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.
| June 25, 2010; 2:44 PM ET
Categories: Capehart | Tags: Jonathan Capehart
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