Poor, Gay, Black, and Southern: America’s Hidden H.I.V. Crisis

Cover, New York Times Magazine

Ground zero in the AIDS crisis happened on June 5th, 1981, when the C.D.C.’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report identified five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in previously healthy white men in Los Angeles. The sixth case — a gay African-American man who had contracted PCP and cytomegalovirus — went undocumented. That critical omission has had a horrific ripple effect in the southern United States where the “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with the virus.”

In this in-depth report at The New York Times Magazine, Linda Villarosa follows Cedric Sturdevant, who overcame his own despair over H.I.V. to help young black men in some of the poorest counties in the South manage their H.I.V. diagnoses so that they might live healthy, productive lives.

As he stepped into Jordon’s stuffy bedroom, Sturdevant’s eyes scanned from a wheelchair leaning against the wall to a can of Ensure on the bedside table before settling on the young man. He was rubbing his feet, wincing from H.I.V.-related neuropathy that caused what he described as “ungodly pain.” Jordon’s round, hooded eyes were sunk deep into his face. Gray sweatpants pooled around his stick-thin legs, so fragile they looked as if you could snap them in two. His arms were marked with scars from hospital visits and IVs. Over six feet tall, he weighed barely 100 pounds. He smiled slightly when he saw Sturdevant, dimples folding into his hollow cheeks. “Hey, Mr. Ced,” he said, his voice raspy.

“Are you taking your medicine?” Sturdevant asked. For many young men, the H.I.V. diagnosis and the illness are so overwhelming that maintaining a new and unfamiliar regimen of medication can be difficult. Jordon looked down. “Not as often as I should.” When he saw Sturdevant’s glare, he continued, sounding like a little boy. “I hate taking medicine; I hate it. I have to take six pills, now seven, eight, plus a shot —”

Sturdevant cut him off. “We all have to do this, Jordon. Don’t you want to get better?”

Jordon let his head fall back on the pillow. “I know I can get better, Mr. Ced,” he said, massaging his feet. “I just don’t know how everything got so bad.”

Read the story