By Shirley Hawkins
Try to pick a person with AIDS out of a crowd.
It is hard to do.
Persons afflicted with HIV/AIDS look like you and me. They go to work, pay bills, and worship at church. Like you and me, they are busy raising families, attending PTA meetings, and worrying about their mortgage and rent payments.
Since the first case of HIV/AIDS was diagnosed nearly 30 years ago, the disease that was once considered as a “white, gay male” affliction has become one of the most pervasive diseases impacting African American and Latino communities today. Forty-nine percent of new AIDS patients are African American–a startling fact when you take into account that blacks only comprise 12 % of the U. S. population. Fifty-seven percent of new cases are black women between the ages of 25 and 34 years old and AIDS is the second leading cause of death in black men between 35 and 44 years of age.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published figures for the incidence of HIV in the U.S. that are much higher than previously reported. The CDC found that in 2006, 56,300 people were diagnosed with HIV, 16,300 more cases than had been previously estimated.
According to statistics, nearly 500,000 to 600,000 African Americans have HIV and AIDS in the U.S.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which destroys part of the immune system, affects the white blood cells called the T-lymphocytes or T-cells, which helps the body fight off germs and diseases. When a person’s immune system has weakened and T-cells have been destroyed by the virus, the person can no longer fight off infections and develops AIDS. Severe symptoms of HIV infection and AIDS may not appear for 10 years.
In black and brown communities, where conservative views on religion and sex are the norm, a stigma still surrounds the disease. And as ignorance and denial continues to rear its head in these communities, the disease continues to operate like a thief in the night, silently stalking and claiming more lives. An unsettling fact is that victims who contract the disease may not show symptoms until years later. In the meantime, those infected may continue having intimate relationships, infecting unsuspecting partners.
For many who have become infected, HIV/AIDS is a rude awakening.
When South Los Angeles resident Alicia Rhoden married as a teen, she admits she knew nothing about AIDS. Today, Rhoden is a 26-year survivor of the virus. And like many who become afflicted with the disease, Rhoden has emerged as an advocate for fighting AIDS on the frontlines.
A preacher’s daughter who grew up in Michigan, Rhoden was brought up in the strict Church of God in Christ and was taught at an early age to honor and obey.
“I met my first husband, John, when I was a 14-year-old teenager and he was 25,” recalls Rhoden. “He was a church boy, a minister’s son.”
Rhoden said one evening after service, John got down on his knees and proposed. “I said ‘Yes,’ recalled Rhoden, who said she envisioned a picture perfect marriage and a serene life of wedded bliss. But as the years progressed, Rhoden said her marriage slowly dissolved into a living nightmare.
“My husband was very macho acting and he always talked about how he hated gay people. Little did I know that he was secretly having sex with men,” Rhoden recalls.
Rhoden also didn’t know that her husband was hiding another secret-he was living with AIDS.
Rhoden recalled she started feeling sick in 1982. “I was constantly feeling weak and I was suffering from yeast infections and flu like symptoms. I had blotches on my skin, and I sometimes felt confused. I kept getting colds. Finally I went to the doctor,” recalls Rhoden. “It was during a time when the medical profession was first becoming aware that HIV and AIDS existed.”
Instead of receiving sympathy, Rhoden said she was shocked by the doctor’s attitude and diagnosis.
“The doctor told me I had a gay disease,” recalls Rhoden. “He said, ‘Don’t have kids. And don’t come back, you’re going to die.’ The doctors said they didn’t want their practice messed up by my visits to the office. They said, ‘You’re going to die anyway, so tell your parents.’”
Reeling from the news, Rhoden said she hurried home and confronted her husband.
“When I told him I was infected with HIV, he appeared very calm,” Rhoden recalled.
“Then he admitted, ‘Yes, I have AIDS. I gave it to you. There’s nothing you can do about it. No one is going to want you now.’”
Then Rhoden said her husband dropped another bombshell. “He turned to me and confessed, ‘By the way, I like men.’”
“I was afraid, I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do,” said Rhoden. “He did not look like a gay man to me.”
Desperate, Rhoden said that she confided her HIV status to her father. A deeply religious man, she said she was stunned when she was met with rejection. “My father declared,
‘Don’t come home, you’ve sinned. God gave this disease to you and you are going to hell.’”
Despite the HIV diagnosis, Rhoden remained with her husband, a volatile union that turned into a cycle of violence and abuse. “He started hitting and slapping me after I revealed my diagnoses,” she recalled. “It was his way of lowering my self-esteem. But I was a minister’s daughter and the church had taught me that I should not leave my husband.”
To combat her disease, Rhoden said she started ingesting 50 pills a day.
Rhoden said she watched helplessly as AIDS began to ravage her husband’s body. “He began to suffer from wasting disease. He had trouble moving his bowels. He couldn’t eat or walk. He was often confused and experienced dementia. He finally dropped down to 90 pounds and was admitted to the Carl Bean Hospice in South Los Angeles.”
As she kept a tense vigil by his bedside, Rhoden said she finally confronted her husband with the question that had been burning in her mind. “Why did you infect me?” she asked John.
Rhoden said she will never forget his answer. “John revealed, ‘When I was growing up, I wanted to be gay. But my parents told me that the gay lifestyle was not accepted and they would not tolerate it. They told me, ‘You need to find yourself a wife.’ So that’s what I decided to do.’”
Then he turned to Alicia and said, “And I also decided that I would make her life miserable. Guess what-you were the one I chose.”
To add more torment to her personal pain, he revealed, “I never loved you, but I love my children.”
John died in 1994.
Notwithstanding her husband’s death and her own HIV diagnosis, Rhoden survived. She found Section 8 housing for herself and her two children, enrolled in Los Angeles City College and got a degree in drug and alcohol counseling in 2003, then transferred California State University at Northridge and obtained a degree in psychology in 2006.
And interestingly, she remarried in 2004–to a man who is HIV positive.
For the past three years, Rhoden has worked as an outreach counselor at Peace Incorporated, a faith-based nonprofit organization that counsels people with HIV/AIDS located at Walker Temple AME Church in South Los Angeles. “We’ve impacted over 1,000 clients,” said Rhoden, who said that the center offers food, clothing, spiritual and emotional support.
“HIV/AIDS has made me respect life, respect myself as a woman. I’m not a victim,” declared Rhoden. And despite strides in the medical field to combat the disease, Rhoden said she has lost “20 to 30” good friends to the AIDS virus.
“I’m not red tape. I’m an educated black woman and I’m a mother. Having this disease made me realize that your life is not over if you have HIV or AIDS.”
Her advice to other women with HIV/AIDS is, “AIDS does not own you. Empower yourself. It’s important to know the man you’re dating and the man you’re married to, and to especially know his sexual history. Respect yourself as a woman, demand respect from the man you’re with, and don’t settle for less.”
Charlie Parker, 54, a Los Angeles native, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992.
Parker said it was easy to meet other males and engage in casual sex. “I indulged in a lot of risky sexual encounters and unprotected sex with people I didn’t know,” admitted Parker, a gay man who works at the Minority AIDS Project in Los Angeles.
In the early ‘90s, Parker was severely beaten and was rushed to the hospital. When this happened, he had no idea that he was HIV positive. “At the time, I was working for this drug dealer,” Parker admitted. “I owed him $300 and I was hiding out trying to get away from him. The guy I owed the money to searched for me for three days. He finally found me at my friend’s house. He took out a baseball bat and broke my left arm and then he broke both my legs.”
“A week after my (emergency) surgery, the doctor came into my room and closed the door. He looked at me strangely and said, ‘I have some other bad news. You are HIV positive.’ When he broke the news, it was the darkest day of my life.”
Parker’s life quickly went into a tailspin. “I was feeling very sorry for myself. It was painful accepting the fact that I was HIV positive. I thought I only had six months to live. I kept thinking, ‘I’m really not a bad guy, why me?’ I didn’t now how to digest the news, it was just too much to handle.”
Depressed about his diagnosis, Parker said he tried to kill himself by constantly smoking crack cocaine.
Caught up in a haze of smoke one evening, Parker said tears started rolling down his face. “I asked God to help me,” said Parker. “I remember my mother always telling me as a young child that ‘God may not come when you want him, but he always comes on time.’”
Parker’s downward spiral was interrupted one fateful evening with loud rapping on his door. “It turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. I was still involved in drug trafficking to support my cocaine habit. I was arrested and I ended up doing five years in prison. Believe it or not, that turned out to be my salvation,” recalls Parker.
Although he went to the prison doctor on a monthly basis, Parker kept his HIV status a secret. “I still had a high T-cell count, so I really had no symptoms of the disease while I was in prison.”
Gay and bisexual men are especially at risk for HIV and AIDS if they indulge in drugs, reports Parker. “A lot of times, these same guys wind up in prison and have unsafe sex with other guys in prison. I would say there’s a ratio of about 40% of men having sex in prison and they don’t get tested for HIV or AIDS.”
Parker said that the disease will remain endemic to the prison population and spread in black and brown communities due to a culture of denial that exists in prisons. “The prison authorities deny that inmates are having sex in prison,” he pointed out. “The prisons don’t provide condoms. So these guys are contracting HIV while incarcerated and when they are released back into the community, they are infecting their wives and girlfriends.”
When Parker was released, he was referred to the Minority AIDS Project, a non-profit counseling agency for those afflicted with HIV and AIDS.
“They referred me to Dr. Wilbert Jordan at the OASIS center,” said Parker. “Dr. Jordan told me that if I took better care of myself, I had a better chance of surviving HIV than dying in an airplane crash,” said Parker, who said he eventually kicked his drug habit.
“I’ve been living healthy and successfully with the HIV virus now and I am 7 years and 10 months clean and sober,” said Parker, who also said that he now takes one pill a day for the virus.
Parker, who now leads groups for men with HIV/AIDS, said he marvels that he is still alive today. “When I was first diagnosed, I thought I only had six months to live,” he recalled. “But in December, I will be speaking on a panel for long term survivors being sponsored by the In the Meantime men’s group.”
As long as the black community continues to be reluctant to face the issues of HIV and AIDS, Parker stresses that the epidemic will continue to increase.
“A lot of men are still hiding their HIV and AIDS status because of the stigma that still exists in the African American community. The black community needs to check itself and get empowered and educated because the number of our people contracting HIV and AIDS continues to grow.”
The OASIS center is nestled across from the MLK-Harbor Jr. Hospital on a shady tree-lined street in the heart of Watts/Willowbrook. It is the only facility in the area that treats patients with HIV/AIDS.
The center bustles with activity–personnel and clients breeze in and out of the swinging doors and phones ring with constant urgency. Despite the controlled chaos, it’s a cheerful place. A family-like atmosphere permeates OASIS, perhaps to ward off the graveness of the disease that claims so many lives.
It is also the headquarters of Dr. Wilbert Jordan, founder and executive director of OASIS who is recognized as one of the leading physicians in the country on HIV/AIDS.
In person, Jordan carries the well-worn weariness of a soldier who has long been engaged in combat and the grave eyes of a man who has seen too much death and suffering. Yet despite the alarming AIDS statistics in the minority community, Jordan continues to soldier on and valiantly fight the good fight.
Jordan said he first came in contact with the HIV/AIDS in 1981 and is credited with reporting the first case of heterosexual transmission of HIV in Los Angeles County. “I didn’t know what (the symptom) was immediately,” he admits. “The patient, who was married, was suffering from pneumonia. He couldn’t breathe. After I talked to him, he told me that he liked having oral sex with his wife during her menstrual period. Later it was discovered that she had the AIDS virus,” Jordan said, adding that the man most likely contracted the virus through oral sex with his wife. Jordan said that the man and his wife have subsequently died from AIDS.
Jordan affirmed that as AIDS statistics continue to spiral, black women and gay and bisexual black men are the groups most at risk.
“There are marvelous new medicines out on the market now that prolong the lives of people with the virus. But what really needs to change–and I’m adamant about this–is people’s behavior,” Jordan emphasized. “Education alone just isn’t enough.”
Jordan theorized that people who are susceptible to contracting HIV as well as syphilis and gonorrhea are victims of low self esteem. “If they don’t feel good about themselves they will be susceptible to at risk behavior,” he stated. “Low self esteem is what is really contributing to the spread of HIV and AIDS.”
And he added that the crippling fear and denial surrounding AIDS in the black community contributes to the ignorance, a sad fact when one considers that the virus continues to impact lives and tear families apart.
“Young gay men become vulnerable to the virus after families discover that their sons are homosexual and kick them out of the house,” said Jordan. “A lot of times, just to survive, they exchange sex for money. I’ve heard of cases where the mother threw the son out of the house after she discovered her son and her boyfriend in bed together. The mother (wanted) the boyfriend living in the house rather than her own son,” he said, shaking his head sadly.
Amin Lewis, a case manager at OASIS, works with one of the fastest growing groups contracting HIV/AIDS: Adolescents, specifically young black gay males.
Lewis said that homophobia surrounding the disease often leads to gay males facing rejection by family and friends. Many are eventually being forced to leave home. “The result is that they suffer from low self-esteem,” he observed. “The outcome is that they may indulge in risky behavior that will eventually lead them to contracting the HIV virus.
And Lewis said that the new cases of HIV/AIDS in Watts/Willowbrook continue to grow. “I’ve been here for a year now and I started out with a caseload of 10 clients. Now I have 35 or 36,” he noted.
Lewis said that the counseling group, just a month old, is a sounding board for afflicted males who may have nowhere else to turn. “Some of them had had sex for the first time and found out later that they were unwittingly infected by their partners,” he said.
The news is often devastating for the client. “I’ve heard some of them say, ‘That was my first time having sex, I trusted this person,’” Lewis recalls.
Lewis said that other young men have confessed that they were having unprotected sex while performing in porn videos and admitted that they were never tested for sexually transmitted diseases.
Others admit they were sexually abused. “Several of the clients said that they were raped and went to the doctor. That’s how they found out they had the virus,” he said.
Faced with the news that they are HIV positive, Lewis said the reaction of the young men to the news varies. “Some of them say they want to die, some of them try to commit suicide. Sometimes they just become numb. Some of them realize, ‘This is something that’s going to change my life forever.’ They own up to the fact that they are HIV positive and they make up their minds to continue to live their lives.”
With HIV and AIDS continuing to ravage black and Latino communities, Lewis said,
“There needs to be more education and we need to get more youth involved in spreading the word about how to prevent the disease. Teens need to share knowledge of the disease with their peers. Those afflicted need to know, Yes, you have HIV, but you’re having unprotected sex and you are putting yourself and others at risk.”
Valerie Wagner, director of education at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), said that the agency is dedicated to getting the word out about HIV and AIDS through education, but that minority communities are still lagging behind when it comes to facing the facts.
“AIDS is a huge problem in the black community,” she acknowledged.
Wagner said that that APLA is fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS with an umbrella of programs and works diligently year round to get the word out about the spread of the disease.
“We have support groups. We go to major HIV and AIDS awareness days by supplying literature. We participate in National HIV Awareness Days. We also have specific programs to provide intervention to the community,” such as Flip the Script, a counseling group for gay black men.”
Flor Monterrosa, a community worker and case manager at OASIS, runs two counseling groups at the facility—one for English speaking women and one for Spanish speaking women. “Most of the ladies contracted the disease through unprotected sexual contact with longtime partners,” said Monterrosa.
The counselor related that three women in one group were stunned when they discovered they had become infected by the same man. “These women found out that this particular man had been in and out of the prison system, so there’s a possibility that he may have contracted AIDS through male-to-male contact. Once he was released, he went back into the community and had sex with these three women who lived in his neighborhood.” However, Monterrosa reported, that the man has since died from AIDS.
Carrie Broadus, executive director of Women Alive, a non-profit agency that educates and counsels 30-40 HIV positive women a month, said that African American women continue to be at risk because they willingly trust their partners.
“The majority of them (women) get the disease through heterosexual sex with their assumed monogamous male partner. Most of them are devastated when they find out their diagnosis because of their root belief that the man in their life is supposed to be there to love and protect them.”
Broadus stated that education is key in spreading the word about HIV and AIDS prevention. “We must work to improve the quality of life for HIV positive women and their families and prevent the spread of the disease; raise the visibility of women living with HIV/AIDS and make a dent in the headlines, which currently report very little on the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and their families.”
Despite efforts to educate and enlighten, Wagner said that HIV and AIDS continue to have a devastating effect on the black community. “There’s still this taboo that exists in the black community that HIV/AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease,” Wagner explained. “There are still people in the black community who see AIDS as a white, gay disease, and it comes from the sense of homophobia that still exists. Unfortunately, the black community still suffers from fear, the lack of information, and an unwillingness to talk openly about sex,” Wagner explained. “That’s why we must continue to foster dialogue, awareness and education about HIV and AIDS in the black and Latino communities.”