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Speaking Out on Something Ugly

At Reach Out meeting, women confront HIV and sexual abuse within their community.

LaJoyce Brookshire met her future first husband on January 30, 1990. She married him on December 1 of the same year. In 1992, he was diagnosed with HIV and spent 45 days in the hospital. Brookshire accepted her husband’s condition and cared for him for two more years, until he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. It was not until after his death that Brookshire began to question her husband’s story. She discovered that he had been involved in homosexual relationships, and that he and his family had known he was HIV positive before he married her. “I think he hoped to gain a caregiver,” Brookshire explains. “He hoped to gain someone to ride off into the sunset with and die.” She says she would not have stayed with him if she had known he was deceiving her. It is his deception she resents the most. “He took away my choice.”

Brookshire has written a book about the experience, Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love. “It has taken me years to get the courage to speak. But it is the devastating number of women with this disease that have brought me to this juncture… secrets are the root of family destruction.”

Brookshire was speaking to 20 people at an April 13 meeting of Reach Out, an organization founded by JoAnn Richardson, a victim of sexual abuse who has also made the decision to tell her story. Both women agree that silence and dishonesty in abusive relationships are putting black women at risk. “We are back to lies destroying and killing people. Over here it is the lie of the man that is not willing to stand in his truth of having had a homosexual relationship before. And you have innocent wives and innocent girlfriends becoming infected because the man won’t stand up to his truth. Any way you shake it, it’s an issue of truth,” says Brookshire.

The statistics agree. According to the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC), African Americans are disproportionately represented among Americans with HIV. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for 49 percent of HIV cases diagnosed in 2004. Within the African American subgroup, men make up 2/3 of all cases. This reflects a similar ratio within the general population. However, black women are far more likely to be infected with HIV than white or Hispanic women. The infection rate for black women was 23 times that of white women.

Nearly 50 percent of black men are infected through homosexual contact. 25 percent are infected from heterosexual contact. 78 percent of black women are infected through heterosexual contact. These numbers suggest a trend. Black men are having homosexual relationships, becoming infected with HIV, then passing it on to their female sexual partners. And lies, or at least omissions, define many of these relationships. According to the CDC, 34 percent of black men who had sex with other men reported also having sex with women. However, only 6 percent of black women said they had had sex with a bisexual man.

“HE WAS EVERY BIT of a man’s man,” Brookshire says of her husband. The first question she was asked at the Reach Out meeting was “What were his effeminate qualities?” She replied that he didn’t have any. “If he walked in right now, you all would go ‘Hmmm….’” she said, as she flashed an intrigued smile. “But he can’t walk in because he’s no longer with us.”

“The pattern is the same,” Brookshire warned. “A man comes into your life like gangbusters… that is not a still, small voice [giving a warning inside your head] that is a dadgone sledgehammer. If something is too good to be true, it probably is.” She cautioned against rushing into a relationship. “I think the whole concept of getting to marry really fast is you don’t get to see any behavior patterns.”

Brookshire says although she and her husband had sex frequently in the two years before she learned her husband had HIV, she was not infected with the disease. She does not consider herself lucky. She believes God protected her. “I’m victorious in being negative… It’s a blessing.” Brookshire was confident in her blessed status. After her husband was diagnosed, she was offered an HIV test and counseling to help her deal with the emotional trauma. “I denied the counseling and stood on Jesus,” she says. “I relaxed in my faith while I waited” for the test.

Brookshire said she turned down a nurse’s offer to teach her about condoms because Brookshire had no intention of sleeping with her husband again. She endorsed abstinence and said it was her opinion that condoms are too unreliable. “Y’all put your faith in some rubber, y’all toast. You dead… The whole point is it is a weakness of the flesh… you cannot fight a spiritual battle with a carnal weapon, especially one that leaks.” Brookshire said she had been protected by a better prophylaxis. “I’m covered by the blood of Jesus. I don’t have any other excuse. I don’t have any other explanation.”

When asked why the black community is struggling with HIV, Brookshire blamed “our inability to stand in our truth. And we don’t want to recognize, even after it happens, that it is so. And we don’t want to speak it because speaking confirms it… We still think that it’s not us. We still think that it’s the white man’s gay disease.” She said that African-American magazines like “Ebony” should have published information about HIV/AIDS years ago.

Charilene Lucas, said that she agreed, but she wondered about readers’ response. “The black community doesn’t want to hear it.” Lucas works for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement helping other non-profits buy group health insurance. She is also an HIV educator in Washington, DC. “AIDS is in the black community and people need to realize that,” she said.

Lucas said the largest part of her HIV prevention work is simply to show male and female condoms to women. She says many women do not even know that a female condom exists. Lucas wants women to become more comfortable handling the contraceptives that could keep them free from HIV. Lucas says she is “just getting women to open up and have a dialogue about practicing safe sex [and] not being afraid to ask about an AIDS test. [She is] trying to empower women to take responsibility for their own health.”

“You really do need to know the person. You can’t be quick to jump into a relationship… You need to ask some hard questions… these days you really need to do a background check.” She adds that it is important for women to understand that they may not escape uninfected from a sexual relationship with an HIV positive person, as Brookshire did. “You still have to practice safe sex.”

Lucas also addressed why she believes HIV has become such a problem in the black community. She said African Americans have “issues regarding manhood and masculinity. Anything that seems to weaken the macho image of black men is never going to be put out there. People feel like they have a lot to lose by coming clean.” She questioned what would happen to a black athlete’s endorsement contracts if he were to come out at as gay man. The CDC backs up Lucas’s opinion. Along with other risk factors it lists denial among homosexual and bisexual black men as an impediment to stopping the spread of HIV. Studies show that many black men who have sex with other men still self-identify as heterosexual, making advertising targeted at homosexuals more likely to be ignored.

JOANN RICHARDSON, the founder of Reach Out, was sexually abused as a child. She repressed the experience until she began therapy at the age of 42. Like Brookshire, she decided she would have to speak out about her experience, for herself and for other women.

“The hardest part for me to accept was to know that family members did these horrible things… I did not want to believe that so much ugly happened.” She understands the powerful urge that influences people to keep their abuse a secret. “You felt violated” when being abused, and in speaking out about that abuse, “You felt you were violating someone you loved… But you have to ask, is it about that or about saving the children and yourself.”

Richardson says she wants to “educate the society to how [sexual abuse] splits your brain.” The Reach Out event hosting Brookshire, “was done to inform the community, to bring people out, to put us together so we can help.”

“For me to heal I must break the code of silence, [despite] my family feeling betrayed by me. I was addicted to them and I didn’t know it… Loyalty is like an addiction… I’m still not there, but I’m arriving. And I can see the sun shine.”