By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Anthony told Dorothy that he was not certain how he contracted the virus, but there were plenty of possibilities. She knew he had gone to prostitutes and had injected drugs. And, though Anthony considered himself heterosexual, Dorothy didn't rule out the possibility that while in prison he might have had sex with men. About 3 percent of all inmates incarcerated through the California Department of Corrections are HIV-infected, a rate that is seven times higher than the rate in the general population. And black men make up 8 percent of California's total male population but nearly one-third of its prison population, heightening the effect of prison-transmitted HIV in the African-American community. The high rate of black incarceration combined with the taboo of gay sex has created a potent, yet largely undocumented, incubator for the spread of HIV.
"In jail, sex between men is a ritual," said Cleo Manago, founder and director of the Amassi Center, an AIDS-focused community health clinic in Inglewood with a largely black clientele. "To get away with it, it is presented as a manhood contest. It's another world, like going to Russia. When they go home, they don't dare address it, and in this regard it doesn't matter whether they were forced or one of the forcers." Once they're out of prison and back with their wives or girlfriends, some men continue having sex with men, adhering to a code of silence so widespread it has its own name: the D.L., short for down low.
Dorothy had never heard of the D.L., and in any case she was less concerned with how Anthony contracted the virus than with how long he had been aware of his HIV status. She searched her memory for clues that he knew but didn't tell her. The only time she remembered him mentioning HIV was when he joked about the countless women he'd slept with. "He used to always say if it ever turned out he had it, he was takin' a lot of people with him," she said. "That stayed in my mind a lot. He always said he didn't know. But sometimes I wonder. I really do."
Even as Anthony got sicker, Dorothy showed no symptoms. And though both were fully aware of their HIV status, they did something even Dorothy herself had a hard time believing when she talked about it later. They tried -- unsuccessfully -- to have a child of their own. "I knew I was going to lose him, but I wanted to keep a part of him with me," she said. "I know it was a risk, but I couldn't accept the loss."
Anthony died in April of 1995. Dorothy had his name tattooed onto her left wrist, but she did little to stem the spread of HIV through her own body. She went to the doctor occasionally and took AZT every now and then. But taking the drug made her feel sick. Most of the time she just tried to forget. "I was drinking a lot," she said. "Smoking weed with my friends."
Lying in her bed at Carl Bean as the day's light began to fade, Dorothy remembered that time with remorse. In some twisted way, she knew, she was one of the lucky ones. She had discovered her HIV status early on, and had witnessed the slow and painful death of a loved one from AIDS. These experiences could have emboldened her to buck the cultural malaise and get the treatment she needed to keep the virus at bay. Instead, they fed her fear, and she pushed the knowledge of her sickness deep inside. "I just kept on saying, 'Well I ain't gettin' sick,'" she said. "Sometimes your partner have it and you don't have to have it." She paused. "I was in denial a lot."
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM HOLDS THAT MORE black people have AIDS because they don't know when they're at risk and they don't get tested. "African-Americans are poorer and have less access to health care," said Phill Wilson, founding director of the L.A.-based African-American AIDS Policy and Training Institute. "There is less of a culture of health care, period."
But as time goes on and AIDS continues to spread throughout the African-American community, it is clear that ignorance and limited access are only part of the picture. AIDS-education billboards dot the landscape of black L.A. And clinics that treat HIV abound. As far back as 1997, a Los Angeles Department of Health Services Survey found that African-Americans had the highest HIV-testing rate of any ethnic group -- nearly half of all blacks surveyed had been tested, compared with less than a third of whites. "It's a myth that black people think AIDS doesn't affect their lives," said Manago of the Amassi Center. "It's just not plausible when you have the likes of Magic Johnson, Eazy-E, Arthur Ashe, Max Robinson -- big names that everybody knows -- all with HIV or AIDS or dead."
The cause of the unchecked spread of AIDS, according to advocates and health-care providers, is a complex of socioeconomic factors that can be summed up in a single word: stigma. According to Robert E. Fullilove, a professor of public health at Columbia University who has studied AIDS in the black community extensively, the epidemic cannot be brought under control until the stigma is overcome. "Some people," he said, "would rather die than acknowledge they have AIDS."