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HIV Frontlines: In Newark, N.J., an HIV/AIDS Advocate Finds New Ways to Reach LGBT African Americans

A Conversation With Gary Paul Wright

October 18, 2010

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Oh, Gary, you're telling all her business!

Well, but it's all good. I'm proud of her. Listen: Anastasia just came back from -- she went to the YMSM [young men who sleep with men] and YTG [young transgender persons] meeting in Atlanta [Ga.] that the CDC just had. And she was -- not to stray, but -- this is the first time she's ever flown in her life. It's the first time she's ever traveled as a trans woman out of New Jersey. And she just came back, like I said, so empowered. I think she was brave enough just to get on the plane and travel like she did. But she's just a wonderful person, and she's just somebody I would like to mentor better. I wish I could do a better job mentoring her.

What she's brought to the program is honesty. I mean, the girls will sit up here and eat their chicken. You know, we feed them lunch, and things like that. And the stuff would just come out. She's just so quiet and demure, but she's able to draw them out. And she makes them read out loud, and things like that. She's just brought such a dynamic to this agency; it's not even funny.

So it's meeting kids, or meeting people, where they are. That's what we've tried to do.

Looking at some of the specific concerns that gay men in Newark have: Newark is a very interesting city, to say the least. You have a very visible black LGBT population, and there's a lot of activism going on right now, especially the people who we just mentioned. But there's also a staggering crime and poverty rate at play, as well. How does your office address these other things that are at play?

Well, one of the ways we do it -- I mean, if you're talking about housing -- we try to help those people who are HIV positive get out of shelters and go into someplace like St. Bridget's [Residence], which houses people who live with AIDS. You know, we have a connection with Broadway House for continuing care, and their new little program, Genesis House, which is built by monies garnered from what's-his-name -- Bon Jovi. I mean, they've put money into Newark, in some of these places.

We do referrals to the local hospitals. Now we actually do testing once a month here. Newark Community Health Centers approached us and said, "Hey, we're thinking of doing some outside stuff. Are you guys interested?" And we were like, "Well, we can see."

So the first month we did it, we had one person actually come in and get tested. We just had [a testing day] this past Monday; we had seven people come in and get tested. So, within a month, there's a difference there.

We help people try to get jobs. You know, we'll help you; if you don't have a resume, we'll make one with you. Take the experiences that you have already, and we'll put it in a shape that you can take it to an employer. We'll let you practice on our computers. We'll even have a mock job interview. I've sat in and done all those kinds of things with people. It's like, "When you walk into an office, pull your pants up. I know you want to be cute, but ..."

Another thing we try to do is: You can't shield people from harassment, but you have to validate people where they are. I've walked downtown Newark, and I've seen transgender women going down the street who I know, and hear comments like, "That's a grown-ass man." "Look at him, wearing a dress," or something like that. I try to say, "People are people. Leave her alone."

So there is still big, big homophobia. I mean, even though we're more and more open, there is still a lot of homophobia around here, and we try to just be positive. We admit who we are: We're openly gay. We openly work in HIV and AIDS. I mean, that, in itself, can be stigmatizing. My card says, "African American Office of Gay Concerns." A lot of people would be afraid to even say that out loud. But you got to. You got to own what you do.

You were saying how, back in the day, there would be posters that were very, very specific. They would maybe state: "If you do not use a condom and you insert your penis in this man's anus, and you have gonorrhea, you could still transmit gonorrhea, even if you're only in there for a second." Like, that specific.

So let's fast-forward it to now. Do you think that those very specific and in-detail and -- no pun intended -- "raw" kinds of information are what's lacking?

Yes. I don't believe that fear sells, but I believe reality will sell. And the reality is, if you have certain kinds of sex, like unprotected anal sex, you can spread or contract HIV. And I am totally, totally sold on the fact that we need to be giving those messages out there.

I wish that I could do a billboard that has two guys up there, butt naked, getting ready to do the do. But I know that I'm going to cause all kinds of trouble if I try to do something like that. But I can do brochures, maybe. I can do palm cards, or something, that address that. But we've got to.

I believe -- and I know, like, the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation and, I'm sure, NJCRI [feel the same way] -- I would like to get back to the conversation of unprotected anal sex. I would like to, like we were saying, be real with it. You don't have to scare anybody with it, but be real with it.

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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication HIV Frontlines.
See Also's HIV/AIDS Resource Center for African Americans
HIV and Me: An African American's Guide to Living With HIV
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More Views on HIV Prevention in the African-American Community


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