'Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders stressed the important of education and community involvement during an inspiring speech made at the largest conference on Black and Latina/o sexuality to date.
Elders, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, was the first African-American woman Surgeon General. She was fired because of her outspokenness about controversial health issues such as condoms and masturbation. Elders gave a rousing keynote address at the Race Sex Power: New Movements in Black & Latina/o Sexualities conference at University of Illinois at Chicago April 11. The two-day conference brought together nine universities and colleges, and countless activists and academics.
Elders, who is just as vocal about sensitive health issues as she was in the early- and mid-'90s, started out by voicing her disappointment that the Bush Administration has spent so much time, money and energy focusing on abstinence.
'Abstinence-only education—I've never heard anything so sick,' Elders said. 'The tenants of abstinence break far easier than latex condoms,' Elders said to a round of applause.
She noted that the government has just started to talk about the 'ABC's' of sex, but when she was Surgeon General, they didn't even want to talk about latex condoms. However, the government isn't the only culprit. While the government is still hesitant to talk about human sexuality, so are the African-American and Latino communities, Elders said.
'We've been silent about our sex for far too long,' Elders stated. 'It's time we begin to bring it out of the closet and talk about it.'
Sexuality is 'part of being a human being,' according to Elders. She said that the community's silence on the issue has come at a high price—lost lives, especially among women and youth.
Elders stressed that because human beings are sexual creatures, sex is far more than a vehicle for procreation, and in fact, is '99 percent about pleasure.'
That silence comes at a price. Avoiding discussions of sexuality has led to the U.S. becoming a 'sexually unhealthly nation,' Elders said, noting the high numbers of kids who become parents before they even become adults, which leads to poverty.
Another reason why Elders believes the U.S. is 'sexually unhealthy' is the high rates of STD's, and the extremely high rates of unprotected sex acts among young people each year. A new study indicated that one-fourth of teens between the ages of 14 and 19 have an STD. Among African-American teens, the rates are one in two.
Elders also noted that even though African Americans and Latinos only make up 27 percent of the population in the U.S., they account for over half of AIDS cases. In addition, women are far more likely to get an STD, she said, and the rate of African-Americans living with HIV in the nation's capitol is higher than in South Africa ( Blacks accounted for 80 percent of HIV cases identified between 2001 and 2006 ) . None of these statistics point to a nation that knows what it is doing when it comes to human sexuality.
On top of all that, the U.S. lacks an adequate healthcare system.
'We have a very expensive sick care system,' Elders said. 'Forty-seven million without health insurance—and most of them look like me!'
Education is key, Elders said.
'We losing our people because of our failure to educate,' she said.
In order to properly education, the U.S. needs age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education in its schools, she suggested.
During her speech, Elders addressed LGBT issues, as well. In addition to gaining civil rights such as same-sex marriage for LGBT people, she said, we also need to ensure that the medical community knows how to address LGBT issues to help make the nation more sexually healthy.
One of the solutions is to set a new agenda. Part of that is developing new policies around sexuality, such as same-sex marriage.
'We need sexual rights,' she said. 'Sexual rights is a part of human rights.'
However, before we can get any of that, Elders said, we have to finish our agenda. Then, in order to help advance this agenda, we need to elect leaders that will create change, according to Elders.
'We need to begin to elect people into government who can thinking and make decisions in this country that make sense,' she said.
Elders also recommended that the community work together to form educational, prevention and leadership strategies, among others.
'We need to educate and empower all of our communities,' she said. 'We've got to be involved.