The soaring number of seroconversions among young Black MSM was among the key topics of discussion during a town hall meeting about Black gay and bisexual men and HIV held at the 2011 U.S. Conference on AIDS in Chicago in November.
"This is the second time that we've had a town hall focused on Black gay men -- it was amazing," said Venton Jones, senior program associate for communications at the National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition (NBGMAC). "Different areas were represented -- advocacy, research, medical -- and youth were involved."
The panel -- which included Christopher Bates, executive director of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS; Ernest Hopkins (pdf), director of legislative affairs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and chairman of the NBGMAC; Joseph Prejean at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention; and Lawrence Stallworth II, a member of the Ohio Advocates Youth Council -- was moderated by Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute.
Seroconversions among Black MSM ages 13 to 29 soared an estimated 48 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to CDC surveillance data.
"They're calling this data 'alarming,' but we're past that point," said Wilson. "We have got to be able to save ourselves."
"I thought my life had come crashing down," said 20-year-old Stallworth, the only youth panelist, about his experience testing HIV positive at age 17. Stallworth described his seroconversion as a "wake-up call" that encouraged him to become an advocate for HIV-positive youths. "If not me, who?" he asked. "Who will lead the charge?"
Remaining Engaged in the Conversation
The town hall included an overview of emerging biomedical prevention technologies and their potential impact on Black MSM. Discussion centered on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) (pdf). Clinical trials have demonstrated that the daily use of an ARV therapy as PrEP has shown up to 73 percent efficacy in preventing HIV transmission among MSM.
"PrEP will not be easy to implement in the African American community," said Hopkins. "Black people have more issues taking ARVs. The side effects are different. So it's critical that Black people remain engaged in this conversation."
The presentations on mobilizing Black MSM to join the HIV/AIDS movement probably created the most buzz. Black gay men should not be afraid to organize around HIV/AIDS issues, argued Hopkins. "The larger gay organizations have moved beyond HIV to other issues, such as marriage equality," Hopkins explained. "But a higher percentage of Black gay men are affected by HIV and are dying much faster. It's not acceptable to move on. We do not have that luxury."
Turnout and Turnoffs
"I was hoping the turnout would be larger and there would be more young people," said Stallworth. "I was also hoping that I would be able to ask questions, but we couldn't get to that."
"Saturday night was not the best night to hold the event. But I won't 'hate' on the brothas that wanted to go to the club," Hopkins laughed.
Several people involved in planning the town hall shared very pointed criticism. "You can't present a PowerPoint on a Saturday night. That just should not happen," said one youth prevention leader.
"The format was disappointing. It was an hour and 15 minutes of talking heads and 15 minutes of questions," said a national HIV/AIDS policy expert, who preferred not to be identified. "We need a different format next time. Stallworth almost didn't get a chance to speak."
NBGMAC's Jones said that he would have "appreciated more youth-focused conversations at USCA 2011" in general but says the town hall met its objectives. "Many people wanted more time for the audience to speak, not just young people or Lawrence Stallworth," said the 27-year-old Jones. "That speaks to the need to have more Black youth MSM events."
"The next morning, I participated in a smaller roundtable with a group of youth service providers," said Keith Green, director of federal affairs at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "Most felt locked out of these conversations because of their age. Some elders don't want to allow younger leaders into the mix. They need to be mentored. . . . They want and need to feel connected."
Jones agreed. "That's what I'm doing at NBGMAC -- trying to bring young Black gay men together to share their experiences. Not only to end the epidemic, but to mobilize as young Black gay men. That's why the town hall was successful -- it has spurred more conversations," he said.
Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, and his reporting and analysis have appeared in Ebony, The Advocate, ColorLines, The Body and other media. McCollum blogs on politics, pop culture and Black gay news at rod20.com.