washingtonpost.com: HIV-Positive, Without a Clue
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9/1/03 2:35 PM
HIV-Positive, Without a Clue
Black Men's Hidden Sex Lives Imperiling Female Partners
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2003; Page B01
She tested positive for HIV in October, infected by the man she had married the year
He hadn't told her that he was HIV-positive and that he slept with men. She got pregnant.
They got married. And, at 26 months old, their daughter died from HIV complications.
"If only he told me he preferred men over women. If only he came out with it. We could
have been just friends," says the 50-year-old social worker, who lives in Southeast
Washington and is black. The woman, who asked not to be named out of concern for her
privacy, sits in her office for a moment, the only sound a light summer rain pattering at the
windows, the near silence unnerving. Then the demure woman suddenly contorts in a
minute-long tirade: "I'm very angry, I'm very hurt. . . . This is someone who killed my child.
. . . I want revenge. I mean, I've wanted revenge. . . . . Should I kill him? Sue him?"
She collects herself, and with half a smile edging back onto her face, she asks, "What can
The question is familiar to Patricia Nalls, who hears similar stories with numbing
frequency. Three weeks ago, a 25-year-old woman was infected by her boyfriend, who then
left her for a man. A week before, a 52-year-old woman found a pill, which turned out to be
HIV medication, in the pocket of her boyfriend's pants. She hurried to a clinic to be tested.
She is HIV-positive.
Nalls, 46, runs the Women's Collective, a nonprofit organization in Northwest for women
living with HIV and AIDS in the Washington area and the only organization of its kind in
the country, local and national health officials say. With the District ranking highest
among major cities in the rate of new AIDS cases a year -- blacks account for 80 percent of
those cases -- Nalls fears that there's a trend that has gone unnoticed: an increasing number
of HIV-positive women, infected by their husbands or boyfriends, who come knocking at
her office, unsure what to think, not knowing who to turn to.
Nalls said they haven't a clue that their men are on the "down low," an expression
describing black men who have sex with other men -- some, if not most, having
unprotected sex -- and never mentioning it to their female partners.
In a 2001 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these men were
identified as a major bridge for transmitting HIV to heterosexual women. They existed -- in
E. Lynn Harris's best-selling books, in a poem by Essex Hemphill about men secretly
having sex in the District's Meridian Hill Park -- long before the term down low became the
subject of several newspaper and magazine articles.