“It’s deeply troubling when 50 percent of African-American gay men are expected to get H.I.V. during their lifetime…” This troubling warning was issued by Dr. Jonathan Mermin, who serves as the director of the C.D.C.’s National Center for H.I.V./AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, S.T.D. and TB Prevention program. And the epicenter of this hidden crisis is small pockets in southern states such as Jackson, Mississippi; Columbia, S.C.; El Paso, Tx.; Augusta, Ga.; and Baton Rouge, La.
Cedric Sturdevant is on a one man crusade to help as many young Black men as he can before they succumb to the dreaded disease. Sturdevant as a project coordinator at My Brother’s Keeper, a local social-services nonprofit, has traversed over 300k miles of rural backroads in Jackson to bring medical help to a population that would otherwise go unnoticed. He serves as a sort of visiting nurse, motivational coach, and father figure to young gay men and transgender women. He assists them with tasks such as making doctor’s appointments, going to pharmacies and food banks, and getting to counseling sessions that can improve their health and give them an optimistic outlook on the future.
Sturdevant at 52-years-old has taken on this important mission because back in 2005 he received his own HIV diagnosis and didn’t know where to turn for the help he so desperately needed. Speaking of his time growing up in Metcalfe, Mississippi, he said “Growing up, I was taught that God was not fixing to forgive a person who was homosexual. The Bible supposedly said you’re going straight to hell, automatically, there’s no forgiveness. There were several times I thought about suicide. There were several times I wanted to get sick and die. Finally, my thought was, I just want to get out of here.”
One of the men Sturdevant is trying to save is a 24-year-old named Jordon. The young man had recently found out he was H.I.V.-positive but by the time of his diagnosis, he was already weak and feeling the effects of the disease. Only 5-months prior, Jordon had tested negative for H.I.V. Viewed as a father figure, Sturdevant ensures that Jordon and the other young men like him are taking their medication and following up with their doctors’ appointments.
The young individuals that Sturdevant gives care and guidance to are the faces of one of America’s most troubling public-health crises. Although antiretroviral medication pioneered 20 years ago, and years of research and education have allowed most H.I.V.-positive people to live healthy lives, the disease is ravaging gay and bi-sexual Black men in the South.
The alarm is being sounded because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a recent analysis that showed one in two Black gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus at some point in their lifetime. When compared to the 28.8% infection rate of people in Swaziland in Africa, the H.I.V. infection rate for Black gay and bisexual in the South is almost double that of this small African nation. The South has the highest numbers of people in America living with the H.I.V. virus who are unaware that they have been infected, which means they’re not getting the lifesaving treatment and care that they need, and are at risk of infecting others.
According to a study done by the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, the group’s deputy executive director, Terrance Moore said, “Black men are not just out here having unprotected sex willy-nilly; the science disproves that.” Mr. Moore pointed to numerous studies done over the years that showed gay Black men engage in risky sexual practices no more frequently, are as consistent about condom use and have fewer sex partners than their nonblack peers.