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HRC Foundation's New HIV/AIDS Project Fellow Discusses Faith Communities, Coalition Building and Gay Men of Color

February 3, 2015

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Marvell Terry

Marvell Terry

Marvell Terry came to prominence as the founder and executive director of the Memphis-based Red Door Foundation. Now, after working to bring culturally competent care to other HIV-positive young gay men of color in the South, the Tennessee native is setting his sights on a national platform as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation's new HIV/AIDS Project Fellow.

Terry sat down with us to speak about why his work is so personal, what it's like having to choose between rent and medications and how his experience plus HRC's reach are a match made in activist heaven.

First of all, congratulations on the new job.

Thank you so much.

You just made the move to D.C., right?

Yes. I just made the move to D.C.

Can you tell us a little bit about your history in working with HIV?

My history with HIV, more notably, is my work with the Red Door Foundation -- my own nonprofit that I started back home in Memphis to raise the consciousness of that region around black gay men, and to improve the health equity of black gay men, not only in Memphis, but in the surrounding areas -- which is, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

When you talk about black gay men, who just like to have fun over the weekend, Memphis was often an entertainment destination, particularly for some of those young guys from Jackson, Mississippi, or Little Rock, Arkansas, or Nashville, Tennessee. It was nothing for us to get in a car and drive to other locations. So when I thought about improving health outcomes for black gays, bisexuals and same-gender-loving men, I had to widen my scope. Because oftentimes they're getting diagnosed in Little Rock, Arkansas, but live in Memphis, Tennessee, or get diagnosed at a club in Memphis and live in Nashville. So how do we work together as a region to improve linkage to care and retention to care?

That was really one of my objectives, particularly among those three state health departments. How can we create a plan for linking young black gay men into care and retaining those individuals in care, to ensure that they can get their medication, that they're going to culturally competent clinics, and that they're not being put on a waitlist when they are diagnosed in one state, and they came to the state for a party or something, but they really reside in another state?


My work also has continued with me speaking out about my own diagnosis. The other day, while in D.C., while I was walking to HRC, I thought about my journey, and remembered that when I first got into treatment my struggle was similar to so many guys -- I bring their voices to D.C. with me. While it's way above 500 now and I'm undetectable, I remember that my CD4 was 2. The woman at the health department looked at me and said, "I'm surprised that you're able to sit up straight." I did not understand the magnitude of having a CD4 of 2.

I also remember not having health insurance. I remember having to make a decision between rent and whether I'm going to take medication. So I fell off medication, not because of my adherence, but because economically it didn't make sense for me to not have a roof over my head, compared to medication.

Recently, my work with the Young Black Gay Men's Leadership Initiative, a cohort of black gay men who address issues and health disparities as they relate to black gay men across the country, has assisted me in addressing it on a national platform. Also my work with AVAC [Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention], which is a biomedical prevention hub located out of New York, has helped me in advocating for PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis], particularly in rural communities in the South.

It sounds like so much of your work is informed by personal experience -- that you were someone who had to make those decisions between rent and medication and had to deal with a lot of systems that were really hard to navigate as a gay man of color.

Yeah. And when you look at the structural and social determinants, I was affected, too, by stigma, particularly in the black church -- not really being abused from the pulpit, from my local congregation, but still being in a culture where being gay is not accepted. Furthermore, talking publicly about my HIV and AIDS status is not something that is condoned, is not popular, to them.

I'll never forget the first place that I decided to speak out about my status was my church. That was the place that had developed me as a leader. That was the place that toughened my skin. It was the most natural place for me to talk about my HIV status. And in my early days, my work was in the church. Because I believe that the black church has a pivotal role in erasing HIV out of our community.

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