What stands out are his eyes. Big, round, dancing eyes. Eyes that are scrutinizing yet revealing, angry but not hard, pleading but not soft. They’re not the eyes you’d expect. They’re not ashen, vacant or set in sunken sockets. They’re shining out of a full, handsome, African-American man’s face, and they’re 32 years young.
Adrian is a black man from Milwaukee who’s been HIV-positive since age 19. He says he contracted the virus from his first male partner, a man who knew he was “positive” but kept it a secret. At the time, no one had yet realized a new AIDS epidemic was breeding in Milwaukee among young men just like Adrian. Healthy. African-American. Maybe gay, maybe not.
Adrian – who requested that his real name not be used for this story – works as an administrative assistant in Milwaukee, where he lives in an inner-city neighborhood. He’s going back to school for a degree in communications, a pursuit he says was delayed in part by his diagnosis. He’s a “pretty decent writer and a good orator,” he says, but he’s uncharacteristically deadpan when describing how he acquired the human immunodeficiency virus.
His partner was several years older, 26 or 27, and had never said a word about AIDS. He hadn’t, either, until a routine test at a Downtown health center came up positive for HIV.
He remembers his doctor calling and saying he should come in.
“I had sort of braced myself,” he says, “but I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
The news was tough to hear.
Adrian doesn’t consider himself gay or bisexual. He sees himself as just one of many people who have a same-sex attraction they’d rather be rid of, he says. But whether he appreciates those feelings or not, he’s a member of a demographic that, for the last decade, has contracted HIV at a devastatingly high rate.
In Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lingo, Adrian is an MSM (an acronym standing for “men who have sex with men”). He was a young one (under the age of 30) when his system was first infected with HIV. According to estimates released by the state Department of Health Services in August, more than one out of every three black MSMs in Milwaukee County is HIV-positive. And young black MSMs, Adrian’s former demographic, accounted for almost a third of all new diagnoses reported by the county in 2011.
During that year, black residents were eight times more likely than white ones to contract HIV. This rapid rate of infection was largely responsible for the county outpacing the rest of the state in new cases, as it has for several years. Statewide, the number of HIV cases has held steady, but here, incidences rose 20 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Experts name a laundry list of causes: internalized homophobia within the black community, poor access to health care, a local epidemic of other sexually transmitted diseases that preceded the HIV rise, and plain old poverty. The CDC has verified that a sharp increase is actually happening – it’s not a mirage caused by more testing, the federal agency says. Its research points to homophobia and the stigma surrounding HIV as major factors driving the outbreak, which is often spread under a cover of secrecy that resists intervention.
Among its victims are African-American women living in Milwaukee County, who were diagnosed with the virus at a rate 27 times higher than that of white women from 2007-2011. In the rush to slow the spread among men such as Adrian, some local AIDS workers warn that infection rates among women, Latinos and other groups could worsen as resources are diverted.
Milwaukee’s predicament coincides with a new national effort to funnel funding into services for young black MSMs. Milwaukee could stand to benefit, but city officials say that as a smaller city, we’re hobbled under current funding formulas, which favor megalopolises on the order of Chicago and New York.
But in the meantime, a number of health-, LGBT- and AIDS-focused groups, such as the city-backed Diverse and Resilient nonprofit, are pushing their limits. Along with the “new” epidemic, a new spirit of experimentation has arisen – new ad campaigns to prod comfort zones, HIV testing in thunderous dance clubs and an unprecedented network of peer educators.
Outreach is also extending to black churches, with activists remembering that almost half of Milwaukee’s black MSMs called homosexuality a “sin” in a recent survey. AIDS workers hope that churches can become influential partners in the fight, as some already have.
“When HIV was first introduced to us as a country, you had doctors wearing full-body suits and gloves when they were dealing with a person who was HIV-positive,” says Jim Addison, coordinator of the African-American HIV/AIDS program at the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin. “It seems like those first impressions have really had a hard time leaving.”