By Alvin Tran
When the AIDS epidemic began thirty years ago, it was portrayed by the media as a white, gay man’s disease. As depicted in a Frontline documentary premiering Tuesday night on PBS, that wasn’t the complete story then, and it’s not the case now.
“ENDGAME: AIDS in Black America” shows the tremendous disparity the HIV/AIDS epidemic has unleashed on the black community in the U.S. As Renata Simone, the documentary’s producer and director, described on KQED’s Forum Tuesday morning, African Americans make up about 12 percent of the nation’s population, but account for almost half of all people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. “Everyday, about 156 people get infected with HIV and half are black,” she told Forum host Michael Krasny.
The documentary features personal stories and interviews from HIV-positive individuals who come from black communities across the country including Oakland. Simone interweaves the role of prejudice, stigma, drugs and prostitution in contributing to the spread of HIV deep in the black community.
Jesse Brooks, an Oakland AIDS activist featured on ENDGAME, also joined Simone on Forum to share his personal experience of coming out and living with HIV. Brooks reminded listeners that the letter ‘H’ in H-I-V stands for ‘human.’ “If we got that in the beginning, that it was a human virus, instead of a white, gay male virus, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” Brook asserted.
Brooks and Simone also addressed the HIV/AIDS disparities among black communities in San Francisco and Oakland. In her documentary, Simone uses San Francisco Bay as a ‘motif.’ “The Bay Area having the bridge and the bay, it’s very visual,” she says. It highlights “bridges and gulfs between populations.” According to Simone, San Francisco gets a lot of attention over HIV/AIDS but Oakland does not.
But Brooks thinks the “culture of silence” in the Bay Area is changing. “When HIV/AIDS came out, there was big, loud voices in San Francisco, and Oakland was silent,” he added. “We can’t afford to be silent anymore.”
East Bay resident Nel Davis contracted HIV from her husband. Davis told Forum that she was pressured by her pastor and members of her family to press charges against her husband for giving her the virus despite being aware of his status. Davis’ story is just one of many that Simone says she encountered while filming her documentary. “The tragedy is that each of the people in the film is not alone,” Simone says. “There are people like every one of them across the country.”
The three guests pointed to lack of condom distribution programs in state prisons, abstinence-based approaches in schools, and drug-use as contributors to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But all of them hinted that it is primarily stigma against male homosexuality that perpetuates the ongoing challenges of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Stigma has killed people,” Brooks said. “People would rather die than to go into a clinic [with an illness] that might be perceived as AIDS because they might be perceived as gay.”
“Decreasing stigma would serve everyone’s purpose,” Simone added. “Judgment is what fuels stigma.”
MORE: Watch the opening minutes of ENDGAME in the clip below or watch the two hour documentary here.