By the time Arthur Harris Jr. turned 17, he had already endured a childhood of grinding poverty in Hartford’s North End, the death of his mother, and the rejection of a community that viewed homosexuality as a sin. It should have come as no surprise to anyone, then, that he went searching for love and acceptance wherever he could ﬁnd it — a search that landed him in the arms of a man nearly twice his age and, later, in the kinds of risky situations he’d been warned about in his high school health class.
“I was looking for love like everybody else,” says Harris, now 26. “I thought the gay lifestyle would be a safe place.”
But it wasn’t safe. Like thousands of other young, black men, Harris contracted HIV before he was 18. The virus, which can lead to AIDS if untreated, disproportionately affects African-Americans nationwide.
This stubborn racial disparity persists in Connecticut and in neighboring New England states despite years of work to undo it, according to a Connecticut Mirror analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Black males in Connecticut were around nine times as likely as white males to be diagnosed with HIV in 2016, the latest year for which diagnosis data are available, on par with the national disparity that exists between the two groups.
This disparity is especially prominent among men like Harris — black men who have sex with other men.
While the lifetime risk of HIV is around one in 99 for all Americans, the CDC projects that the risk for black men who have sex with men could grow to a staggering 50 percent, if trends continue. That compares with a lifetime risk of one in 11 for white gay and bisexual men, one in 20 for black men and one in 48 for black women.
This disparity is intertwined with some of society’s most persistent and inﬂexible social problems, according to experts. These include racial discrimination, incarceration, poverty and lack of access to health care — as well as higher rates of some sexually transmitted diseases, smaller sexual networks and lack of awareness of HIV status.
“There are signiﬁcant health disparities within communities of color which fuel this epidemic,” said Shawn Lang, deputy director of AIDS Connecticut, adding that the disparities are complicated by a distrust of medical providers and the failure on the part of some providers to routinely screen for HIV and other STDs.
The problem is worsened, she said, by the effects of homophobia.
“Homophobia in those communities is often colored by culture and religion,” Lang said. “Conversations about sex, in general don’t happen, forcing the young men to stay closeted to their families and communities.”