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AIDS, the silent killer of the black community

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
  • LZ Granderson: AIDS has become a black disease as well as a gay disease
  • He says homophobia in the black community is an obstacle to dealing with it
  • On 30th anniversary of identification of AIDS, it's time to end the silence, he says

Editor's note: LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for A senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and, he has contributed to ESPN's "Sports Center," "Outside the Lines" and "First Take." He is a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism and a 2010 and 2008 honoree of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for column writing.

(CNN) -- I assumed Dr. Ronald Ferguson, senior pastor at Antioch Church of God in Harlem, was misquoted in Thursday's New York Daily News.

I thought, "No way did a member of the clergy say 'God does not want to see homosexuals in our parks.' "

I didn't think it was possible for a man working in New York City, with the letters "D" and "R" in front of his name, to compare homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality. ("If children start to believe it is OK to be gay, they will think it's OK to be a pedophile or have sex with animals.")

I found it completely ridiculous to even think a black pastor's response to a gay pride event in 2011 would be to stay inside his house.

Explain it to me: AIDS

I didn't believe any of it, so I called Antioch Church.

Four times.

With two different phones.

Each time that I said I was with CNN, the person on the other end hung up.

I guess I have no choice but to believe that what I read was true. That while the black community continues to get hammered in the media as being more homophobic than any other group, and while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that blacks account for nearly half of all new HIV infections, Ferguson is taking this opportunity to stick his head in the sand.

And vilify gay people.

If this is how he loves thy neighbor, I'm scared to see what his "hate thy neighbor" looks like.

Same goes for Mount Olivet Baptist Church Pastor Charles Curtis, who was quoted in the story saying, "The park is a family area, and the homosexual agenda will do nothing but harm the community." I called Mount Olivet, but the pastor wasn't in.

I just wanted to ask Curtis how many gay people he's met that didn't come from a family, because I haven't met one. I was also hoping to borrow his copy of the "homosexual agenda," because mine must be lost in the mail.

In any case, I just hope for the sake of their respective congregations that instead of hurling insults from the pulpit each Sunday morning, these clergymen are talking about one of the real harms to the community -- our silence.

It's been 30 years this week since the CDC brought the language of HIV/AIDS to the public's consciousness.

It's been 20 years since Magic Johnson courageously brought the reality of HIV/AIDS to the black community.

And yet because so many blacks continue to echo Ferguson's ignorant sentiments about gay people, collectively we are now petrified to talk about anything remotely connected to gay people. In fact, some of us would rather silently fall to declining health than risk speaking up for fear of being seen as guilty by perceived association.

Pastor Curtis got it wrong.

It's not the much-talked-about "homosexual agenda" that's hurting the community, it's the unacknowledged "homophobic agenda" that's doing the most damage.

That agenda is creating an environment that's crippling the black community's ability to protect itself and stifling an individual's desire to get the help they need.

That agenda makes it taboo to even talk about the personal lives of some of our greatest champions because they were gay; people such as James Baldwin, Barbara Jordan and Bayard Rustin -- the man responsible for introducing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the nonviolent teachings of Gandhi and the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington.

That agenda encourages silence, and silence is the incubator of fear.

AIDS in the '90s: 'I wasn't going to die miserably'

I'm not suggesting people abandon their religious beliefs, and certainly the black community owes a great deal of gratitude to the church. But there seems to be a disconnect when it takes only one viewing of Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" to see that at least one out of every 10 black women who go to church with a weave in their hair is friends with a gay man.

Maybe if we can at least stop whispering the word "gay" or using ridiculous euphemisms such as "sugar in the tank," then perhaps talking about HIV will become easier.

The two are not synonymous, but certainly it is difficult to separate the historical ties.

Maybe instead of spewing anti-gay rhetoric, Ferguson and his kind could do the more productive thing, which would be to ask organizers of the Harlem Pride celebration how best to address the stigma of HIV and AIDS so people can stop dying.

I'll never forget how the "homophobic agenda" was on full display when the audience in the studio of "The Arsenio Hall Show" cheered loudly when Magic told them he was not gay.

But Magic wasn't telling the black community that if you're straight, then you're safe.

He was telling them HIV/AIDS doesn't care.

But in the midst of the community's misguided glee, it missed the point, and consequently, in the 30 years after the CDC's announcement and in the 20 years since Magic's announcement, HIV/AIDS has gone from being just a gay disease to also a black disease.

In my home state of Michigan, nearly 60% of people living with HIV/AIDS are black. In Massachusetts, it is one of the leading causes of death in black women.

This is why it is so important that federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which performs STD tests, continues. This is why it is so important that states not make deep cuts in funding for AIDS education. This is why so many people who have been touched by the disease, in a variety of ways, stay dedicated to raising dollars and awareness because they know this fight is far from over.

Folks like the 3,000 from around the world who are gathered in San Francisco this weekend for the start of the AIDS Life Cycle, a seven-day fundraising cycling trek down to Los Angeles to help provide medicines and services.

Not only does it help people dealing with the virus, but it is also a good way to remind all communities along the way that while people with HIV and AIDS are living longer, that should not be interpreted as the disease going away.

Just as silence doesn't mean true problems have gone away. It just means people don't want to talk about them.

And yes, Antioch Church of God, I'm talking to you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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