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Blacks and AIDS: Behind headlines
by Karen Hawkins

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In the wake of the stunning CDC announcement that 30% of young, urban African-American gay men are HIV positive, Chicago's AIDS service organizations that serve minority clients have just one thing to say: We told you so.

And the providers said they hope the announcement will bring much-needed awareness—and funding—to communities of color.

"We knew where the numbers were going," said Derrick Hicks, executive director of the Greater Chicago Committee ( GCC ) . "I saw it personally and professionally."

Hicks and his colleagues at the Minority Outreach Intervention Project ( MOIP ) and the South Side Help Center said they've noted a steady climb over the years in the numbers of young Black men seeking services and getting tested.

Hicks and others lamented the relatively delayed reaction they're seeing in mainstream agencies' dealings with minority AIDS communities.

"We're in the second decade of HIV and AIDS, and we're just starting a dialogue on the impact on African-Americans," said Betty Smith, executive director of the South Side Help Center.

And while the numbers didn't surprise Brandon Armani, executive director of MOIP, the responses of his healthcare counterparts did.

"What is the thing that really shocked me was the reaction from some in the community, who said, 'What have you been doing for African-American men?'" he said. They couldn't believe the lack of attention and resources devoted to minority communities considering the epidemic's spread, he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures come from a study conducted from 1998-2000 in six urban centers: Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle. According to the study, gay Black men between ages 23 and 29 had the highest HIV infection rate in their age group.

And the Chicago Sun-Times reported that 59% of the state's reported AIDS cases in 2000 were African-Americans, though Blacks make up just 13% of the state population. Within the figures, 76% of the new cases were men, with 43% reporting male-to-male sexual contact as their transmission mode.

Now that more people have been made aware of the state of affairs for young Black gay men, the service providers said they hope badly needed dollars will be drawn to their agencies.

"I think it will start to help us in the funding aspect," Armani said, adding that he hopes the numbers will also spur research on AIDS among minorities, specifically what prevention methods work and which don't. "Funding is really starting to come along."

" ( Now ) maybe smaller agencies like GCC can say, 'We're trying, but we need some help,'" Hicks said.

All of the agencies receive money from a variety of resources, including the CDC, the Chicago Department of Public Health, state and county agencies, and private grants and donations.

The providers said they want the figures to send a message not just to the larger AIDS community, but to the Black community as well.

"I think what this says to the African-American community is we have to step up prevention," Smith said. "There's still a lot of stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS in our community."

And she suggested that to reach the black gay community, providers need to take a different tack.

"If we're going to have a profound impact on the gay community, we have to begin to talk about behavior as a risk factor, and not sexual orientation," she said. "There are a lot of African-American men who do not self-identify."

Hicks agreed, saying, "A lot of the gentlemen have become more comfortable talking about their sexuality," he said, adding that while clients aren't necessarily identifying themselves as gay, they are at least acknowledging that they engage in sexual contact with other men.

"If you can make that first step, we can walk with you," he said.

Armani, though, was less optimistic than his colleagues about the impact on awareness efforts.

"People are numb to HIV and AIDS information right now," he said. "People are not internalizing what these numbers mean."

"It's shocking, but it's real," he said.

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