True stories of black men and HIV/AIDS

"Dangerous Intimacy" book jacket

Through nearly 30 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the infection rate among African Americans has remained steadily high. Although they represent only 13 percent of the U.S. population, blacks account for nearly half of all HIV/AIDS diagnoses, and have the shortest survival times of any race or ethnicity with AIDS.

There has been much discussion about HIV/AIDS and its assault on African-American women, who account for 64 percent of all women living with the disease.

Less mentioned is how the virus afflicts black men, who comprise 41 percent of all men living with HIV/AIDS.

Christopher Lance Coleman, the Fagin Term Assistant Professor of Nursing and Multi-Cultural Diversity in Penn’s School of Nursing, is out to start a dialogue about HIV/AIDS and black men with his new book, “Dangerous Intimacy: Ten African American Men with HIV,” co-edited with a colleague from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Coleman, who has been working in the HIV/AIDS field for more than two decades, says he was compelled to write the book because of the lack of non-fiction books addressing the topic.

As the title suggests, the book tells the stories of 10 black men living with HIV. Coleman and his co-editor interviewed more than 20 black men before choosing the 10 that best represented a cross section of all the men.

“These 10 stories just shook me, and I had been at this for a long time,” Coleman says.

The black men profiled are young and old, gay, straight and bisexual. A number had an early experience of inappropriate sexual behavior (molestation) or suffered other traumatic experiences, such as war.

“The sad part was that not a single one of these men went into counseling for it, or talked to anybody about it,” Coleman says. “They just lived with it and then their lives just self-destructed. That’s a common theme.”

Robert Smith (names and locations of the men profiled in the book were changed to protect privacy), in his early 60s, served in Vietnam, where he picked up a drug and alcohol habit in order to “block out some of the horrors I saw firsthand.” He tested positive for the virus in January of 1989.
Alvester Richardson, 56, was molested by his father and cousin when he was nine years old. He became an IV drug user and was diagnosed with the virus in July of 1990.

Marion Curtis Moore, Jr., 44, was molested when he was five by an uncle in his early 20s. He was molested again when he was seven by a student three years his senior, and yet again when he was 14 by a man in his early 30s. He tested positive for the virus in February of 1990. In 1991, Moore was convicted of raping a 15-year-old boy and served 10 years in prison.

Paul Mason, 54, the son of a “serious” alcoholic military father, began drinking when he was 10 and later turned to drugs. He was diagnosed with HIV in March of 1992—and continued to have unprotected sex. He admits that he is the type of person responsible for the HIV/AIDS epidemic among black women.

Coleman says that although traumatic experiences were not the sole cause of the men contracting HIV, it is certainly one of them, along with poverty and other social issues. The interviews for the book were conducted in “some really interesting situations” and secret locations around the country because the men were afraid of someone discovering their serostatus (a term that defines whether or not someone is HIV positive).

“There were some cases in the neighborhoods that I went into that if anyone in that neighborhood knew about this man, he would be killed,” Coleman says.

Little has been written about black men and HIV/AIDS because it is difficult for black men to talk about sexual issues, in public or private, Coleman says. The triple jeopardy that HIV-positive black men face—male, African American and HIV positive—also factors into their silence.

Coleman says there is a heightened homophobia in the black community, which stems from slavery and black men being castrated and not treated like men. He says the homophobia causes some black men to hide both their sexuality and HIV/AIDS diagnosis.

The book tells each man’s story in graphic detail, so graphic that Coleman says it was difficult to get the book published. Nonetheless, he refused to change the language because he wanted the world “to really have an inside view of each of these men’s lives.”

“I’m glad that they’re shocking because shock is what sometimes needs to happen to wake people up,” he says.

Some readers have complained that the book portrays black men in a negative light. To this criticism, Coleman says, “This book is unscripted. These are their stories, not mine.”

Originally published on January 21, 2010