LOS ANGELES — On the surface, Bridget Gordon had a life to envy: a successful engineering career and a handsome, studio executive husband. After celebrating her honeymoon in Bora Bora, Gordon was ready to start her new life and a family.
And then, she got sick.
After rounds of tests for various illnesses, Gordon was diagnosed with HIV. She couldn’t figure out why, since she had only had unprotected sex with her husband. Then, she found out he had been sleeping with other men.
Gordon told this story at the fifth annual First Ladies health luncheon on Nov. 21, a gathering for pastor’s wives nationwide to shed light on health issues plaguing the African-American community. Their particular focus was on HIV/AIDS, with World AIDS Day coming up on Dec.1.
Gordon divorced her husband and sued him in 2002 in a landmark California Supreme Court case that established that people could be held accountable for failing to inform a new partner about risky sexual behavior. She has dedicated herself to making sure others don’t have the same bad experience.
“The judgment surrounding HIV/AIDS kills,” said Gordon, who is now an L.A. County commissioner and the founder of the Women’s Caucus in the Commission on HIV. “If we don’t speak out about it, it’ll continue and we’ll die.”
HIV/AIDS is affecting the African-American community in disproportionate numbers. In 2010, African-Americans accounted for about 44 percent of all new HIV infections among adults and adolescents (ages 13 years or older), despite representing only 12 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Gordon and other HIV/AIDS awareness activists say the reasons behind this are complicated and far-reaching.
“Because of structural racism, black men are going to jail in disproportionate numbers and contracting the disease there,” Gordon said. “On any given day on a college campus, you could see someone walking around with an open beer bottle. But an African-American man might get arrested for something like that.”
Donta Morrison, another AIDS activist who was diagnosed with HIV, said homophobia in the black community and church are contributing factors as well.
“The disease hit the gay community the hardest in the beginning and the black community didn’t jump into the fight when they should have,” Morrison said.
Morrison is trying to help remove the stigma both around the disease and homosexuality. He is launching a website, www.6in10.org, on Dec. 1 along with talk show host Karamo Brown.
The site aims to provide education, awareness and support to gay and bisexual black men. The site is named for the statistic that six out of 10 gay and bisexual African-American men will contract HIV by the time they are 40.
Morrison said he hopes to combat the way “parents treat gay children, the church treats homosexuality, and the way gay men bash other gay men who have the disease.”
Morrison said because of this last factor, “gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS think they’re never going to find love, so they don’t disclose their status to new partners.”
Young women of color also show high rates of infections. Even though they represent only 26 percent of U.S. women ages 13-24, black women and Latinas account for 79 percent of all reported HIV cases among 13- to 19-year-old women and 75 percent of HIV infections among 20- to 24-year-old women, according to Advocates for Youth.
Activists say that the strict attitude of the church regarding sex in the African-American community plays a role in the lack of information around the disease, an issue that the First Ladies organization is making strides to improve.
The 37 “First ladies,” pastor’s wives in the Los Angeles area, provide HIV tests a couple of times per year for their congregations and communities. Next April 10, the organization will host a health fair where they expect to administer at least 1,000 tests. They are also planning speakers and presentations, to give a well-rounded perspective on a healthy lifestyle.