HIV-Positive, Without a Clue

Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2003; 2:49 PM

She tested positive for HIV in October, infected by the man she had married the year before.

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 women do?"

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.

Yet the women in these men's lives, in some cases the mothers of their children, have seldom been mentioned.

Carren Kirkland, HIV outreach coordinator for the D.C. CARE Consortium, an umbrella organization of AIDS groups, works with HIV-positive men and women. She deals with men who are on the down low regularly and is familiar with the pressures that keep them from telling the women in their lives. She said most of them are addicts and that some have sex with other men for drugs; some have sex with other men just for the sex; and some do it for both reasons.

The problem, Kirkland said, is that "then they go home and sleep with their girls."

On a recent Sunday, about 1:45 a.m., a 32-year-old restaurant worker who was at Secrets, a gay bar on Half Street SE, made his way outside. He said he read about the bar in the Washington Blade, a weekly gay newspaper, and decided to check it out. His girlfriend was away for the weekend -- where to, he didn't elaborate. This was only his second visit to Secrets, he said, adding that he had "fooled around" with guys twice before.

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