Who is expendable? AIDS policies point to black women, gays

The theme for World AIDS Day 2005 is "Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise." On Dec. 1, this seventeenth World AIDS Day, we are in the grip of a rapidly changing virus with the social impact of a tsunami. Instead of an empty promise to stop AIDS, we think it is more important to – for once – simply tell the truth about the epidemic, who it is affecting and what it would really take to tackle the problem.
The statistics on AIDS are daunting and can overwhelm the personal horror that HIV inflicts on people's lives and communities. Forty million people are infected worldwide, and over 1 million U.S. citizens carry the HIV virus. Each year over 40,000 more Americans contract HIV, and 18,000 die of AIDS.
But the epidemic is changing, and it is attacking the most vulnerable people among us. The stark truth is that if you are black, poor and female, or black and gay, you are at higher risk than anyone else in America to get HIV/AIDS.
Black people account for 12 percent of the U.S. population but represent 40 percent of the HIV-positive population in the country and 50 percent of new cases, according to Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. The virus doesn't discriminate, and HIV/AIDS was not introduced into the United States through a community of black women. It therefore makes no sense scientifically that black women would be at such extraordinary risk.
As LGBT people we are acutely aware that our lives are often devalued, and those with the power and wherewithal to protect us frequently decide that it is simply not worth their time and effort to do so – we are expendable to them. That is why policy makers were so tragically slow to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when it was largely limited to the gay male population in the United States.
Black women now represent up to 72 percent of all new HIV cases in American women, and the infection rate among black gay men is estimated at over 45 percent. Yet our policy makers continue to quibble about abstinence-only HIV prevention education in schools even though they know that straightforward sex education about the use of condoms helps stop the spread of HIV. They refuse to consider needle exchange programs because it offends their tender morals.
Do we really believe that policy makers would be so cavalier with the lives of people with HIV/AIDS if the majority of people infected were white, heterosexual men? Of course not. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS among black women makes sense only when we face the fact that black people as a race and women as a gender are routinely discriminated against.
The current Bush administration has lost credibility on a host of issues and with most Americans, but perhaps none so much as with people of color. As Jesse Jackson said in front of the Super Dome in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, "America has a high tolerance for black suffering."
That is as true today as ever, as our policy makers clearly state by the thunder of their actions that black Americans, especially women, are expendable. It is a national tragedy, and a fact that we should face directly on World AIDS Day.