HIV: The Silent Epidemic in the South

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Rates of Black, Hispanic/Latino & White Persons Living with an HIV Diagnosis by County, State, Southeastern U.S. (AIDSVu, Emory University Rollins School of Public Health/AIDSVu)

The American South holds 37 percent of the U.S. population, but over half of all new HIV diagnoses occur there.

Under the multiple layers of history and statistics…of a topic that has remained hidden and has almost become banal… a new documentary called deepsouth refocuses the discourse… by bringing light on the people living in the most quite corners of the deep Sout

Under the multiple layers of history and statistics, it's a topic that has remained largely hidden in the South. A new documentary called "deepsouth" refocuses the discourse by shedding light on the people living in the most quiet corners of the region.

Lisa Biagiotti, who is the director of the film,  spent almost 3 years, and traveled 13,000 miles, to collect over 400 interviews. She captures a unique interplay between various local and regional efforts, and capacity development in a system with broken social infrastructure. 

The problem, as she sees and portrays it in her film, goes much deeper than HIV/AIDS.

"HIV was my GPS to the most fragile parts of our country," she says.

Hard-hit not only by poverty, but lack of education and access to health care, the film shows a culture that is dominated by secrecy and discrimination against HIV-positive individuals.

The narrative of this epidemic remains stifled within a highly rural and protracted geography, yet the reality of this epidemic has, and will continue to have, far-reaching consequences.

What makes Lisa Biagiotti's "deepsouth" a film of particular relevance is that it bridges the personal and the political—it goes beyond HIV/AIDS as a health problem and as a statistic to look at the underlying social circumstances, which explain and account for the perseverance of this disease in the South. Biagiotti joins The Takeaway to discuss her film and why the South has the most HIV/AIDS cases in the United States.

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Lisa Biagotti

Hosted by:

Callie Crossley

Produced by:

Arwa Gunja and Nikolay Nikolov


T.J. Raphael

Comments [3]

Ed from Larchmont

In our society we seem to be doing two things which are at cross-purpose. We're trying to limit the spread of AIDS, yet at the same time we're promoting same-sex sexuality, which is how it is spread. I can't see how this will result in anything but more and more AIDS cases.

Jul. 10 2013 05:51 AM
lbiagiotti from Currently in Los Angeles, CA

Dear April:

Thank you for your comment. I am sorry that part of my interview offended you. Thank you for taking the time to research 'deepsouth' and delving into my past interviews. This is such a complex issue and squeezing a conversation into seven minutes was difficult. As a journalist, I can tell you that Callie asks great questions, but time was an issue, and in a longer interview, we could have fleshed out more of the specifics.

Your comment is the first jolting and negative response I've received in 40 screenings -- 25 of them across the rural South -- and in 40 press interviews. (I suppose I was overdue.) Conversations around these sensitive and often painful issues are essential. I appreciate your thoughts and respect how protective you are of your home region.

When and if you listen to the entirety of this interview and/or view the documentary, I think you'll find that we explore really niche and underground parts of the South. What I found in my reporting across the South were Southern values playing out in surprising, non-stereotypical ways. Through Josh's Black gay family, we experience the hidden and increasingly common informal support structures for the LGBT community. Monica's annual HIV retreat is a microcosm of the epidemic in the South, and how it affects people who are forgotten, disconnected and isolated. Kathie limps her way across the country to draw attention to the glaring disparities experienced across the South.

The pastor quoted in the film is certainly on one (very vocal) end of the spiritual spectrum. But Josh's gay Dad, Cedric, also shows another kind of ministry as the patriarch for 20 gay sons who come to him for support and mentorship. Monica's church is also very open and accepting.

As I'm typing this response, it's occurring to me that 'deepsouth' is really about outsiders who live inside the South. All the subjects of the film have that traditional Southern quality of resilience, despite being trapped in a breaking system with crumbling social infrastructure. It is no surprise that the Deep South states are most affected by the Voting Rights Act and the non-expansion of Medicaid. There is something about the reality of this region in crisis.

Southerners tell me how "normal" the film is, while non-Southerners tell me how "universal" it is. Audiences have commented that the film challenges their preconceived notions about the American South -- a place that is complex, layered and varied; a place that changes from state to state; from city to rural area, from community to community. There is not one, sweeping American South.

I am equally offended you would assert my assumption of bigotry, as that is simply not true. I do hope your impressions will change in the future.

If you would like to continue this conversation offline, please do not hesitate to contact me at or send me a message on Facebook.

All the best,
Lisa Biagiotti
Director, 'deepsouth'

Jul. 09 2013 04:24 PM

I caught part of your show, "HIV: The Silent Epidemic in the South" while driving to work this morning and what I heard your guest, Lisa Biagiotti say during her interview offended me greatly. Ms. Biagiotti made sweeping generalizations about all southerners by not qualifying her remarks. I did not hear the first part of the show so if she did make qualifying remarks at the beginning of the show she should have reiterated them at the end. I have since researched Ms. Biagiotti and I have much respect for the work she is accomplishing. I was surprised and relieved to read that Ms. Biagiotti stated in another interview, "I wasn’t interested in reducing the South or falling into the trap of stereotypes." However, she did just that today on your show. While I am a southerner, I am not homophobic. Furthermore, I was taught to practice safe sex in a southern, public school. I know many southerners who, like me, are very accepting of gays and lesbians. I work in the legal field so I see every day the strides we are making for transgender children in the south. I also see fellow attorneys discussing ways they can assist the gay and lesbian community. I have never heard anyone in my circles say that HIV is a curse on homosexuals. I was appalled to hear the recording of the preacher saying the same. I do not think it was Ms. Biagiotti's intention to lump all southerners together but she did just that. She should have been more careful to say "the southerners I came in contact with" or "some southerners" instead of just saying "southerners." I think people in positions like Ms. Biagiotti have a responsibility to not create or spread stereotypes. There are people in this country who have never traveled to the south and when they hear reports like the one you broadcast today I can only imagine it hurts the opinions they have of the south. I am sure there are mobile home parks or other low income housing developments in other parts of the country, for example, where there are high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, I am sure there are neighborhoods in other parts of the country where a gay or lesbian couple would not feel welcome. I understand that her documentary is based on reality but she should be more careful to not assume all southerners are bigots or imply that we are by accident during interviews, because we are not. And to the host, you should have been more careful than to let such generalizations about your fellow citizens leave your airwaves.

Jul. 09 2013 02:09 PM

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