On October 31, CNN with the help of Essence Magazine aired the first installment of its special, Black Men in the Age of Obama. In addition to talking about higher education, leadership and the struggles that black men in America face, the show also attempted to tackle homophobia in the black community. Unfortunately, instead of talking about crucial issues that black gay men and youth face―employment discrimination, hate crimes, bullying and violence to name a few―the segment was peppered with problematic terminology from some of the guests and lacked the much-needed voices of actual gay men. The conversation was also dominated with chatter about the so-called "down-low," with insinuations that it is the cause of the AIDS epidemic in black America.
After showing a clip of President Obama speaking in favor of LGBT equality at The Human Rights Campaign banquet, Don Lemon, a CNN anchor asked Essence’s Editor-in-Chief Angela-Burt Murray to speak about the down-low and HIV. She alluded that if the community were to create safe spaces for black gay men to come out, then perhaps HIV rates among women can go down:
It's time for the African-American community to get real. And that homophobia does exist in our community. We've embraced it and the silence is killing us. African- American women, the leading cause of death is HIV. So women, 18 to 34 are being killed because we refuse to talk about this issue and accept gay and lesbian people in our community.
While Murray is right that folks need to “get real” and acknowledge that gay and transgender people exist in the black community and should be accepted, her comments about eradicating homophobia as a means to fixing a public health epidemic are troublesome. Especially since dozens of epidemiological and public health studies have found over and over again, that men who have sex with both men and women are not the driving force behind the rising and disproportionate HIV infection rates among black women.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released findings to a new study that once-again debunked this myth. In an interview with NPR, Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention with the CDC said:
It is crucially important to bear in mind that there are a range of risk factors which face black women in the United States today. And the reality is that bisexual black men account for a very, very small proportion of the overall black male population in the United States. Our research suggests that about 2 percent of black men will report being bisexually active.
And, therefore, you need to look at the risk factors which are far more prevalent in the community—having multiple sexual partners with unprotected sex with heterosexual partners, injecting drugs. Those are going to be factors which are far more prevalent in the population and are driving risks.
Ironically, there was no mention of that study or ones that mirror it as a means to counter Burt-Murray’s unsubstantiated comments. There was also no correction made to Farrah Gray, another talking head who claimed that he didn’t know that the down-low was such an issue until he read J.L. King’s book, On The Down Low―an autobiography based on personal experience, not scientific data.
Admittedly, we need to have more public conversations about homophobia in the black community, especially given how prevalent and harmful it is for those who are gay, bisexual and transgender and the struggles that they face when coming out. We also need to have more conversations about the need for black support for LGBT legislation. But in order for these dialogues to be successful and insightful, they need to be grounded less in urban folklore and more in the hard facts. Journalists need to be more responsible and work harder to ensure that the real truth gets told. Because without it, the media is doing way more harm than it is good.