By Candace Y.A. Montague, Special to the NNPA from the Black AIDS Institute –
All eyes were on Washington, D.C., as Black congressional representatives convened their 41st annual leadership conference. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) hosted four sessions that were noteworthy in the AIDS community.
HIV/AIDS at 30
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) hosted this discussion about the triumphs and trials that still exist as we mark the 30th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The panel, moderated by Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, strongly communicated the message that although we have made many strides in combating HIV and AIDS--including treatment advancements, lower rates of mother-to-child transmission, the end of the travel ban and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy--we have a long way to go to end the epidemic.
Panelist Roosevelt Mosby Jr., executive director of Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County (SMAAC) in California, said that we should start by acknowledging that HIV among young Black MSM is on the rise. "How can AIDS be stabilizing in the country but increasing among Black gay men?" he asked. "Something is wrong with that picture."
Other prominent obstacles include the high infection rate among Black women, stigma and access to affordable health care. "We have the tools to end AIDS," said Wilson. "The question is, will we use the tools effectively to end it?"
The Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative sponsored a discussion about how people with HIV are often subjected to harsher punishment. In fact, 34 states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific statutes that criminalize HIV exposure and transmission. "The best this country can do is incarcerate people with a health condition," observed moderator Vanessa Johnson, executive vice president of the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA). "So I ask, 'What's going on?'"
Panelists suggested that austere punishments for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) provide bigots and the unenlightened with additional ways to discriminate against Blacks, gays and sex workers. Unfortunately, the knowledge that such penalties exist deters people from getting tested for HIV and having honest discussions with their partners about their sexual health.
In some jurisdictions, when a person is HIV positive, even no-risk contact such as biting, spitting and scratching can carry a heavier sentence than more severe criminal offenses do. Catherine Hanssens, executive director of the Center for HIV Law and Policy, said that a more equal system must be implemented so that people serve the same amount of time regardless of HIV status.
From Civil Rights to LGBT Equality
The National Black Justice Coalition and National Education Association hosted a lively discussion about LGBT acceptance and issued a call for greater action nationwide against the bullying of gay youths. ESPN commentator L.Z. Granderson and Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh moderated the spirited and sometimes humorous discussion.
The panelists--including Cheryl Kilodavis, author of My Princess Boy--noted that family support is crucial for LGBT people. "We have a bigger problem than what someone is wearing or doing. This is about acceptance," Kilodavis said. Phill Wilson shared his own story about how difficult it was during his early 20s to reveal his sexual orientation to his parents just a few days before his wedding to a woman.
Bullying and transgender acceptance were critical topics during the discussion. Panelist Sirdeaner Walker's son Carl was bullied because students in his Springfield, Mass., school thought he was gay. Carl committed suicide a few days shy of his 12th birthday. "The schools need to communicate more with parents and especially the ones whose kids are doing the bullying," Walker said. "I did not know my son had been in a fight with some students until after his death."
Transgender citizens are often left off the LGBT-issue agenda. Valerie Spencer, founder of Transcend Empowerment Institute, discussed the difficulties of being a transgender female and said that transgender people deserve respect.
Reducing Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities
Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) hosted this session on the impact that race has upon health. Government agencies have implemented plans to address existing inequities. The Affordable Care Act and initiatives such as the National Strategy for Quality Improvement in Health Care and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy also offer signs of hope. But much needs to be done to ensure that all African Americans receive high-quality health care.
Panelists pointed out the lack of community health centers, poverty, reliance on public health insurance, poor preventive health services and lack of education as barriers to health care, and insisted that holding local and state representatives accountable will help ensure that racial health disparities will soon diminish.
Candace Y.A. Montague is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She covers HIV/AIDS news for the Black AIDS Weekly, the Examiner.com/dc and TheBody.com.