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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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It seems that there's a lot about the history of black gay men's HIV advocacy, and black folks' HIV advocacy -- everywhere, but particularly in New York -- that doesn't get talked about that often. We hear a lot about ACT UP -- and there were a couple of black members of ACT UP. You were a member of ACT UP as well?

Well, we had to join forces. GMHC, Minority Task Force on AIDS, Harlem United, Latino Commission on AIDS, American Indian Community House ... who were the Asian groups? Every group in New York had their organization. And when we came together, the government could not say no to us. We were very clear.

And we would use our politicians. We used our city council very well. We used our borough presidents very well. We used our mayor very well. We had Mayor Ed Koch for 12 years -- three terms -- and Mayor Koch opened the door. And then, after Mayor Koch, we had Dinkins. So, for many years, we had someone on our side.

Now, when Giuliani came in as mayor, there was a difference.

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Going back to that time: You felt as if Mayor Koch was really on your side from the beginning?

Oh, yeah. Mayor Koch was really clear about AIDS, and the directive, and the health department. And then Dinkins came in and took it to another level. And once Dinkins brought in Dr. Marjorie Hill, as his gay and lesbian liaison, we had room at the table. We didn't just meet the mayor, the mayor was in the planning sessions.

I mean, with Koch, yes, it was still GMHC, white, gay; but they represented. Some of us were at that table. Because the epidemic was shifting. And Koch was like, "Well, why? Where's the people of color? It's changing to African Americans. Where are the African-American ones? Why you all ain't bringing them?" So that's how we got in.

Then Dinkins came in. Marjorie said, "All y'all come to the table." That started her work with AIDS. And then she went with GMHC and did that with Salsa Soul Sisters, which was a group for lesbians of color and with women who were getting infected. That was the work. St. Clare's brought in the housing piece, before Housing Works. Then the interracial gay male couple, Keith Cylar and Charles King, founded Housing Works. Debra Fraser-Howze had NBLCA (National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS).

Gay men and heterosexual women, one thing in common: We like men. And men were infecting us. So we had to pull it together.

The Minority Task Force on AIDS did all programs. It did housing; it did drug and alcohol; it did mental health; it did legal; it did prevention and outreach. So it was forefront, as was GMHC downtown, to do everything up in Harlem. And Harlem United did the same thing. So the two worked together in coalition. And NBLCA did stuff. NBLCA could get the church, and the clergy. And then you had Balm in Gilead, with Pernessa Seele. Both of them were working with the faith-based groups, the churches. They were working in partnership.

"You had this wonderful thing in Harlem, with all these different agencies that we developed. And you can't tell me we can't do that again in every city. You can't tell me that. Because we did it!"

So you had this wonderful thing in Harlem, with all these different agencies that we developed. And you can't tell me we can't do that again in every city. You can't tell me that. Because we did it!

Now, of course, New York is progressive, open. Plus, it has 10.5 million people. So we had more resources, and we had more people power than other places. But still, if you started a study in 12 major cities, we should have, in every city, what we have in New York.

What do you think has happened, as far as that coalition building and that urgency for everybody to work together?

Because people aren't dying. People are living. So now our focus needs to change. But young people are going to die. Young people are the most infected. So the second wave hasn't hit yet. And people just think, oh, there's not going to be no more dying.

Yes it is. Young MSMs, young heterosexuals, young bisexuals. And I worked with the Department of Health in New York City on the young MSM (men who have sex with men) studies. I was one of the workers that went out there to the pier and collected all that data. So I know. I worked at the church, under Bishop Zachary G. Jones, as program director for the agency he founded called Breaking Ground. We formulated Breaking Ground, which was for LGBT youth 18 to 25, and their families. And we got a CDC grant for Banjee Boys Are Down.

The kids came to us and said, "We are up in Prospect Park having sex. We meet in the park and go up in the library, in the back, to have sex. Or we meet in the library after school. They think we're in there studying. At 3 o'clock we go to the library, because we're latchkey kids. We can't be home by ourselves. Our parents don't come home till 6. So we're supposed to be in the library doing our homework until they get home. And then we're supposed to come home. No, we're in the park, having sex.

"Our hormones are raging. We're gay. There's a cute boy right there. I'm going to take him in the park!"

Gay boys and lesbians is over there in the park! It's a big park. The youth are in there in the day, bold; and the men are in there at night, the adults. So you need an intervention. They came to us and said, "We don't know how to write no grant." And that was at POCC. POCC did not want to do that with youth. They were afraid of issues: Would they think we were touching the youth? And all of that. And so I, as executive director, said, "I have to do this program."

So I moved to the church, to Unity Brooklyn. We had Breaking Ground Youth. I'm part of that. I helped get that started. The program fits. POCC didn't want to do it. I don't want to be executive director when we can't do youth work. I had six months on my contract. "Let's just end it." I went and became program director for Breaking Ground. Wrote the grant for the kids and we got funded.

So we were the first "down-low program" in the country, before James L. King and everybody. And it was the youth that led it. It's powerful.

We had the Hetrick-Martin Institute. One of my kids was doing the workshop today [at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in Las Vegas, where this interview was conducted], and he was like, "Is that Reverend Haskins?" I said, "You all grown up and work for GMHC," doing Outstanding Beautiful Brothers, keeping brothers safe. He was at Hetrick-Martin when I was volunteering with gay and lesbian children. With GMAD, we were doing that mentoring piece.

"I've mentored so many kids over the years. I was mentored. When I came out at 19, my godfather called me over and said, 'Hey, we don't do it like that. If you gonna be a gay man, we don't do that.' And so we have to give that back to the next generation."

That's what's so needed today. And that's what I'm going to start: the mentoring program. I've mentored so many kids over the years. I was mentored. When I came out at 19, my godfather called me over and said, "Hey, we don't do it like that. If you gonna be a gay man, we don't do that." And so we have to give that back to the next generation. The baby boomers have to give it to Generation X, which is the next generation. And then Generation X has to give it to the millennials.

And the next generation, they don't even have a name for that yet. They don't even know what to do with them. Because that generation doesn't do labels. So you can't call them what you want to call them. "If I do a boy, I do a girl. I'm not gay. My name defines me. If you want to know me, ask me my name, and that defines me."

What worked for us is ancient and old and ain't up to date and accurate, and it ain't working. First of all, we didn't have no social media networking on no computer. We did it by phone. Or we did it by hanging out. Or we did it in parks. Or we did it in bathrooms. Or we did it on the train -- especially on the train -- or on the train stops, on the platforms. We did it; we were part of the sexual revolution. The whole country was opening up when I came out of high school in 1969, to the '70s. The '70s was it.

We had Stonewall. And the movement did not start at Stonewall. The movement started in Philadelphia. In 1965 to '69, they marched around Independence Hall -- with Barbara Gittings -- and said gays should be there. And there were one or two of us in there. You know, there's a black man there on the sign; I don't know his name.

But those were the pioneers. They were doing that before they had Stonewall in '69 -- five years out, every Fourth of July. "Where's our independence? Where are we in the Declaration of Independence? Where are we in the Constitution? We're LGBT. You're discriminating against us." And there's a marker there, right across the street from the Liberty Bell that says, Stonewall, and the march that Troy Perry at Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and all of them started in 1970.

Philadelphia was the first in mostly everything. It was the first nation's capital. The first president was there; the first black church; the first Catholic church in this country; the first one to deal with slavery, with the abolitionist movement, the Quakers. We can just go down the line, but nobody will give credit. Everything was in New York or D.C. No! It was right in the middle!

That's why I have to do the work I have to do in Philadelphia. And now Philadelphia is among the first in HIV/AIDS cases, with six times the national HIV incidence rate. So we are a hot spot. New York was, when I was working there; D.C. was, when I was working there. But where I'm at, living now, Philadelphia is a hot spot -- six times the national average.

We do have Black Gay Men's Leadership Council, of which I'm on the board, in Philadelphia. We do have a People of Color Coalition. We have a Kwanzaa event every December, where we all bring our organizations together and celebrate that. We come together for that and we support each other. And we still have the People of Color Coalition in New York that we started in that Gay and Lesbian Center on 13th Street.

So the Coalition was built, and we still have the Coalition today. And young people are coming to the table with the Coalition. So, here we are.

The work continues.

It continues. We still have to pass that mantle. And our set are older, and going into our retirement. You know, my coworker that is here with me at this conference is 26. This is his first conference. He's the youth. I'm in my 50s, but I'm supposed to show him. Because when I first went to a conference, I was in my 20s -- a skills-building conference with NMAC (National Minority AIDS Council). And look at me now: I'm in Caesar's Palace, with opulence!

Never thought I'd be here. The work has got me to these places. I've seen some things.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Olivia Ford is the executive editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Watch or read part two of this conversation, in which Jeffery talks about his physical and spiritual health.


Copyright © 2014 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.
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This article was provided by TheBody.com. It is a part of the publication This Positive Life.


 

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