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Barbershop 3: black men, stigma and HIV/AIDS

Sunday is National HIV Testing Day. A perfect excuse to get tested and know your status. But one of the biggest obstacles to getting tested and, thus, controlling the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is stigma. The shame, discrimination and (sometimes) abuse that come with a positive diagnosis stun people into silence. Turning them into willing accomplices of a disease with no cure. The fear must be confronted. The uncomfortable conversations that arise from talking about HIV/AIDS must be had. The silence must be broken.

Earlier this month, I was a panelist at a White House meeting on the black community's response to HIV among black men. Dr. David Malebranche of Emory University told a powerful story of how he broke the silence in a cultural focal point for African American men -- the barber shop. "It's a hub of masculinity... where the topic of homosexuality, unless it's something where people are speaking poorly of homosexuals or discriminating against homosexuals, isn't really something that's talked about freely," he told me when I called to have him retell the story so I could record and transcribe it. "[There's] a tacit understanding that, with regard to black masculinity in the United States, that's not something that we usually discuss openly."

Working on a project in Philadelphia, Malebranche needed a hair cut. So one of the guys he was working with suggested they go to his cousin's shop. Read how a mundane task like getting a hair cut turned into an extraordinary bridge building moment.

It was a barber shop just like any other barber shop, but it was closed for the day so it was just the three of us... myself, his cousin and this gentleman who I'll call John.


He started up the clippers, and we started kinda traditional barber shop talk about sports and stuff like that. As we got to talking, of course, it always gets around to women. So they got talking "Oh, my girlfriend this" and "My girlfriend that".... The barber, I guess I'll call him Eric, he says, "Oh my wife, she's giving me trouble about this, that and the other." And John was like "Yeah, my girl blah, blah, blah."

And John knew that I was homosexual, but Eric did not.

I knew it would get to a point where they would actually look at me and want me to chime in.... It got so ridiculous because they kept complaining about what was going on with women that I just started laughing. Eric looked at me and said, "What are you laughing at?" As he continued to cut my hair, I said, "Well, I don't have to worry about all that mess, all that stuff you all are talking about. I don't have to deal with all that drama." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Um, I'm into dudes.... Dudes are really easy. I don't have to deal with a lot of the drama that you deal with dealing with women. And that makes me happy. I don't have to deal with issues of primping and posing and make-up and weaves and nails and getting their hair done all the time. And that's a lot. What I wake up to in the morning is pretty much what I get throughout the entire day.

He stopped the clippers. And he spun me around towards him. I didn't know what he was going to do. But all he did was reach out his hand to me and shake it. He said, "Thank you, brother." And he smiled at me. I asked, "What for?" He said, "I really, really appreciate your honesty. You didn't make a big deal about it. You didn't try to hide behind it. You didn't try to act like you liked women."

What ended up happening was it just opened up a whole different level of conversation for us. The three of us sat there and the conversation went from sports to spirituality and politics to health issues. What was interesting is that he told me essentially that he had problems with homosexuals before. And he started talking a little bit about the whole "Down Low" thing, and he was, like, "You know what, I don't know why these brothers run around and try to act like they hiding." I was trying to explain to him that there's a reason why a lot of people do hide their sexuality. They're afraid of stigma. They're afraid someone's not going to like them. They could be afraid they're going to get shot or beat up or something like that.

When I asked Malebranche why he told that story at the White House, he said he wanted to highlight the internalized homophobia and discrimination within the black community that feeds stigma. "If you're silent then people start to wonder," he said. "The silence can be something where that creates the tension and that creates the discomfort."

It's time to cut through the tension. And get over the discomfort. Silence in the face of HIV/AIDS equals death.

By Jonathan Capehart  | June 25, 2010; 2:44 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Next: Supreme Court sides with the big dogs against everyone else


Lovely story... Hope there are more discussions like this in barbershops across the country. Being on the down low hurts everyone -- especially women like me who may fall for these men....

Posted by: Victoria27 | June 25, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Well said Capeheart. In the words of ActUp, silence = death. Way to speak up;

Posted by: JudeinPA | June 25, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

First one of the greatest travesties of the past twenty years is a blind eagerness for Afrimericans to desperately rush into adopting the worst of White thought and behavior in the United States. The days of being focused on and taught to be better, have been replaced.

The article title was misleading, I assumed it was about the movie"Barbershop". If a person has to be tricked into reading a story, the story is questionable and more likely of little to no merit.

Secondly, or third, the so-called stigma of Aids and Black men is a myth Whte academia and White media created that only those ferverently sucking up for acceptance adhere to, or at the least take the same position despite it being a negative racial stereotype more fiction than fact.

Forth, the article strays far from the predicate topic and actually goes on a diatribe about homosexuality further perpetuating the myth that aids and homosexuality go hand in hand when the fact is homosexuals have the lowest number of hiv/aids infections, and one has little to do with the other because people of all walks, ages, races, and sex have it.

Also, the article was really about the promotion of homosexuality any educated thinking person could see in how the concluding paragraph was about homosexuality, with only one line about hiv/aids.

I encourage the writer and editors to raise your level professionalism

Posted by: ameilbruce | June 26, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

AIDS is actually a heterosexual disease. Most of the worlds AIDS cases is among African heterosexuals.

Posted by: shadow_man | June 29, 2010 5:15 AM | Report abuse

Homosexuality is not a sin according to the Bible. Any educated Christian would know that. Scholars who have studied the Bible in context of the times and in relation to other passages have shown those passages (Leviticus, Corinthians, Romans, etc) have nothing to do with homosexuality. These passages often cherry-picked while ignoring the rest of the Bible. The sins theses passages are referring to are idolatry, prostitution, and rape, not homosexuality.

(Change *** to www)

Posted by: shadow_man | June 29, 2010 5:17 AM | Report abuse

Homosexuality is not a choice. Just like you don't choose the color of your skin, you cannot choose whom you are sexually attracted to. If you can, sorry, but you are not heterosexual, you are bi-sexual. Virtually all major psychological and medical experts agree that sexual orientation is NOT a choice. Most gay people will tell you its not a choice. Common sense will tell you its not a choice. While science is relatively new to studying homosexuality, studies tend to indicate that its biological.

(Change *** to www)
Gay, Straight Men's Brain Responses Differ

Posted by: shadow_man | June 29, 2010 5:23 AM | Report abuse

The National Library of Medicine pubs confirm that sexual orientation is natural, biologically induced in the first trimester of pregnancy, morally neutral, immutable, neither contagious nor learned, bearing no relation to an individuals ability to form deep and lasting relationships, to parent children, to work or to contribute to society.

From the American Psychological Association: homosexuality is normal; homosexual relationships are normal.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Asociation and American Psychiatric Asociation have endorsed civil marriage for same-sex couples because marriage strengthens mental and physical health and longevity of couples, and provides greater legal and financial security for children, parents and seniors.

America's premier child/mental health associations endorse marriage equality.

Posted by: shadow_man | June 29, 2010 5:30 AM | Report abuse

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