The CDC’S new national MSM HIV Campaign neglects Black men
Ramon Sahib Johnson
When President Barack Obama announced his National HIV/AIDS Strategy in 2010, he promised “bold” actions toward a vision that would make the U.S. a place where new HIV infections were rare in every American community, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, or sexual orientation and gender identity. The President’s commitment was a direct challenge to the silences, stigmas and discriminations familiar to gay and bisexual men, transgender individuals and MSMs, who are disproportionately burdened by HIV and AIDS.
Under the President’s directive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has increased its prevention efforts in LGBT communities. Recently the agency announced a national campaign specifically targeting all gay and bisexual men and MSMs. This new initiative, “Start Talking. Stop HIV” (STSH), promotes open discussions by encouraging gay and bisexual men to talk about HIV risk and prevention strategies with their sexual partners.
The program couldn’t have come at a better time. Conversations about HIV/AIDS have dropped to an alarming silence, both among gay men at home and in national conversations, which is why the CDC says that STSH, the next phase of the wider Act Against AIDS campaign, launched in 2009, aims to refocus the nation’s attention.
“We need gay and bisexual men to talk to their sexual partners about HIV and to engage in those conversations. But there is also a need for the general public to know about HIV and to be talking about it,” says Nikki Mayes, media specialist at the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
“Start Talking. Stop HIV” features videos, posters, bill-boards and a number of digital platforms in addition to the website, including Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter accounts that Mayes says “speak to gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities in all types of relationships, from casual to longterm.” This is a move in the right direction, but the CDC’s new strategy is not a “bold”-enough step forward because it underrepresents the populations that need it most.
The campaign speaks to a wide audience by featuring a racially diverse cast (of real people affected by HIV). How-ever, it lacks one key element: people of color—Black men in particular. In total, African Americans and men of color are far less represented than White men in the videos and promotional materials. For example, of the 37 gay men featured in the campaign’s “Conversations” video, only about eight appear to be of African descent.
This lack of representation is unacceptable. In 2010, Black Americans accounted for 12 percent of the U.S. population but 44 percent of the roughly 47,500 new HIV infections that occurred that year, and nearly half of new AIDS diagnoses. Of those new infections, roughly half occurred among Black gay and bisexual men. Sadly, young Black MSM account for 55 percent of new infections among gay and bisexual males ages 13 to 24. Why doesn’t the STSH national ad campaign reflect this reality?
To the CDC, the answer is straightforward. It has done exactly what it set out to do with this specific campaign: get the message out nationally to gay and bisexual men of all races and ethnicities. It sees STSH as just one part of a larger national strategy that began with Testing Makes Us Stronger, a five-year national communications campaign specifically for African American MSMs that began in the fall of 2013.
“[The campaigns] all aim to do something slightly different, to reach different populations in response to what we see with the epidemic. So we started with Testing Makes Us Stronger because [HIV] is undeniable among African American gay and bisexual men,” Mayes says. “[STSH] is really an effort through a number of different campaigns and efforts to get HIV and AIDS back on the public radar and to make conversations about HIV/AIDS happen more frequently.”
The CDC has rightfully abandoned a single top-down approach in favor of multiple strategies that simultaneously attack HIV and AIDS from all angles. However, a national campaign’s comprehensive messages must communicate to everyone, particularly the communities most highly affected. This means giving a prominent voice to African American gay and bisexual men in national conversations, not merely ghettoizing them in their own campaigns.
In order to prevent HIV and make new infections rare in America, the CDC must sharpen its hearing and take bolder steps that better include the populations most in crisis.
Ramon Sahib Johnson is a Ph.D. researcher at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He writes on topics of race, queerness, technology and group identity.