WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Like most kids growing up, Ron Simmons enjoyed playing house. But unlike most males around him, Simmons preferred to play house with other boys instead of girls, a gender preference that continues today.
""My first boyfriend was when I was 7 years old. I didn't know what it was. We were just innocent boys playing, which is what boys do – playing house to be exact," said Simmons, president of Us Helping Us, a Washington-based support group for gay and bisexual African American men. "When me and my friend reached puberty, that's when I noticed a change because the same boys I would fool around with and would fool around with me, they started chasing girls. I didn't want to, so I became the outcast."
And being the outcast was not easy.
"The boys began to reject me because I was the faggot," Simmons recalled. "The girls began to chase me because they were attracted to me, but I didn't understand that. So, that didn't help. I would run away from the girls, just reinforcing the whole idea that he's a sissy."
Sissy is a dated term from an earlier era. Today, men who have relationships with other men are called gay and those who divide their time between men and women are generally described as bisexual. The scientific and medical communities refer to such individuals as men who have sex with men or MSM for short.
By whatever name, gay and bisexual men account for more new HIV infections in the U.S. – 53 percent – than any other population group. Moreover, this is the only risk group in the nation in which the annual number of new HIV infections is increasing, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
"While new infections have declined among both heterosexuals and injection drug users, the annual number of new HIV infections among MSM has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s," the CDC reports.
There are racial differences among MSM. Most new HIV infections among African-American MSM occur in the 13-29 age group. In fact, their infection rate is approximately twice that of Whites and Hispanics in the same age bracket. By contrast, most of the newly-infected White MSM are aged 30-39, followed by those 40-49, according to the CDC
"The HIV data tell us two things," said Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles. "Our recent prevention efforts have totally failed Black gay men. Even today, we are investing less to prevent HIV among Black gay men than any other at risk group. Second, when you are talking about 13-29 year olds--the most at risk group for HIV--you're talking about our children. Black communities need to understand that HIV is affecting our children and we have a responsibility to respond."
One study conducted in five cities found that Black MSM were twice as likely to be infected with HIV than other MSM. And among those infected, about half were unaware of their HIV status, meaning they were unknowingly transmitting the virus that causes AIDS to others.
Ron Simmons said although he knew he felt differently toward males even as a child, he was reluctant to share his feelings with his parents.
"I didn't tell them, they found out," Simmons said. "I guess it was my sophomore year [of college]. My family had bought some movies and I was there with my boyfriend. We were petting pretty heavily – no clothes off or anything, but petting pretty heavily. And they came home unexpectedly."
He said their clothes were in disarray and both had a guilty look on their face.
"Anyone who could put two and two together knew something was going on," Simmons said, chuckling. "My friend left. I spoke with my mother and told her that I was seeing a therapist. Her comment was, 'I don't care if you do your thing, I don't want your brothers and sisters to find out."" Simmons has two sisters and a brother.
"I asked her if I should talk to my father about it and she said, 'Your father doesn't want to talk about it.' At the time, what I thought she was saying, 'Your father is rejecting you, but he doesn't want to talk about it,'" Simmons said. "It wasn't until maybe seven or eight years later, after I had graduated and my father and I became close, that I realized that was his way of letting me be myself."
But his mother was a different story.
"My mother was straight up: She didn't like it. She didn't want to talk about it. She didn't want to hear it," Simmons remembered. "Whenever I brought it up, it was like, 'No,' whereas my father, he was just silent about it, which was his way of being supportive."
But many others weren't supportive, especially those who called him the F-word.
"For a Black man, that was about the worst thing you could be called," Simmons said. "They are not going to call you the N-word because there are other Ns. Once they call you a faggot, you're no longer a man. Women begin to look at you differently; men begin to look at you differently. No one wants to be around you.
"And you're not sure what it means. You look like other guys, you play ball with the other guys. The only thing is that you realize when you see a guy, you feel different inside than when you see a girl."
Phill Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute said gay men have few places to turn when ostracized.
"For Black gay men and lesbian people, we need our community to protect us against the bias of racism," he said. "Where do I go when I'm called a nigger? I go to my church. I go to my mama and my papa – that's where I go.
"But where do I go when I'm called a faggot? I don't have anywhere else to go. And particularly if the people who are calling me a faggot are my mamma, my papa and my church."
Fortunately for Wilson, he had strong support from his parents.
"A few years after I came out, my parents were doing a documentary," Wilson recounted. "And the journalist asked my dad, "Well, how does it feel to have a gay son?' And my dad said, 'I don't have a gay son.' And I thought, 'Where is this going?'
"And he said, 'I have a son.' My gay son is just like all of my other sons. I have a son that's taller than the other, I have one that's shorter than the other. I have one that's older and one that's younger. I have a son. So the notion that somehow it feels different to have a gay son makes no sense to me. And Phill is as much a part of this family as any other member of this family.'"
Gay men say they expect to receive similar understanding from religious leaders, but are often dismissed as sexual perverts.
Some ministers quote the Bible, citing Leviticus 20:13. The King James version reads: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them."
Ron Simmons said he refuses to debate those who feel that homosexuality is morally wrong.
"You're not going to convince them, you're not going to talk them into loving you," he said. "So my concern is that I need to build a world so that when your son or daughter comes out gay, there will be some place to go to when you throw them out or your madness gets to them. They'll have a community that's open, inviting and supportive."