By Mrinal Gokhale
For many years, HIV/AIDS has affected African-Americans more than any other racial group. However, studies show the disease is especially prevalent in Milwaukee’s African-American community.
“Of the roughly 3,500 people with HIV in Milwaukee, 55 percent are African- American,” said Bill Keaton, executive director of the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin.
However, Keaton said HIV/ AIDS is manageable with healthcare access, and that is why the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin partners with Black Health Coalition, Monroe Inc., and more to provide multicultural outreach on HIV and AIDS prevention. Charles Smart, executive director of Monroe Inc. and Project Q program manager at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Resource Center, is highly familiar with the HIV and AIDS epidemic among African- Americans.
“The CDC did a study in 2009, showing one out of three African-American gay men are HIV positive and don’t know it,” he said.
Although Smart earned his Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice planning to become a policeman, he decided Milwaukee’s African-American community needs something different.
“I knew many people who died of AIDS over the years, especially young African-American gay men,” he recalled.
He is now studying for his Master’s degree in public health, and is proudly working with state legislators to help eliminate what he feels is institutionalized racism in Milwaukee’s healthcare system.
In 2007, Smart and Tae Veasy co-founded Monroe Inc., a nonprofit organization with the mission to improve the quality of life for culturally diverse, LGBT individuals and their respective families through racial and social justice, capacity building, advocacy, service navigation, programming, community engagement and mobilization.
Monroe, Inc. is located above BESTD Clinic on Brady Street, offering HIV/AIDS testing through BESTD and HIV/AIDS support services.
“LGBT homeless youth may be couch surfing without using a condom with the person they’re having sex with, so we do negotiation training, for example,” said Smart.
Co-founder Veasy is a transgender African-American female, diagnosed with HIV six years ago.
She struggled navigating the healthcare system, and feels many healthcare providers lack cultural competence.
“Many African-Americans don’t trust the healthcare system. Those living in poverty don’t prioritize healthcare if they lack shelter or employment, and some believe Magic Johnson cured himself of the disease,” she said. Smart also observes a similar stigma.
“African-Americans are more likely to have multiple generations living in one home, and some providers don’t understand why some don’t want their names on the pill bottles if they live with family,” he said.
“At Monroe, we once stuffed 30 bags with one pill each from the bottle.”
To educate African- Americans on AIDS and HIV, Monroe Inc. started the No More HIV campaign in 2014, partnering with AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, Diverse and Resilient and the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.
“African-American gay men and transgender folks are using social media to educate people on the disease and support people affected by it,” he said. Although he doesn’t have statistics, Smart said he observes a difference.
“Anecdotally, people are escaping the stigma by engaging in medical care, sharing their diagnosis with family and friends, and feeling less ashamed,” he said.
Smart also stressed the importance of getting tested, regardless of sexual orientation.
“Get tested at least once per year. Even heterosexuals can get HIV because not everyone knows their partner’s sexual history,” he said.