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Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth of Color:
Qualitative Insights into Intersections of Race, Religion, and Sexual Orientation

-Melissa Hackman

HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for people of the African Diaspora. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), of the estimated 40,000 new HIV infections reported each year, more than fifty percent occur among people of Afro-Caribbean descent. Latinos make up 13% of the population of the United States, but account for 19% of new HIV infections each year. Latinos have three times the infection rate of non-white Hispanics.

Most data generated by the CDC and HIV groups like Balm in Gilead report that 1 in 50 black men and 1 in 160 black women is HIV positive. AIDS is the number one cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44. HIV rates are even higher in the black gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community. A recent article in the Boston Globe entitled "Seeking a Haven From Isolation: Black Gay Men Face Soaring HIV Rate and Find Little Comfort" estimates that three in ten young gay, bisexual, and/or transgendered black men may be HIV positive in the Boston area. If this group were a country, only Botswana would have a higher infection rate.

Black men, according to federal studies, are better informed about HIV than their white counterparts. Yet, HIV rates continue to rise in the black gay community and drop in the white gay community. The reasons are open to debate. According to the Boston Globe article about gay men of color in Boston:

"…as with white gay men, they may have been lulled into complacency by the more effective HIV drugs now available, some speculate. Perhaps longstanding prejudice against gays in the black community, where most gay blacks still live, continues to force many to keep their relationships covert, making it harder to sustain a monogamous lifestyle. But these are simply guesses."

This study explores the intersections between non-normative sexualities, religion, and healing, in particular around HIV. Research focusing on sexuality and religion is important because faith is an important resource in healing. Homophobic traditions or those that allow GLBT people in their midst, but silence them, do harm, physically, mentally and spiritually. This affects a person's whole being and their ability to live well, especially when the individual's life is further shaped by a chronic illness that leads to premature death.

Working in the GLBT community of Color in Boston, we are investigating how different religious traditions present in the larger African Diaspora community (e.g.: African American Christian Churches and traditional African religions like Ifa, Yoruba traditions from Nigeria, Santeria from Cuba and Candomble from Brazil) help both to heal and to wound young people with regard to sexuality, identity, and disease.

We are working with GLBT adolescents and young people of Color for three reasons. First, the white gay community frequently ignores GLBT people of Color in research and activism around issues of health because of racism. We hope to address this lack of attention. Second, because of ways in which some religious traditions associate homosexuality or non-normative sexuality with sin, deviance and disease, people of African descent are often isolated in their own communities, as well as in the larger mainstream culture. African Americans who are GLBT frequently live in their communities of birth; thus there is much at stake in being public about one's sexual orientation. Historically, African American churches have had trouble in dealing with issues of homosexuality. Traditional African religions are also frequently homophobic. We hope to generate data that will illustrate some of the consequences-both positive and negative-of these attitudes in the lives of GLBT young adults of color. Third, we are focusing on adolescents and young adults because they are frequently seen by physicians and researchers as irresponsible, and thus unreliable as subjects in drug trials. This perception can result in exclusion from such studies. We expect to gather data concerning the perceptions of GLBT young adults of color regarding themselves and their identities.

None of these factors is static. Religious traditions are changing, for example, as HIV/AIDS rates continue to rise, and homosexuality becomes more public. People who seek healing often combine Western medicine with therapies related to religious traditions in the Diaspora communities. People may go to a hospital clinic to get their T-cell count and a check-up, but they may also go to a diviner before they take their medication to see if it will work for them. Ritual baths for cleansings, altar-making for the Day of the Dead and International World AIDS Day, and the pursuit of ancestral guidance are some of the ways in which religious traditions have become resources for healing.

In an article entitled, "Spiritual Emergencies and Psycho-Spiritual Treatment Strategies among Gay/Homosexual Latinos with HIV Disease" Chief Alade of the North American Yoruba Society writes, "AIDS has contributed to the change in Afro-Caribbean healing practices in the United States. And so has the increased visibility of gays and lesbians in our communities." African American Christian Churches are also changing, in order to deal with issues of sexuality and HIV infection. Black churches in Boston had a week of prayer for the healing of AIDS in early March of this year. There is also an organization called Balm in Gilead that deals specifically with the Black churches and their responses to people with HIV/AIDS.

In this study of the experience of GLBT people of Color from the African Diaspora, we will focus on how religions in the communities served by Boston Medical Center may prove to be both resources for healing and sources of heartache. The potential significance of the results are multiple. First, our preliminary research suggests that more extensive data will bring to the attention of the white GLBT community ways in which their outreach has often ignored GLBT people of Color. The data will serve as a new source of information for the white GLBT community, who see their HIV rates decreasing, as HIV rates rise for people of Color. Second, the study will inform some of the religious groups in the minority communities about ways in which homophobia and/or silencing of GLBT people of Color can contribute to a reduced quality of spirituality and life. Third, we hope that the medical community will benefit from our findings. An understanding of the intersections between cultural identity, spirituality, and the pursuit of health through the use of complementary therapies on the part of GLBT adolescents and young adults of Color will help doctors ask patients different questions and be better informed about the possible complementary and alternative practices their patients may be using. As HIV rates soar, prevention and treatment must be context specific.


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