A Seattle AIDS campaign stirs charges of racism

The focus is on reducing disproportionate disease risk among parts of the black population. Much of the concern appears to be from whites.

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This photo is used with a caption that says, "He feels his man loves him but he also knows he is stepping out on him. It's called concurrency and it's spreading infection."

The focus is on reducing disproportionate disease risk among parts of the black population. Much of the concern appears to be from whites.

You may have seen the posters in bars or on telephone poles around Capitol Hill: a young black man, wearing a blue cardigan, staring blankly off into the distance. The text below reads, “He has a boyfriend. But every couple months he goes up to BC and kicks it with another guy.”

In another poster an attractive black woman looks up from under a yellow headscarf. The adjacent text reading, “She has two boyfriends. And she has unprotected sex with both of them.”

Under both, commanding red letters read: “It's called concurrency, and it's spreading infection.”

Since early August, posters from the “Stop Concurrency" campaign have been showing up around Seattle, generating both disgust and hesitant support. In a post on the Slog, the Stranger newspaper's blog, Dominic Holden asked the question best: “Legitimate public health message or puritanical scare tactic?” After the blog post, and 39 comments later, the truth behind the Stop Concurrency campaign remained just as unclear as when it began.

Michele Andrasik, the Project Manager of the campaign, said, “It's a group of African American and African-born individuals who thought the message of concurrency and its potential link to HIV needed to get out to the larger community.”

Andrasik works at the University of Washington Center for AIDS Research. She's studied HIV for the past 20 years and is currently acting assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UW School of Medicine. She's also black.

“In the eyes of people who are not of the [black] community, it is racist," Andrasik said. "Which is a concern. We don't want to hurt or stigmatize an already stigmatized community. I don't think the messages are negative. We're simply saying what concurrency is.”

The campaign grew out of a coalition of health organizations concerned about disproportionately high levels of HIV among blacks in King County, especially gay blacks and African immigrants. The coalition's 15 organizations include: Lifelong AIDS Alliance, Public Health-Seattle & King County, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the University of Washington.

As a term, “concurrency” means individuals having sex with multiple partners during the same period of time. The problem that Andrasik and her partner organizations are trying to address is that, of the estimated 8,000 people living with HIV in King County, 17 percent are black, even though the black community is only 6 percent of the population.

According to the campaign, gay blacks have an especially high rate of HIV in King County as well as around the country. The heading of an August report on HIV from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned: “Alarming increase among young, black gay and bisexual men requires urgent action.” According to the report, HIV infection rates among black gay men were up nearly 50 percent from 2006-2009.

“I honestly can't believe there isn't some major public outcry for gay men,” said Andrasik.

On a recent visit to the Twilight Exit, a bar in Seattle's Central District with a mainly white clientele, a Stop Concurrency Campaign advertisement was sitting on one of the tables. Across the top, someone had used a black Sharpie to write: “Racist propaganda.”

So far, the campaign has been advertising in black neighborhoods, in bars, and, specifically, on Capitol Hill and in local gay bars. Its also been distributed through a variety of Seattle's ethnic media including the Facts, the Medium, Somalian newspaper Ruta Times, the Salon Ethiopia newspaper, Awramba Times, Seattle Gay News, and radio station, Urban Forum Northwest.

In these venues Andrasik says, “People think [the ads are] racy, but they think that it's a message that has to get out there in the community. They have been very happy that we're talking about HIV in the community.”

“The negative things we've heard are from black gay men about the fact that they're posted in non-gay establishments, but there's no other way to reach them,” she says, noting the absence of an organized black gay population in Seattle.

Andrasik is saving phone messages, emails, Facebook responses, and other reactions like those on the Stranger's website for feedback. She explains that so far, there's enough negative feedback that the ad campaign will likely be changed in the future, despite the fact that a lot of the negative feedback they are getting is from white individuals.

“Most black people here don't think HIV is a problem here. African born folks think its a problem in Africa,” she says, referring to HIV rates among immigrant groups. “In the end I think any messaging about HIV needs to get out to the black community.”


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