Young, Black And HIV-Positive In Milwaukee

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men represent two-percent of the U-S population, but they make up the group most severely affected by HIV/AIDS in America. In Milwaukee, health officials estimate that up to 41 percent of black men who have sex with men are infected with HIV. To explore this further, host Michel Martin speaks with Lonell McRath, an HIV-positive, bisexual African-American living in Milwaukee. Phill Wilson also joins the conversation. He is the Founder and C-E-O of the Black AIDS Institute, an HIV/AIDS think tank focused exclusively on African Americans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Today we're talking again about HIV/AIDS and how it affects particular communities in particular ways. We focus on a report that gave bisexual and other men who have sex with men, represent 2 percent of the U.S. population. But they are the group most severely affected by HIV/AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You might hear the term MSM in this conversation. That means, simply, men who have sex with men. And government numbers show that men who have sex with men, or MSM, are the only demographic group with a steady increase in new HIV infections since the early 1990s.

To pinpoint one particular area, today we're looking at Milwaukee County in Wisconsin where state Health Department officials estimate that up to 41 percent of black men who have sex with men are infected with HIV.

We wanted to know more. So we've called upon Lonell McRath. He's 32 years old. He's bisexual. He's African American. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2001. But he decided to come forward. And he participated in a profile in a local paper that brought new attention to this important issue. We're also joined by Phill Wilson, who's been with us before, to help us understand issues around HIV and AIDS. And he's the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. LONELL MCRATH: You're welcome.

Mr. PHILL WILSON (CEO, Black AIDS Institute): Thank you, Michel, for having us.

MARTIN: Lonell, could we start with you? Would you just tell us how you first understood that you were HIV positive?

Mr. McRATH: I was filling out for life insurance and they did a swab on me and it came back I was positive. And the first thing, I'm, like, no, it's not true. So I was very just, like, kind of mad and tried to figure out why and how it happened. But I have my close friends and family there for me for support when I found out.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I'm curious about, Lonell, is that you're 32. You're just 32, happy birthday.

Mr. McRATH: Thank you.

MARTIN: And this epidemic is 25 years old. So, your entire adult life has been lived with, you know, the awareness that HIV/AIDS exists in the world.

Mr. McRATH: Yes.

MARTIN: And I'm wondering whether, and I know I'm getting personal...

Mr. McRATH: I'm fine.

MARTIN: But did you take any precautions to protect yourself?

Mr. McRATH: I thought I did, but I guess I didn't.

MARTIN: You think you were probably inconsistent.

Mr. McRATH: Yes. I knew a lot about before I was diagnosed positive, but I still knew a whole lot about HIV because I worked with youth. But I think I didn't go by the word that I was teaching. I was, like, telling people, saying to wrap up and saying to use condoms, but I wasn't doing it.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is? You think you just didn't take it seriously? You didn't think it had anything to do with you?

Mr. McRATH: No. I was with a partner at that time. And I was, like, very faithful that person, and it was, like, OK, I'm going to stop using protection. So, you know, it was like, to show the person how much I would care about that person. But I guess I took the wrong step.

MARTIN: Phill Wilson, let's bring you into the conversation. Is this a story that you are hearing?

Mr. WILSON: Well, sadly, Lonell's story is repeated hundreds of times every day. You know, at the Black AIDS Institute, we get these calls every single day from people who just found out that they're HIV positive. Either they didn't know how to protect themselves, didn't understand, really, what HIV was all about or didn't think their lives were worth protecting.

It's absolutely outrageous that, you know, 41 percent of black men who have sex with men in Milwaukee are already HIV positive. That means that in Milwaukee, if you're a black man who has sex with men, you are more likely to be HIV positive than if you live in Soweto, South Africa. And that is absolutely unacceptable.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that I'm curious about, too, is that the stereotype is that men who have sex with men are the most educated about the illness, that they've been the most aggressive in, you know, advocacy, kind of in the front lines in this country of advocacy around this issue, of pushing the research community to address this issue. Do you know what I'm saying, Phill?

Mr. WILSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So that's why, you know, all the more reason why I think that a lot of people would be puzzled to see these numbers that indicate that this is a group with whom infections are increasing rapidly. Why do you think that is?

Mr. WILSON: Well, there are a few things. One is while there is truth to that statement, in some ways, that's an old group, you know. I'm going to be 54 this year. And certainly, my contemporaries, you know, we spent a lot of time of educating ourselves. But, Michel, it's been 15 years, maybe even 20 years since we have had robust HIV/AIDS and sex education in our schools.

There's a whole generation of adults who have been denied that information because we have been fiddling while Rome was burning by advocating abstinence-only programs, for example.

The second thing is that, over time, people have fallen into complacency. They believe that it's not going to happen to me, like Lonell, you know. They believe that if I am faithful to my partner, then that will protect me. Forget that your partner may not be faithful to you, or forget the fact that both you and your partner have a history.

MARTIN: And to that point, Lonell, I wanted to ask: When you first became aware of your diagnosis, did you tell anybody?

Mr. MCRATH: Yes, I did. I told about, like, four or five people.

MARTIN: Former or current partners?

Mr. MCRATH: No, that was former.

MARTIN: Former partners.

Mr. MCRATH: Yes.

MARTIN: So you called former partners of yours to tell them. And what happened?

Mr. MCRATH: Then, like, two of them, they would get tested. Then two more, they kind of denied it. So then one person said they didn't care.

MARTIN: What do you mean they didn't care?

Mr. MCRATH: They did not want to go get tested. Like, if I got it, I got it. So that's, like, very confusing to me. Like, why don't you want to get tested? 'Cause I'm saying, 'cause I'm positive and after I figure out, I'm saying not where I got it from, but I'm going to make sure that you're OK.

MARTIN: We're talking with Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute and Lonell McRath, who was recently profiled in Milwaukee papers about the whole phenomenon of HIV/AIDS. And we're particularly focusing on men who have sex with men. They're the group most severely affected by HIV/AIDS, according to recent data. And we're focusing our attention on young black men who are affected most severely.

What do you think, Phill, needs to happen now to address this illness? I think that most people would agree that at least the initial response to the disease was colored by judgments about who was getting it.

Mr. WILSON: I think that, certainly, stigma continues to play a role. Tragically, the kind of who is being stigmatized has moved some. First it was gay and bisexual men, writ large. Now it has become, you know, African-Americans writ large and black women and black men who have sex with men specifically. And so that has certainly colored, if you will, our response to the AIDS epidemic.

But to get to it, you know, we still are not doing the work about truly raising awareness and educating people about the facts around HIV. There's still a large percentage of people who believe that HIV is transmitted through casual contact, which it is not.

There are people who believe that you can look at someone and determine if they're HIV positive, which you cannot. Now - and so we need to do work around educating folks and kind of bring it down to things that people can do. You can get tested, know your own HIV status and know the HIV status of your partner.

We can make sure that people protect themselves. HIV is, while it is still a very serious disease, it is 100 percent preventable. It is 100 percent diagnosable, and it is highly treatable.

MARTIN: But that's my other question, is perhaps is it part of the issue the other way, is that people think that it is curable and that that's easy?

Mr. WILSON: I certainly think that that is a problem in some populations. But as someone who's been living with HIV, as you know, for 30 years now, let me tell everyone who's listening today, it's better not to have it. So while there are treatments available, and the treatments are absolutely much better than they were, the medications are expensive, upwards to 14 to $20,000 a month for the medications, depending on what you're on. Many people can't afford them. So, it is not a walk in the park.

MARTIN: Let me ask, Lonell, what do you do to take care of yourself now?

Mr. MCRATH: I'm not on pills right now. I'm just eating right, exercising, make sure I get my rest, make sure that I'm not stressed, you know, 'cause stress is not a good thing for people who are positive. So I make sure that I'm trying to be stress-free.

MARTIN: And Phill Wilson, final thought from you. I am interested in the ways in which - what you've observed over the years that you've been working in this area, how policy affects this. What do you think is the major issue here?

Mr. WILSON: You know, it's interesting we're having this conversation as our Congress is debating repealing the Health Care Reform Act that was enacted last year. And each of us needs to understand that the policy activities that happens in Washington, D.C. impacts our lives. You know, what happened with the Affordable Care Act of last year, it eliminated preexisting conditions. That meant that insurance companies could no longer discriminate against people living with HIV on the basis of their HIV status.

It expanded access to prescription drugs. That's also very important for people living with HIV. And it allowed families to carry their adult children up to the age of 26. We know that upwards of 30 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases in this country are among young people. These are all real policy issues.

MARTIN: Lonell, I'm going to ask a final question of you. Since you did take this bold step of allowing yourself to be profiled in the Milwaukee paper, have people treated differently? I know you had an earlier, some sad experiences early, where people you had been close to distanced themselves from you when your status became known. But what about now? Now that you've really gone public?

Mr. MCRATH: People now, they're calling me, like, people I didn't know, who read the paper, they say, wow. I'm, like, surprised that you did the article. Now, people, they say they're stepping up now, 'cause they see me doing it. People now is going to get tested now. People, like, calling me, like, wow. I will get tested, because I seen your article.

MARTIN: Well, that must feel good.

Mr. MCRATH: It do. It really do.

Mr. WILSON: The silence does much more harm than speaking out. It is important to, you know, speak truth to power.

MARTIN: Phill Wilson is the president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute. He joined us from our studios in Culver City, California. Lonell McRath is HIV positive. He was recently profiled in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and he was with us from member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us. And, Lonell, my very best to you.

Mr. MCRATH: Thank you.

Mr. WILSON: And thank you, Michel, for making sure that this issue does not go away.

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