Jenice Armstrong: The rundown on down-low men: HIV blame isn't all theirs

Jenice Armstrong
Jenice Armstrong (Lissa Atkins)
Posted: July 14, 2010

SOME PEOPLE really get off on stirring the pot, while others kick up controversy without even realizing that's what they're doing. Take Sherri "the Earth is flat" Shepherd, a co-host on ABC's mid-morning gabfest "The View," who last month got herself into hot water by asserting on national TV that men on the down low are behind the rise in HIV/AIDS in black communities.

Down low is slang for men who identify as heterosexual but who have sex on the sly with men, too.

Apparently Shepherd believes that if it weren't for them, then such a high percentage of the new HIV/AIDS female cases wouldn't be black women.

Insert head shake here. It's really easy to blame the down-low brothers.

Yes, I know that they're the big bad boogey of this epidemic. They're not up front about their sexuality, and that's clearly a problem.

But the blame game is counter productive. Last I checked, HIV/AIDS is spread by unprotected sex - and the No. 1 way to protect yourself against the disease is by using a condom. If more people made a point of using them, there'd be a whole lot less finger-pointing like Shepherd's going around.

Her comments, which aired June 22, irked gay-rights groups and AIDS activists so much that they placed ads in Variety calling on ABC to issue an on-air apology.

For the rest of us, it's easy enough to ignore Shepherd's latest open-mouth, insert-high-heel incident. She may be one of the highest-profile black female commentators on TV, but you can't take someone who flat-out refutes the concept of evolution too seriously.

Shepherd's the same person who said on air that Jesus came before the Greeks and Romans, instead of the other way around.

On the plus side, though, I do appreciate whenever anyone steers the conversation back to the topic of HIV/AIDS.

If you read my column frequently, you know this is an issue I return to again and again.

We don't talk enough about it. Gary Bell, executive director of Bebashi, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, says when his outreach workers try to approach people about getting tested, people get nervous and start backing up.

"They don't even let us start the conversation," Bell said yesterday.

At the same time, though, infected people complain that even in the 21st century, their relatives serve them on paper plates for fear of spreading the disease.

"It just comes down to 'We don't want to talk about it. We don't want to think we're at risk,' " Bell told me.

It's easier to blame the down-low folks.

"I don't know how many men are on the down low," Bell said. "I don't know how they can be causing all this infection. It doesn't add up to me. I think it gets back to homophobia in our community, which is driving it underground."

Coincidentally, President Obama yesterday announced his national strategy on combating the disease that calls for reducing new infections by 25 percent over the next five years.

His administration has set a new goal of getting care to infected people within three months of diagnosis and will focus attention particularly on high-risk groups - gay and bisexual men, African Americans - plus increasing education about the disease. The Obama administration plans to rely on some Bush administration-type tactics of fighting the disease in hard-hit developing countries.

Do his plans go far enough? That's debatable. But at least it's a step.

As Bell would say, "It's no one's fault, but it's everyone's responsibility."

Now, if we could just muzzle Shepherd . . .

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Send e-mail to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: http://go.philly.com/heyjen.

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