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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

By Olivia Ford

January 7, 2014

This Positive Life

"It became actually my career, what I wanted to be, and do," says Jeffery A. Haskins of the HIV work he's been involved with since the epidemic's earliest days. His path was not always so clear -- he'd studied business, accounting and theater management, and when an accountant position opened up at the newly formed Minority Task Force on AIDS, his journey began. But that journey was not simply as an activist, but as an activist of color -- part of a group often overlooked in histories of early HIV activism -- and, by 1993, as a person living with HIV himself.

Here, Jeffery talks about how early HIV activists organized, particularly those based in Harlem at the time; and how his role as a pastor deeply informs his life with HIV and his quest for justice. Along the way, he also talks about being an artist, how theater helped him to express himself, and how he and his family evolved together in their understanding of his sexuality and HIV diagnosis. Watch or read part two of this conversation, in which Jeffery talks about his physical and spiritual health.

This interview was conducted in October 2012.


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Can you talk about when and how you found out you were HIV positive?

Basically, you know, there were many years where people were dying. And you're so busy working in AIDS for 21 years that you're burying your dead. You don't think about yourself and your health. And my lover died. But we had been practicing safe sex. He had gotten HIV from his former lover.

So then I thought about it, and I said maybe I should go get a test. It was July of 1993. I did go get the test. My best friend took me. And he's the person that I told that I had it.

In 1993, you had already had a lover who was positive, and who had passed away?

Yeah. He passed away actually in March of '92. And then I just came to a decision in '93 to go do it.

What did you think and feel when you first found out that you were positive?

It was like being hit by a boulder, or a ton of bricks. It was numbing. But, because I was in the field, I had to process it quickly. I had to keep things going. And so I think I had some loss around my health, and some grief around that HIV got me, you know: It didn't get my best friend, but it got me. So there was some sadness, and there was some remorse, and there was pain around it, because now I had to say, "I'm an HIV-positive person." Well, first, I had to come to terms with it for myself.

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How did you do that?

I just read more and got educated, and talked to other people who were HIV positive about how they were dealing with it. I knew people that were. So I just really observed them more and started to see that they were OK, I guess, at that time. They had to take their medicine. You know, that had to start for me. So now you have a new ... chore, a regimen, of pill-taking. So you've got to get that down. That's a science that you gotta learn how to get down to a routine, and regularly do it.

Did you start taking meds right away in '93?

Yeah, I did.

How did that go? What kinds of options were available, as far as treatment?

Well, I was on AZT [Retrovir, zidovudine], which was not a good option. It was toxic. It was hard. It was the first drug that I took -- just to get my system ready, because the protease inhibitors were coming out -- the new line of drugs were in the pipeline. So, you had to get your system ready to take new medicine. It was kind of brutal: the diarrhea, the nausea. Just brutal. It was brutal. It was painful-brutal.

How long were you on just the AZT monotherapy before other medications became available?

I can't really remember. It all kind of gets to be a blur after a while. But it wasn't long; I do know that. Because then it was going on to the protease inhibitors.

How was the experience different between AZT and these newer drugs?

Well, it was less toxic. The protease inhibitors seemed to work better. When the first ones came out, you had to take them with food so your stomach was coated. If you took it on an empty stomach, you knew you would have the kinds of conditions you had with AZT. And so you would remember to eat first, then take the medicine. So you got into a system, and it kind of got you into a regular routine -- that basically would keep you alive.

We were still at the point, in '93, where people were still dying. Less were dying, but still; we were still going to funerals, as I recall.

Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you were practicing safer sex with your partner who had passed on.

Yes.

Do you have a sense of when you came in contact with HIV?

It would have to be in the '80s. I mean, we've always done that: who it was; when it was.

I came out in, what year was that? Was it '73? So, yes, my first year of college, away from home.

You came out at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.]?

No. The first year I went to Xavier University in New Orleans.

Was everybody accepting? Did you experience any backlash for coming out as gay in either of these places?

Well, we weren't so obvious about it back then. I mean, the women were in the women's dorm; the men were ... It was separated. It wasn't coed dorms. Those that knew they were gay: We kind of like came together, and then we admitted it one day. And then we sort of hung together.

You know, the biggest thing in New Orleans was Mardi Gras. So, on Mardi Gras day, you would dress up in drag and be fabulous. Nobody would know or think who you are, and what you are doing. Everybody dressed up. I mean, Mardi Gras is sin day. You can have fun. You can have sex on the street. Which is interesting, because all kinds of things get passed on Mardi Gras. You know? So that's an interesting thing.

But we were very much in our clique, I would say.

So you were out to each other?

Yeah. We weren't out to the school. There was none of that.

No LGBT club, or anything like that.

"I'm a baby boomer, a civil rights baby, a NOW woman's baby, a fight-the-Vietnam-War baby. Coming from Washington, D.C., it's all political. So, every one of the struggles, my parents were at, and they were advocates, and they took me too. And they taught me. ... HIV is [also] a social justice issue."

None of that. When I went to school, in the dinosaur age, that was pre-everything. You know? Because I'm a civil rights baby. I'm the first generation. I'm a baby boomer, a civil rights baby, a NOW woman's baby, a fight-the-Vietnam-War baby. Coming from Washington, D.C., it's all political. So, every one of the struggles, my parents were at, and they were advocates, and they took me too. And they taught me. You know, the Martin Luther King Day bill; the march on Washington for gay rights; the AIDS Quilt. You name it. ACT UP! ACT UP! Fight AIDS! You know, all of that, just, advocacy.

HIV is a social justice issue. We were doing the advocacy to, first of all, make AIDS known; and then the advocacy around black gay men. Because black gay men -- you know, people wanted us to be invisible. But black gay men had a voice, and we started our organizations. It was black gay men I was burying. When we say, "bury your dead," it was black gay men.

It was not, in the beginnings of it, in New York City that I first heard of AIDS. I first heard of it in D.C., and it was black gay men in D.C. So it was in my community. AIDS was present. My community wanted to do "silence" -- but "Silence Equals Death." And we were like, no, we have to talk about it. We are ostracized. We're oppressed. They say it don't exist in our community. We say yes, it does. Because I have no friends. You've got sons and daughters.

We went to funerals. Pastors wouldn't talk about it. There was nothing said about what they died of. Rare blood disease? No. AIDS. And that was the going time, in the '70s, '80s.

And until Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson came out, the white man and the black man, in the '80s and early '90s. Then, all of a sudden, President Reagan's like, "OK, I'll go to the event and address them." Years into the epidemic. No wonder why they were booing him. Because you didn't do nothing! The federal government did nothing.

So, with that, and forcing them to do that: It became actually my career, what I wanted to be, and do. I had to make a decision. Yes, I wanted to be on Broadway. I didn't go to Columbia University and get a master's in theater management with the intention of working in AIDS, to have my first job be at the Minority Task Force on AIDS in Harlem, and then to go to People of Color in Crisis in Brooklyn.

I wanted to be not the performer, but the manager of the show. That's what I studied to be: the producer. And we even had our theater company, the Rainbow Repertory Theatre, founded and directed by Reginald T. Jackson. We did over 80 LGBT shows in a 12th-floor loft theater space. I served as the managing director and handled all the business matters of the theater. So I was working in it.

At the same time, I had two passions -- I had three passions, actually, going on at the same time: I had the theater; I had AIDS service; and I had church. You know? I had church. Which ended up with me becoming a minister, with me becoming a pastor, and trying to bridge all of them together.

What happened was that, because of the AIDS crisis, you had to be creative. So, as an outreach worker, you had to get creative with creating stuff. You had to get creative with storytelling. You had to get creative with role-playing. You had to get creative with performances. And so I was able to develop my one-man show, called The 26 Project. The reason it's The 26 Project is because my lover died on the 26th. He died on March 26. My lover's name was David Dawud Edwards. My best friend was Rory Buchanan, and he died on Nov. 26. And then my good girlfriend was Craig G. Harris, and he died on Nov. 26. So it became The 26 Project.

It was a one-man show talking about my experiences with AIDS, living with HIV, and doing that. And what I did with it was take it to different places and raise money, and give it to the AIDS organizations. The proceeds covered the expenses of the show, what it cost, and maybe gave me a meal and a bus ticket back, you know, but most of the money went to the organizations.

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.

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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."

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.


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