Let's be honest. Black gay men working in the field of HIV deal with a variety of issues within the workplace. We are underpaid, tokenized, undertrained, burnt out, devalued or, in simple terms, "institutionally violated." I know way too many black gay men serving in their communities who work for agencies that forget we are human, too. As if somehow them offering us a job meant that we no longer desired romantic relationships. As if our jobs magically wiped away our "risky sex" behaviors. As if the only obligation we have in life is to hunt down boys, ask them for their saliva and link them to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), just so the agency can bask in the glory of funders.
However, don't get me wrong. I enjoy the work I do. In fact, I am passionate about it, and I often reflect on the relationships that I have built with people I would have never met if I had not gotten the job. But, to be honest, I am still a black gay man suffering from anxiety, brokenness, sexual abuse and various others issues that many other black gay men face today. All of those things, coupled with the fact that I walk into a job that services my community, but not me. Have I become a slave to a body of work that erases my experiences? Have I become entrapped within a body of work that values outcomes more than my mental health?
Black gay colleagues, have we been pimped by prevention? I long for the day that we can walk into staff meetings and vocalize our needs without others normalizing our experiences with subliminal references. The day when agencies will hire us for our skills and not just for our sexual orientation. The day our ideas are just as good as quotas. The day our job doesn't turn over because we refuse to bend over. For too long we've been a part of the act, but risk the chance of never becoming a main character. They pimp us for access, but bypass us for promotion and expect us to remain motivated and dedicated with no room to grow.
We've been here too long facing these same issues, and now, it's time for someone to listen. We cannot risk another one of our colleagues seroconverting because the job cared about what happened at the office while ignoring what happened at home. We cannot afford to continue turning a blind eye to the destructive language and culture within our workspaces that dehumanize and devalue our very existence.
To my leaders who hire black gay men to do this work, we implore you to remain vigilant and open to creating workspaces where we feel safe. To provide us opportunities where you listen more than you speak, because only then can you begin to understand the deeply rooted issues we face as black gay men. We encourage you to provide us the same services you offer your clients, because we too have been socially discriminated against, abandoned by loved ones and have had thoughts of committing suicide. Because we too want to be loved and supported, not for validation, but for appreciation.
We want you to understand that our talents aren't limited to what is written in our job descriptions and that we too have great ideas that are not confined to our titles. Most importantly, understand that we are not your tokens and that you do not own the rights to us. We are black, gay, gifted and valuable. And if the truth is spoken, it is that you need us more than we need you.
To my black gay colleagues, I hear you and I see you. I know that your trauma is real and that your screams for help have been ignored. I know that your grief is real, and that sometimes it is hard to find that dry place when both sides of the pillow are wet from tears of pain. I understand that your past still haunts you, and that you plaster a smile on your face just to get through the day. You are real; you are human.
Know that your greatness began long before they hired you and that you are the guiding light to the change we hope to see. I urge you to push forward with conviction and never stop demanding the respect you deserve. I want you to know that self-care and self-love are important and to never spend more time caring for others than you do caring for yourself. Talk to someone, and be real with yourself about what you are feeling. Do not erase the experiences that inspired you to do this work, because our community needs you.
Justin A. Lofton is a fearless prevention worker, community advocate and activist in the Nashville community. He has worked in the HIV community for 6 years, and also works to secure comprehensive sex education and youth reproductive rights nationally.
This article was cross-posted with the permission of Justin A. Lofton. Read the original article.