Health Director Says HIV Rates Are Up Because Charlotte Is “A Party Town”

"Words matter," says Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris. "I apologize to those I offended."

A health director has apologized for claiming HIV rates are higher than the national average in Charlotte, North Carolina, because the city is “a party town.”

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris made the comment last month at a presentation, addressing why Charlotte new HIV infection rate was more than 30.4 new diagnoses per 100,000 people, the highest in the state and more than twice the national average.

Talking to Mecklenburg County Commissioners, Harris first addressed the region’s size and the ongoing opioid epidemic. She added, “Part of it is location: In cities like Charlotte, that draws a lot of people in, it can be a party town. It can be a place where people come in, enjoy themselves for the weekend, and then leave but leave stuff behind.”

AIDS activists were outraged by her comments, and by Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio for defending them.

“My recent use of the term ‘party town’ was never intended to stigmatize anyone or to cause harm to people living with HIV,” Harris said in a statement posted to the Mecklenburg County government website. “Words matter. I apologize to those I offended.”

Gibbie Harris

“There are many things that influence HIV and we have much work to do to adequately and appropriately prevent and treat HIV in Mecklenburg County. I hope that we, as a community, can focus on action going forward.”

NC AIDS Action Network said on Facebook it was “thankful” Harris had heard their call for her to apologize: “We agree with Gibbie Harris that we ‘have much work to do to adequately and appropriately prevent and treat HIV in Mecklenburg County.’ Let’s continue the conversation and keep moving forward!”

Some factors Harris didn’t address: Stigma against the LGBT community is high in North Carolina, which only recently repealed HB2, a law banning trans people from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity and prohibiting municipalities from passing LGBT protections. Also, until 2009 North Carolina schools offered abstinence-only sex education. Unsurprisingly, the state is among the top five for all STDs.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.