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After 30 Years, AIDS Has Become a 'Black Disease'

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By George E. Curry, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

When AIDS was first detected 30 years ago, it was considered a White, gay man’s disease. In fact, it was known as GRID – gay-related immune deficiency.

Although African-Americans represent only 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, Blacks now represent almost half of all new HIV infections and nearly 50 percent of AIDS-related deaths. What was once thought to be a “gay” disease has clearly become a “Black” disease.

Sunday will mark the 30th anniversary of the first public identification of AIDS. To commemorate the anniversary, the Black AIDS Institute released a report on Thursday titled, 30 Years is Enuf: The History of the AIDS Epidemic in Black America.

The report is a comprehensive review of the past three decades, chronicling missed opportunities, failed government actions, a medical community that was slow to react, African-Americans who underestimated the scope of the disease in their community and dedicated community activists forcing health officials to tackle what would later become known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), the final stage of HIV.

“From the epidemic’s earliest days, it was apparent that Black Americans were disproportionately affected by the epidemic,” Phill Wilson, founder and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, wrote in the introduction to his organization’s report.

“Yet, the epidemic in its early years was consistently portrayed as a problem for white gay men. Neither our national leaders, nor Black America itself, responded as they should have to the clear signs of an emerging health crisis among Black people.”

Initially, medical experts were baffled by the new disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in its June 5, 1981 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR): “In the period October 1980- May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsyconfirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died. All five had laboratory-confirmed previous or current cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candida mucosal infection.”

In its editorial note, the CDC observed: “Pneumocystis pneumonia in the United States is almost exclusively limited to severely immunosuppressed patients. The occurrence of Pneumocystosis in these 5 previously healthy individuals without clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency is unusual. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population.”

It would take another three years to identify HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Epidemiologists determined that HIV could be transmitted by men having sex with men, heterosexual couples, from infected women to their newborns, blood transfusions, and through contaminated needles. An estimated 1.1 million people live with HIV/AIDS today, including 500,000 African-Americans.

Although early attention was understandably focused on White, gay men, there was sufficient evidence – often ignored – that Blacks were disproportionately affected.

“One of the enduring myths of the epidemic is that AIDS almost exclusively affected white gay men in the U.S. during the early years,” the Black AIDS Institute report states. “In reality, AIDS had a disproportionate effect on Black America from the very beginning. Representing just 12% of the U.S. population, Black people accounted for 26% of all cases reported in 1981-1983.”

It continued, “Outside sub-Saharan Africa, only four countries have HIV prevalence as high as the conservative estimates of the HIV burden in Black America. Indeed, were Black America its own country, it would have the 16th largest number of people living with HIV, with levels of infection rivaling numerous countries in Africa.”

In the early years, there was widespread ignorance about the disease.

“Because health officials and journalists used the phrase ‘bodily fluids’ instead of specifying semen, blood and vaginal secretions, many people feared they could contract AIDS from toilet seats or drinking fountains,” wrote Lawrence K. Altman in the New York Times.

The first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat HIV infection was AZT, or zidovudine. But a more effective class of antiretroviral drugs, called protease inhibitors, were developed in the mid-1990s.

Researchers discovered that by combining multiple classes of drugs, they could limit the viral replication process.

The combination treatment was called Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART).

“Black America has benefited from treatment breakthroughs but not to the same extent as whites,” the Black AIDS study observed.

“Indeed, evidence indicates that Black-white disparities in HIV-related medical outcomes have actually widened in the HAART era. The sub-optimal HIV outcomes experienced by Black Americans stem from a combination of late diagnosis of HIV, inadequate health access, discontinuity of care, treatment adherence challenges, and a higher prevalence of other serious co-morbidities.”

Over the years, public awareness increased in unexpected ways.

“The AIDS-related death of actor Rock Hudson in 1985 shocked the country and dramatically increased AIDS awareness,” the Black AIDS Institute report noted.

“A similar effect resulted from the AIDS diagnosis in 1988 of tennis great Arthur Ashe, one of only two men to win a Grand Slam tournament. Before his death in 1993, Ashe established a private foundation to fight AIDS.

“Public awareness of the AIDS crisis, especially in Black communities, underwent a sea change in 1991, when basketball great Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson announced that he had tested HIV-positive. After his announcement, HIV testing rates in Black communities skyrocketed, as many Black Americans awoke to the reality that AIDS was not only a problem for gay men.”

By then, however, AIDS had ravaged Black America. The proof is in the numbers.

Although African-Americans represent 12.6 percent of the U.S.

(13.6 percent when you include those who identify with more than one race), Blacks:

• Account for 45 percent of new HIV infections;

• Represent 46 percent of people living with HIV;

• Represent 48 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses and

• Account for 57 percent of all HIV-related deaths.

Figures for some groups are even more staggering. Black women, for example, account for 61 percent of the HIV infections among women, nearly 15 times larger than the rate for White women. Blacks aged 13-19 are only 17 percent of U.S. teenagers, they represent 68 percent of all new AIDS diagnoses among teens. According to a five-city survey, 46 percent of gay and bisexual men were infected with HIV, compared to 21 percent of White men and 17 percent of Hispanics.

The Black AIDS Institute made a series of recommendations to end the AIDS epidemic in Black America. Among them: make major investments of HIV education in Black communities, increase AIDS funding, eliminate HIV treatment waiting lists, introduce new prevention tools, undertake a major marketing campaign to promote HIV testing and treatment, and persuade every Black institution to implement an AIDS strategy.

Thanks to President Obama, the United States has put into place its first national AIDS strategy.

Its vision: “The United States will become a place where HIV infections are rare and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or socio-economic circumstance, will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

According to the report, presidential leadership has been uneven over the past three decades. It assigned grades to recent presidents.

Ronald Reagan earned an F, George H.W. Bush received a C, Bill Clinton got a B, George W. Bush was awarded a C-, and Barack Obama received an incomplete.

Since June of 1981, 1.7 million people in the United States have been infected with HIV, including 600,000 who have died.

“As AIDS enters its fourth decade, there could be no more fitting tribute to the hundreds of thousands who have perished from this disease in the U.S. than to demonstrate that we have learned a lesson or two over the last 30 years,” Phill Wilson wrote in the Black AIDS Institute report. “In 2011, we have an extraordinary new opportunity to conquer AIDS. Only bold wise action will get us where we need to go.”

Bishop Eddie Long Settles – Instead of Fighting as Promised

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By Talibah Chikwendu, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

The Atlanta pastor facing four civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual coercion settled the cases out-of-court, his church announced May 26, but the agreement leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

The lawsuits were filed in September 2010 against Bishop Eddie Long, the leader of the 25,000 + member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Four plaintiffs alleged that Long gave them and others attention, money, and gifts, before and after they reached the legal age of consent. Such actions allegedly involved engaging them in manipulation, oral sodomy and other sexual acts.

Addressing his congregation and the world regarding the charges approximately eight months ago, Long said that he had “never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television. That's not me.”

“I've been accused. I am under attack,” he said. “This thing, I'm gonna fight. ... I feel like David against Goliath. Butm I've got five rocks and I haven't thrown one yet.”

The settlement, which was reached after several months of mediation, doesn't look like the fight Long promised. It leaves all the questions from the lawsuits unanswered, including the basic question of his guilt or innocence, and generated new ones, including the monetary terms of the settlement, and whether Long or the church is paying the tab.

“After a series of discussions, all parties involved have decided to resolve the civil cases out of court. The decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry,” Art Franklin, spokesman for Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said in a statement. “As is usually the case when civil lawsuits resolve out of court, we cannot discuss any details regarding the resolution or the resolution process, as they are confidential. This resolution is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel.”

B.J Bernstein, the lawyer for plaintiffs Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg, Jamal Parris, and Spencer LeGrande, released a brief statement, saying only that “The matter has been resolved” and adding that neither she or her clients would make any further statements or give interviews now or in the future about the case.

“To me it looks like a cover up,” the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, a religious and political commentator, said. “It looks like he did what the Catholic Church has been doing for decades. I thought that [Long's initial statements] meant he would go to court and fight in court.”

Reynolds added that there is no way to be sure if Long was guilty or innocent. “If that's his addiction, more people will be violated ... But, who will know for sure now, because it's been covered up.”

The New Birth congregation rallied around Long, supporting his call to fight and continue to move forward. And he assured them that he would remain their pastor, saying, “I’ve been called to be your shepherd and as long as you receive me as your shepherd, I'll be your shepherd.”

But without a clear resolution of Long’s guilt or innocence, or the cost of the settlements to the church, many are wondering what impact this will have on Long's ability to be effective as a leader.

“I think they'll go right on with him,” Reynolds said. “People have a special relationship with their preacher and they are going to believe Eddie Long and things will go on as usual.”

Flawed Exam Cost Blacks More Than City Jobs in Chicago

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By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from the Chicago Crusader –

Had Arthur Lewis Jr. been hired after taking a 1995 entrance exam to be a Chicago firefighter he could have been promoted three times by now. “I could have been a battalion chief. Who knows what my rank would be had I been given a fair chance to compete for what I consider is the greatest job in the world,” Lewis told the Crusader.

Gregory Boggs, a Black Chicago fireman who passed the 1995 exam, agreed. “That is an opportunity he will never get now. Those types of opportunities our forever lost at this late stage,” said Boggs, who is president of the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago. “Promotions have come and gone and I doubt if they will come around again before these applicants retire.” There is a mandatory retirement age of 63 for firefighters and the maximum age to begin as a firefighter is 37, added Boggs, who estimates that most of the 6,000 Black applicants who took the 1995 exam are now over age 37.

Last week, the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Black applicants had not waited too long before filing a lawsuit against the city for discrimination. The discrimination suit was a result of how the city handled a 1995 firefighter’s entrance exam. In addition, the court ordered the city to hire 111 Black applicants who passed the 1995 exam, which will cost the city an estimated $30 million, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department. Hoyle added that there was a good reason why the city never challenged the plaintiffs claim that they were discriminated against when a cutoff score was used to determine applicants.

“During the lengthy procedural history of this case, which dates back to the mid-1990s, the city raised a number of complex legal issues,” explained Hoyle. “We appealed the statute of limitations issue because we felt that it had larger implications for the city of Chicago (and other municipalities across the country) because we deal with employment disputes on a regular basis.” And while Lewis, 41, is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit, Lewis v. city of Chicago, more than 5,000 other Blacks also are potential plaintiffs, which Jousha Karsh, lead attorney for the plaintiffs; estimate could cost the city upwards of $100 million to settle.

“We are talking about applicants who were never considered for hiring,” he said. “And the 111 applicants the city must hire will more than likely be stigmatized by other firefighters, so we expect it to be ugly.” Many Black applicants the Crusader contacted who took the 1995 exam declined comment for fear that it might hurt their hiring chances. The 111 Black applicants will be determined using a lottery system, according to Hoyle.

And, once applicants are chosen they must still pass a criminal background check, medical screening, and successfully complete six months of training at the CFD academy. Felony convictions would not exclude applicants either, said Larry Langford, spokesman for the CFD. But for Lewis, a former college recruiter and now unemployed, money is not the key factor here. “My father is a retired Chicago fireman and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I am still interested in being a fireman and I hope this lawsuit finally gives me that opportunity,” he said. “Being a firefighter is a brotherhood unlike anything else. I grew up watching my dad work closely with other Black firemen and they were like family. They bonded all the time and remain close friends to this day.” He added that the outcome for the 60,000 Black applicants who took and passed the 1995 exam was a “grave injustice.” Competing for a spot within the predominately white CFD is not easy, said Ezra McCann, who retired from the CFD in 2006 as a captain.

“I worked for the Chicago Fire Department for 30 years and it was a ‘good old boys’ network then and it still remains today,” McCann said. “Had more Blacks been hired many Black families would be way ahead of the game when it comes to poverty. Racism still breeds within the CFD and Blacks should not be the only one suffering, he added. “White folks in this town are gainfully employed as city, state and Cook County employees. We are in a recession but white folks are not suffering as much as Blacks and they should,” added McCann.

The CFD is aware that its current employee roster does not reflect the Chicago population and has made a concerted effort to change that, said Langford. In 2010, the CFD employed 5,120 and 68.5 percent were white, 17.5 percent Black, and 12.3 percent Hispanic. At Crusader press time, the current ethnic statistics for the CFD were unavailable but Langford said they probably were not much different from last year.

The last entrance exam for the CFD was given in 2006 but results were unavailable at Crusader press time. But to avoid the same confusion, the 1995 exam created Hoyle said the city now uses a pass or fail grade method for applicants rather than a specific score it previously used. McCann said Black applicants who took the 1995 exam would join the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Saturday morning at the civil rights organization’s weekly, public forum at 930 E. 50th St. on the South Side.

He added that Blacks who took the 1995 exam and scored at least a 65 are encouraged to contact the African American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago or the city’s Law Department to see if they are eligible to be included in the suit.

Spelman's LGBT Forum Earning National Kudos

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By Adrienne Leon, Special to the NNPA from The Atlanta Voice –

ATLANTA – Spelman College is receiving national media attention for hosting an unprecedented summit on lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender issues at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The Chronicle of Higher Education, National Public Radio, BET, and Color Lines News for Action are among the media outlets that wrote about the significance of the conference in dealing with gay and lesbian issues on Black college campuses.

Many observers, HBCU alumni, and fellow students commended Spelman administration as well as young panelists for leading the charge.

"Spelman College is leading HBCUs in opening up conversations about the needs and concerns of LGBT students," according to a column published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"These types of conversations need to take place on HBCU campuses throughout the nation," it continued. "For too long, gay and lesbian issues have been ignored at HBCUs, leaving behind a significant percentage of African-American students who are looking for support as they pursue their educations and develop their personal identities."

Dr. Beverly Guy-Shefthall, who helped spearhead the inaugural event, said she was "pleased and a little pleasantly surprised by the national coverage." She said the forum is just one of many initiatives she hopes to see in 2011.

Students and faculty from nine colleges, including Howard, Morgan State, North Carolina Central, and Southern universities, met in late April for the historic event titled "Facilitating Campus Climates of Pluralism, Inclusivity and Progressive Change at HBCUs."

Besides raising awareness of alternative lifestyles topics – often considered taboo in Black communities – participants also offered suggestions on how to make Black campuses more inclusive to LGBT students.

JeShawna Wholley, former president of Afrekete, Spelman's LGBT/Queer advocacy group, called the forum "brave but necessary." "It's our privilege and right to be out," she said. She and fellow panelists shared their vision for broad-scale transformation in 10 years at Black institutions concerning diversity and homophobia that exists on campus.

Howard alumna Victoria Kirby recommended more discussions on gender and sexuality across the board in curriculum.

Spelman alumna Moya Bailey identified a need for LGBT resource centers at every HBCU. She added that at least one staff member sensitive to the issue should be consulted when policies are made.

Guy-Shefthall said many Black colleges have been slow to launch LGBT initiatives because of their historic religious affiliations. She said the Spelman forum was held at an urgent time, however, referencing national reports of gay and lesbian students committing suicide out of fear of discrimination or ostracism.

Last September, a gay Rutgers student jumped to his death after discovering his sexual encounter had been exposed online.

The LGBT "intolerance" issue was raised at Morehouse College in 2009, meanwhile, when a newly implemented dress code prohibited students at the all-male school from wearing pumps, dresses and other attire associated with women's clothing.

The situation prompted some Morehouse students – including activists from the sister college, Spelman – to better promote a "safe space" through programs and clubs for those who choose alternative lifestyles.

Guy-Shefthall said promoting a safe space for LGBT students was the purpose of the pluralism forum. She said a 300-page packet given to summit attendees – which contains recommendations to promote course offerings, staff training, and campus activities – also will be distributed to all 105 HBCUs.

"We're planning to get a working committee in an effort to continue projects on Black campuses," she added.

'Remember Me' Organization Works to Memorialize Missing, Murdered Black Women

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By Shernay Williams, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

Like so many around the country, Victoria Kent was horrified by the disappearance of 16-year-old Phylicia Barnes. But, while many residents merely followed Barnes’ story, Kent, 23, was inspired into action.

It was at a local vigil for the teen that Kent decided Barnes and the countless other Black women who had experienced similar tragedies deserved better. “The ceremony was poorly organized and very few people showed up on time,” she said.

“I’m a young African-American female and I grew up in Baltimore and it was heartbreaking [to learn about Barnes]. I thought that there must be a lot of girls who have been raped and murdered and she got some coverage, but there are a lot that didn’t.”

This month, the Loyola University graduate and two friends formed Remember Me, an organization that memorializes Maryland’s missing or murdered Black women.

Kent says a victim’s story might initially appear in a newspaper, but by the following week, everyone has “forgotten about her,” and she is merely added to the police’s missing or murdered statistics. “That’s a tragedy,” Kent said. “If something were to happen to me or someone I knew, God forbid, I wouldn’t want to be just a statistic.”

According to the police department, four Black women have been killed this year and 18 were murdered in 2010.

The group plans to highlight one missing or murdered woman a month, holding vigils for the dead and a gathering called “Honk for Her” for the missing. During “Honk for Her,” the organization, along with supporters and the victim’s family members, wield signs and photos at the location of the disappearance and urge passing drivers to honk their horns to bring attention to the woman.

Remember Me’s first vigil, held earlier this month outside City Hall, attracted support from Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld and state Del. Mary Washington, who both spoke while supporters waved placards in honor of several brutalized women.

Police spokesman Kevin Brown said groups like Kent’s are “very helpful” as police conduct investigations into disappearances. “The commissioner is committed to working hand in hand with the community,” he said, “and groups like this do lead to many tips being received that help in the investigations of missing person cases.”

Tanise Ervin, a 19-year-old killed by crossfire outside a Better Waverly carryout last March, will be the first woman officially spotlighted by the group in June.

Kent is working on obtaining non-profit status for Remember Me and is teaming up with other groups with similar missions, including the human rights organization Power Inside, which supports women and girls who have experienced gender-based violence and oppression.

Kent’s ultimate goal is for the group to maintain a national database of missing and murdered Black women and keep the memory of the victims alive.

“We have a lot of work to do,” she said.

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