Color Outside the Lines

A quarter-century later, HIV/AIDS afflicts the black community disproportionately.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 13, 2006

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For whom Bell tolls: The BEBASHI director thinks getting the word out is key to ending the HIV/AIDS crisis.

This year HIV/AIDS turned 25.

In the last quarter century the rate of HIV infections has gone down.

But not for blacks.

People with AIDS are living longer.

But not black people.

HIV/AIDS has gone from a gay white disease to a black epidemic, and all the outrage--the marching and lying in the streets, the carrying of mock coffins, the national headlines and increased federal funding--went cold as more and more blacks got the disease.

Gary Bell is executive director of BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues), a nonprofit founded in 1985 to respond to the rising incidence of HIV/AIDS in the city's black community. The agency serves about 15,000 people a year, doing everything from doling out condoms to providing education and counseling.

Bell says he has clients who test positive for HIV and leave his office with no intention of telling the wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend.

He's been attacked on a radio show by listeners who believe HIV/AIDS is a government conspiracy.

He's had clients ostracized by their families and their communities for being HIV positive.

He got a call from a mother who had a son dying of AIDS at home because he didn't want anyone in his neighborhood to know.

Too often, Bell says, he runs out of condoms and bus tokens to give to his clients because funding has dried up.

"We act like it isn't around us," Bell says. "But this isn't in left field. It's right in our community."

Still, no one deals with it. Not the pastor on Sunday morning. Not the politicians at the community meetings.

Recently Bell called a local radio station with a segment idea, and was told HIV is a downer.

"No one wants to talk about it," says Bell. "As a result, people think it must not be an issue. That's what's killing us."

Only within the last year did Philadelphia start keeping HIV statistics.

For now HIV estimates are based on AIDS data, which Bell says is like looking through a time machine, because those with AIDS are likely to have contracted the disease more than a decade ago.

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