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HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
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A Look at Black Gay HIV Activism, Through a Veteran's Eyes

Part One of a Two-Part Interview With Jeffery A. Haskins -- Part of the Series This Positive Life

January 7, 2014

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What year was this that you were doing your one-man show?

It started with Rainbow. We were over there on 26th Street. Oooh, we had a lot of theater. Oh, my God. So, I guess that ... I graduated in '86, so we did the theater sometime in the early '90s. Yeah.

I acted in the show. I acted and my partner, co-partner, business partner, was the director. And we did it. He directed me. I wrote the show. I acted the show. He produced and directed. And so we were able to do that.

I'm going to revise the show. But this time, when I do it, I'm going to produce it and I'm going to have another actor do it. Because I'm just feeling like, oh, that's just too much energy.

I got to come to terms with my HIV through my arts, through my faith in the church, and through my service work in AIDS service organizations, up in Harlem and Brooklyn. And so now, I work with HIV, mental health, and drug and alcohol in Philadelphia. Because I pastor a church in Philadelphia.

Which church in Philly?

Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, Philadelphia.


How long have you been a pastor?

That's a good question. Well, I've had 16 years in ministry. I was the senior pastor at the Brooklyn church. Oh, I did have these numbers: four years of ministry, about 12 years of pastoring -- first in Brooklyn, and then in Philadelphia. I was a senior pastor and was mentored by the Bishop Zachary G. Jones, the Senior Bishop of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, in Brooklyn; and then I left to open my own church, which is the idea. If you sit as a bishop, you don't sit there forever. Your idea is to be training to go out and pastor. That's what a bishop's supposed to do: Send him out!

How do your ministry, and your being a pastor, connect to your HIV work now?

It connects very well. We have Poz Light, which is our HIV/AIDS ministry in the church. And so we've been able to bring that. My church in Philadelphia is 6 years old; so for the last six years we've been able to run our groups. And now we have a poz radio broadcast. We don't do the support groups anymore, because they just started to die out. So now people connect through the music. Carlos Carter, who is the chair of that ministry, is also a DJ and just great. Great poz house radio music. He keeps the house music of the '80s and the '90s alive -- the house music of the Garage, and Studio 54, and the fabulous clubs of Europe. We keep that alive through a weekly radio webcast. I think it's been about three years -- so he, every week, produces.

It sounds like you're completely out about your HIV status at your church, and to your whole congregation.

Yeah, I'm out; positive at church; positive at work. Everybody, to be in my program at work, has to be HIV positive. I'm a recovery counselor, like I said, for mental health, HIV and drug and alcohol issues, and my program is Community Living Room with COMHAR (Community Organization for Mental Health and Rehabilitation). To be in the Community Living Room, which is a psychiatric rehabilitation program that deals with recovery, you have to be HIV positive.

The thing about it is, these are the other issues that come with HIV -- around drugs, but it's not just that. It's primary support. Who is your support? Which is, basically, your family and your friends. It's community support. What organizations are you tied into? Do you have an HIV doctor or practitioner? If you need help, do you have a psychiatrist? Do you have a therapist? If you need a faith base, do you have a pastor (if Christian), a rabbi (if Jewish), an imam (if Muslim)? Or even if you belong to a tribal faith, if you're Buddhist, whatever your practice, whatever you do, it's OK. So that's your community support.

And then, you know, we're living longer. So there's illness management and recovery. Recovery is not just drug and alcohol. We all in life recover from trauma that we experience in life. Even the birth process is trauma. It begins with trauma, coming through that birth canal and getting slapped on your back, and crying. You cry; that's trauma. It's trauma for the woman who delivers the baby; it's trauma for the baby coming through. It starts with trauma.

"Trauma is something that we don't address in our society. ... Your challenges that you overcome in life, those are traumatic. If illness is a part of life, that's traumatic. Aging is a part of life, that's traumatic. Being poor and not having enough money, that's traumatic. Being different -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, stigma -- that's trauma."

Trauma is something that we don't address in our society. That stuff gets down in our psyche, our soul, and reacts in our body. And so we come up with, when we get our thoughts, why we are all acting out. We have got to deal with them. Finally, you got to deal with your issues. Your issues are really from trauma, you know. And your challenges that you overcome in life, those are traumatic. If illness is a part of life, that's traumatic. Aging is a part of life, that's traumatic. Being poor and not having enough money, that's traumatic. Being different -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, stigma -- that's trauma. Being handicapped, that's trauma. We have so much in our society.

So, working with that -- and then when you have HIV, you may go into depression, anxiety. People think bipolar disorder is the greatest mental health issue, when a big mental health issue is anxiety. And what is anxiety? Fear and worry. And who don't have that? Who don't have that anxious moment about something? So we live with that. But we have to train people how to cope with that. It's just a moment. It's going to pass. Just be still and let it go.

Speaking of support, you mentioned that your parents were advocates and that you came out of the civil rights movement. What's your relationship like with your parents -- with the family of your birth?

My parents are both in their 80s and I am an only child. We're very close. We're a small-knit family. My parents are divorced.

My mother is very clear about my HIV status, and my lifestyle. My father, I believe, knows it because there are issues that happened in childhood, and he is the one that said, "We need to take him to the doctor." I mean, that's what you did then if you were different; they took you to the doctor.

So that's what he said when he thought you might be gay?

Yeah -- or the term back then was "sissy." You know, take the sissy to the doctor, so the doctor will tell him, "come on up out of that" -- which was very interesting.

The doctor got me in the room and said, "You are in their house. Do what they say. But you are who you are. Just go follow the rules. Just get through it, and when you can, move." And, exactly as I graduated, I moved. I did do exactly what my doctor told me to do -- the family doctor. He knew me. He knew me since I was a baby. He knew who I was.

So that was the intervention, but he couldn't come tell my parents, "Yeah, he's gay. Let him be gay," back when I was a teenager, which was -- what was that, '60s, '70s? I don't know. I'm starting to get like my parents in their 80s. They can't remember back when -- you know, every detail, like you used to could.

But your mom is very clear that you're gay, and knows everything?

Oh, yeah, very clear. And my grandmother was very clear about who was gay. In our house, she would bring people from the church who were gay. My mother was very much the one who would go around and talk to people when they had gay children. Her friends had gay children.

This is something that I still am interested about. My mother always said to me, "As many men that call you, there's as many girls who call you. You're probably bisexual, right?"

And I was like, "I ain't bisexual. I'm gay!"

But I've had relationships with both men and women. And now that I think about it, as I get older, I'm like, maybe she was right. I do have an attraction to both of them. But what do I act on? And so I'm still in my development. I identify as gay. I know, with women, it's platonic. And with men, I know it is definitely sexual.

And so I've made that difference real clear, and try not to get into this, "I am bisexual." No, I'm gay. I'm resolved. I've been that for a while. I'm not changing that. I'm really resolved with that. But I think that was her way of being comfortable with who I am.

Because she still wanted the big wedding, and all of that. She may get it, when Pennsylvania passes gay marriage. But I'm not waiting on that. If I meet somebody, I meet somebody.

"I don't know if I'm relationship oriented. I think I am. I think I want it now, as I've gotten older. But I've been sort of a workaholic, doing two and three jobs at one time. I'd be at church, the arts, and the office, doing AIDS work. ... So when did I have time for a relationship?"

I've been in love five times, in five relationships. I don't know if I'm relationship oriented. I think I am. I think I want it now, as I've gotten older. But I've been sort of a workaholic, doing two and three jobs at one time. I'd be at church, the arts, and the office, doing AIDS work. I was a workaholic. So when did I have time for a relationship? They were never going to feel first.

Can you talk a little bit about people-of-color-run AIDS organizations you worked with in the earlier years of the epidemic? For instance, Minority Task Force on AIDS and People of Color in Crisis, in particular, in Brooklyn, which no longer exist in their original form. I'm curious to hear your take on some of the organizations that have come through our community.

Well, I mentioned Craig G. Harris. He was an advocate. He was living with HIV. It really starts with, when they go way back, when David Dinkins was the Manhattan borough president; he eventually became the first black mayor of New York. And then when GMHC had started downtown, with Larry Kramer and them, it was specifically for white gay men, who were the first to be reported infected. So they get off their ass and set up GMHC in Larry Kramer's living room.

Then Mayor David Dinkins was like, "Well, what about ...?" Then he got the information from the New York City Department of Health that black gay men were being infected. So he said, "I'm going to have a task force up in Harlem." And it was called the Minority Task Force on AIDS.

Then, up there, he gave us some money. And then they needed an executive director, so Suki Ports stepped in as the first executive director. After that, she decided she wanted to do more around food -- Family Health Project, which she still runs to this day -- and Craig G. Harris became the executive director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS.

Then there was a shift. White gay men, with better doctors and everything, their numbers started to level off, and they started to live longer on meds. The epidemic shifted to black gay men, and black heterosexual women, and drug users of all colors.

The agencies sprung up based on the need. Then you had Harlem United, who dealt with drugs and alcohol. And then you had Gay Men of African Descent, who dealt with the gay men. And then you had the women's organizations. I'm thinking of one in downtown New York ... Why can't I get the name? It just slips me. But there was a strong women's organization to deal with the issues.

The CDC was coming out, saying, "These are the figures. This is what is going on." So we developed organizations, and the CDC was giving money to develop, to meet the need: "Y'all in the community, y'all go in. Y'all start your organizations. We will come in. We will give you capacity-building, because you all know nothing about finances. You all know nothing about fundraising. All y'all know is that this is in the neighborhood. And you know where to go get these people. And we'll fund it."

And so we worked in partnership with our local health department, the New York City Department of Health. And at that time, it just was the activists. It was ACT UP. Fight AIDS.

I always said, up in Harlem it was BLACK UP! You know: BLACK UP, so you don't black out. So we had that going. And I was part of it, downtown and uptown. That was the way it was.

When that all came, we started our arts organization in other countries. We started publishing our books. Black gay men started to become visible to show the community, and the world, that we did exist. Because we could not be silent. Because we were dying. And so we had an urgency to get out and get to work. People of Color in Crisis was named People of Color in Crisis for a reason. Because mostly West Indian and Caribbean men could not be so out. And also, People of Color in Crisis didn't start out as just a black gay men's agency. It started out as a neighborhood Brooklyn agency. There were heterosexual women at the table and there were gay men. There were IV drug users at the table. So it was a mass of what was.

And right next to POCC was a Haitian women's program. So when the reports came out that there were gay men, Haitians, IV drug users, becoming HIV positive, that's when all these target groups got the agencies together. And so we had a coalition. We did those meetings, and we presented ourselves to funders and community people. We did the focus groups. We did all of that. And we'd say, "What you want to do?" We did the needs assessments. And if they said they wanted this, that the community brought in, they supported us. And that's how we came to have all of that in New York.

The problem with the AIDS industry is that a lot of money was poured in. The capacity building, as I see it, was not well done; or it was done as best as it could be, under the circumstances; or it was well done, and people didn't use it. They thought they could just --

Wing it?

Oh, yeah. "You giving me a million dollar grant? Oh, yeah, I can do that."

And they messed the money up. And so they closed. Because the funders said, "You've got to close. I can't keep you open."

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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Positive Life.


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