ATLANTA - The casual homophobia that has long pervaded black America is more than a social failing. This bit of knee-jerk bigotry that keeps black gays in the closet is also a killer.
From the black church to the barbershop, a gay-bashing ethos is so prevalent that black men who have sex with other men refuse to admit that they're gay. Indeed, according to Dr. Helene Gayle, one of the nation's top black AIDS researchers, some black parents prefer to falsely accuse their HIV-infected sons of drug abuse rather than admit that the son is gay.
Just last week, a black Atlanta radio talk-show host, Coz Carson, was on the air denouncing the push for gay marriage, claiming that support for same-sex unions promotes the increase in HIV among black men - as if homosexuality, not HIV, were contagious. Mr. Carson has it backward. It is homophobia, such as that which he so proudly displayed, that promotes the spread of HIV.
Given the hostility they face, black gays and lesbians are less likely than whites to come out of the closet, to form support groups or to seek counseling about safe sex. Can it be any wonder, then, that black Americans - men and women - constitute a disproportionate share of HIV and AIDS cases?
Only about 13 percent of the population, black Americans account for about 54 percent of all new HIV infections. And black women are 23 times more likely to contract the virus than white women. Just a few years ago, researchers discovered a primary reason for that alarming statistic: Black men who engage in homosexual activity secretly - or "on the down low" - while continuing to sleep with their wives or girlfriends, who are then vulnerable to infection.
Now comes news that risky sexual activity - usually homosexual encounters "on the down low" - has brought about a high rate of HIV infection in black male college students in North Carolina. And there is no reason to believe those statistics represent some anomaly limited to that state. If the same test were used in Georgia, a similar rate of infection could well appear among Atlanta's black college men.
Atlanta has a well-developed network of "down low" clubs and organizations, according to writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who profiled that milieu in several cities last year for The New York Times.
"For young black men, Atlanta is the hub of the South, a city with unlimited possibilities, including a place in its vibrant DL scene," Mr. Denizet-Lewis wrote, describing "clubs, Web sites, Internet chat rooms, private parties and special nights at clubs" - all of which are designed to allow closeted gay black men to meet one another.
He also describes several of the young black men he met, including 31-year-old Rakeem:
"`We know there are black gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they're all on the DL,' Rakeem says. `If you're white, you can come out as any openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it's not like if you're black and gay, because then it's like you've let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride.'"
Walter E. Massey, president of Atlanta's all-male, historically black Morehouse College, says he has encountered young men struggling with their sexual identities as they try to fit traditional roles. "Above all, black men are taught and raised to be ... men, to raise families, to be fathers ... be a leader in his community and in his home. Any black male who is seen not to fit that kind of role probably suffers a lot of identity problems," Mr. Massey said.
After an incident last year in which a Morehouse student assaulted another after accusing him of making a homosexual pass, Morehouse started outreach programs to its openly gay students, as well as teaching tolerance to its larger student body, Mr. Massey said. But the school still struggles to develop programs for "that other group of students" who have sex with men but don't wish to be called gay. "This is a new area for us," he said.
But no support group or safe-sex counseling would do those young men as much good as broad acceptance of homosexuality. If black America doesn't let go of its bigotry, it may end up sacrificing what W.E.B. DuBois called its "talented tenth."
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.