- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

Terry McMillan, author of “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” created quite a stir in the black community last month when she revealed the ugly details of her divorce proceedings with her considerably younger husband, who now acknowledges his homosexuality.

The high-decibel debate, from men and women alike, centers on how Ms. McMillan, who holds herself out as an expert on black male-female relationships, did not detect much sooner that her spouse of several years was not only a louse but also a “down-low brother.”

To that, I say anyone who has ever been blindly in love knows the age-old answer to that age-old question: We see what we want to see; we hear what we want to hear; all else is unthinkable.

For the uninformed, a “DL,” or “down-low” man is a dishonest man who occasionally has sexual relations with men but claims he’s not a homosexual because his primary relationship is with either his wife or his girlfriend. (And, I’ve got a bridge I want to sell you.)

This dangerous nonsense just indicates how greedy, selfish and foul folks can make up all kinds of excuses and explanations to divorce themselves from the truth and their questionable and foolish behavior.

It’s no secret that this “DL” activity, brought to light by author J.L. King in “On the Down Low,” and answered by his wife, Brenda Stone Browder in “On the Up and Up: A Survival Guide for Women Living with Men on the Down Low,” is not unique to black men.

However, supposedly heterosexual men secretly engaging in unprotected homosexual relationships is one of the major causes of unsuspecting women contracting HIV-AIDS at increasingly higher rates, especially in the nation’s capital.

The other, more insidious, reason is the lack of knowledge about HIV-AIDS and the insistence of those who are either sexist or homophobic or both to honestly acknowledge or engage in meaningful, nonjudgmental discussion about homosexuality, sexually transmitted diseases or the sexual activities particularly among young people, drug users, sex workers and prisoners.

But we have to stop sweeping these uncomfortable topics under the soiled carpet because of ignorance or intolerance. We have to stop accepting lies and excuses.

Too many people are dying of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the District, where one person in 20 is infected.

“That means if you get on a bus with 20 people, at least one of you is infected,” said J. Channing Wickham, executive director of Washington AIDS Partnership. “This disease touches everyone.”

The District’s “annual rate of new cases is more than 10 times the national average and is believed now to be the highest of any major U.S. city,” according to a report released earlier this week by D.C. Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a District-focused public interest group.

Prevention is key, said Walter Smith, the executive director of D.C. Appleseed.

This public interest group conducted the study of how the city government is “managing the epidemic, including in its efforts to educate the public, prevent further spread of the disease and care for infected individuals.”

The short answer: Not well. The District “lags far behind” other cities in its response to the epidemic. There is an evident “lack of effective, consistent leadership.”

To its credit, D.C. Appleseed, working with lawyers of Hogan and Hartson, who donated 4,000 hours toward the project, did a yeoman’s job with its first comprehensive study of the epidemic, “HIV/AIDS in the Nation’s Capital: Improving the District of Columbia’s Response to a Public Health Crisis.” The study includes nearly 75 recommendations to combat the disease, including better city leadership, coordination, tracking, testing and education.

“HIV/AIDS is a complicated disease both to prevent and to treat,” and “the risk-taking behaviors that lead to the transmission of HIV — sexual activity and drug use — are difficult behaviors to change but are not often discussed openly by public officials.” Or, by private citizens either — to all our detriment.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Wickham said yesterday that they were heartened by D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ directive to have his administration be open and cooperative with D.C. Appleseed.

They are also excited that the Williams’ administration has not backed away from the unflattering report and that the mayor has agreed with the premiere suggestion to form a task force that Mr. Williams said he will personally chair.

I’m not usually one who believes in yet another task force, but the Appleseed study points to lack of coordination of existing services as a major problem in the delivery of services to both HIV/AIDS patients and providers.

We can only hope that Mr. Williams, with his wanderlust and attention-deficit-disorder (ADD), will indeed make this issue a priority and a very real and important legacy.

Granted, the D.C. Appleseed statistics, though more comprehensive, are not new. Its recommendations, though more detailed, are not novel either.

The question is when the District’s leaders will finally recognize the deadly seriousness of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the nation’s capital and actually “do what it takes,” as Mr. Smith asks, to end it.

This critical project requires a high-decibel debate in which city leaders must motivate taxpaying residents to face the facts honestly and get involved. The cost — not only in lives — is too great.

“The AIDS epidemic in the District is getting worse, not better,” the Appleseed report states. But, “with appropriate attention and commitment, the District can substantially improve its response to this urgent public health issue.”

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