others has long since become a chronic but manageable condition.
Since doctors first began tracking the epidemic, AIDS has disproportionately devastated African Americans, who contract HIV at higher rates and die faster than any other racial or ethnic group. Reading Villarosa’s article, one gets the sense that Black gay men have been largely passive throughout the AIDS epidemic, too closeted and marginal to take action against the disease. The truth is, however, that a small but determined number of Black gay AIDS activists have been sounding the alarm about AIDS in Black America—including among Black gay men in the South—for decades.
In tracing the roots of her story, Villarosa describes the way that AIDS was initially framed as a disease of white gay men, and the lasting effect that this had on African Americans’ perceptions of the disease. She writes,
“Including gay black men in the literature and understanding of the origins of the disease and its treatment could have meant earlier outreach, more of a voice and a standing in HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations, and access to the cultural and financial power of the LGBT community that would rise up to demand government action.”