Oakland launches new HIV prevention campaign
by Rob Akers
Armed with statistics that show sections of Oakland with some of the highest HIV infection rates in the country, East Bay community health activists have joined forces to launch a new prevention campaign tailored to the African American community.
"I Am Worth It" was unveiled last week at a community health fair. The social marketing campaign is the result of a $500,000 grant from the Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, according to Joe Hawkins, director of administration with the AIDS Project of the East Bay.
"We are really happy to get this campaign under way," Hawkins said during a brunch prior to a community forum held Saturday, June 17 at the Oakland Museum of California.
Hawkins said APEB held interviews and focus groups with hundreds of individuals to gain insight on how the new prevention campaign might best target the community. A study conducted by Cal State East Bay shows that 46 percent of the people infected with HIV/AIDS in Alameda County are African American men who have sex with men.
"In San Francisco, prevention campaigns are usually very sexually explicit. The information we received from individuals here is that most did not want to go in that direction," said Hawkins. "Our studies showed that most felt our prevention information campaign should be more spiritual, more neutral."
Hawkins said the ads that make up the campaign would be placed on billboards, on the sides of buses, and air on the radio.
Forum panelists cited various factors they believed might be contributing to the racial disparities in statistics of infection rates in the East Bay.
"This is more to do with the trauma we go through as black men," said Dr. David Malebranche. "What works for us is not what works for gay white folks. We do not have the research we need surrounding all the issues. Black men have a lot more issues going on in their lives rather than to come out of the closet or not."
Malebranche said more needed to be done in regards to social programs "that teach black men how to embrace themselves."
"If we had a cure today, those issues affecting black men are still going to be there," he added.
Karamo Brown, star of MTV's Real World and another panelist, said that being a 25-year-old meant he was part of a generation that has never lived without the disease.
"I have never seen a time when this has not been an issue," he said. "The warnings have been thrown down our throats but for some reason that message is not getting through to us."
Brown said that many black men simply do not want to be tested for HIV.
Jonathan Plummer, the ex-husband of best-selling author Terry McMillan, made a rare public appearance in the East Bay since the couple's highly publicized divorce last year.
"I am honored to be here," said Jonathan Plummer, whose relationship with McMillan was the subject of her book How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which was made into a hit movie.
"After what I did I felt like I should basically have disappeared," he said, referring to his break-up with McMillan after she found out he was gay. "What I did was wrong. Sexual honesty is the only way we can win this battle. I had a really hard time getting through this break-up."
Plummer said he was brought up in a typical Caribbean family in Jamaica where one was taught not to talk about their sexuality. "We were told we needed to get married and have kids and that was it."
The Reverend Phillip Lawson called for a more activist approach to the problem of HIV/AIDS in the African American community.
"We must be engaged in liberation in every phase of our lives," he said. "This includes confronting pastors who are in the habit of gay bashing. You are too tolerant, my friends," he told the crowd attending the forum.
"We have high schoolers that are being beaten because they are gay. We must confront the various organizations that teach false religion because people are the victims of their teachings. We cannot allow pastors to get away with what they are saying. It embarrasses me as a pastor," he said.
Lawson said that some of the billions of dollars being used to fight the war in Iraq could be better spent in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Cal State East Bay Professor Dr. Steve D. Ugbah presented the results of a study on the Alameda County HIV/AIDS situation prior to the panel discussion.
The study showed a decline in new HIV infections overall and among black women and those in the 13- to 24-year-old age group. But the study also pinpointed three Zip code areas of Oakland that contain "hot spots" of high infection rates. In those areas, 78.5 percent of the population infected with HIV was black, 18.2 percent Latino, 1.7 percent white, and 1.7 percent Asian and Pacific Islander. Ugbah said statistics showed that of the 46 percent of African American gay men infected in Alameda County, 67 percent did not know they were positive.
Findings showed the high incidence of infection was caused by, for whatever reason, people making the decision to have unsafe sex despite a general awareness of the virus.
Barriers to prevention and education, according to the study, included lack of responsive messages, a sense of despair, perceived racism, lack of insurance, intolerance of the faith community, conspiracy theories, and low self-esteem.