Dr. Simmons' statement brought an eerie chill to the room. With over 100 Black gay men convened to discuss and develop a research agenda concerning a group of Americans that have been labeled an "endangered species," the naked truth of the matter had just been exposed.
We could talk until we were blue in the face. We could create endless amounts of culturally competent, totally measurable programs and then lobby for millions and millions of government dollars to support them. We could even march on Washington or "Act Up" in the streets of our respective cities. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, our efforts would be in vain if the very people we are trying to save do not themselves realize that they are, in fact, worth saving.
The bigger issue, then, becomes how did we get in this position.
I can remember the first time I really paid attention to the use of the word "faggot." I was a young boy of about 7 or 8 years old. The family next door to mine had an uncle named "Tommy" who came to visit from time to time. Everybody knew that "Uncle Tommy" was a "faggot" and people used a lot of other remarkable words to describe him, like "bitch" and "pussy." Words that were, oddly enough, also used to describe Black women and their anatomies.
I don't remember when I knew exactly what a "faggot" was or when I first came to understand that it was associated with homosexual sex, but I do remember when I knew that I myself was indeed what some would call a "faggot." And I hated it. I did everything that I could to curb my feelings towards men. I dated and slept with several women. I got deeply involved in the Pentecostal church, hoping to pray it away. I even considered attending a seminary and giving my life over to the church totally, if God would just make this sick and disgusting feeling that I had towards men go away. But it wouldn't leave.
And I was not alone. There are thousands of Black men just like me who would give their lives to make the feelings go away. For many of us, denial and a lack of self-love drive us to make bad decisions that ultimately lead to HIV.
Startling news recently came from the national Centers for Disease Control suggesting that half of Black men who have sex with men in this country may already be HIV positive. News that, if we were talking about whales being harmed by fisherman fishing for tuna in the Atlantic, would cause outrage throughout our nation. Instead, there has been silence.
But who is to blame for that? The Centers for Disease Control? The government? Racist White people? Homophobic Black people?
After countless hours of thought and conversation with many who are concerned about the plight of Black gay men in this country, I have come to a conclusion that is sometimes hard to accept. Although all of these parties may be partially responsible for our current condition, the main perpetrator is, in fact, Black gay men ourselves. If we do not care enough about ourselves to take ownership of the epidemic that is devastating our community, why on Earth should anyone else?
With that said, I have stopped feeling sorry for myself and for my people and I have dedicated my life to provoking change. More importantly, I am learning what it means to be totally in love with the man I was created to be, which also means fully embracing the complexities of my sexuality.
I have stopped looking outside of our community for solutions to our crisis, rather, I am beginning to look within it, aligning myself with others who are committed to restoring a sense of hope and self-worth to the lives of Black gay men.
Locally, I am involved with the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus. Our primary focus is the overall health and well-being of Black gay men in the city of Chicago. Membership consists of representation from the Chicago Department of Public Health, Black gay business owners and promoters, community-based organizations, political activists as well as members of academic institutions, all of whom have made a conscious decision to lay aside their own personal agendas and come together to promote unity and love within the Black gay community.
In an effort to do that, we also realize the significance of forming alliances with other organizations throughout the nation, who have as their mission a focus similar to ours. Following are examples of four such allies who are committed to improving the quality of life for Black gay men in America.
Established in the spring of 2001, the Black Gay Research Group consists of 21 Black gay men from across the country of diverse professional and educational backgrounds. They have come together to shape and execute a research agenda that explores and documents the lives of Black gay men: socially, spiritually, economically and psychologically.
The groups' second, bi-annual summit was held this past August in downtown Brooklyn. Spearheaded by the Brooklyn-based AIDS service organization People of Color In Crisis, the summit served as a bridge between the Black gay research community and the various service organizations in place to address the unique needs of Black gay men. Research on and about Black gay men was presented, discussed, analyzed and then framed into constructs that the group hopes will help to influence governmental policy, community-based interventions and future research undertakings.
Keynote addresses were made by Dr. David Malebranche, a Black gay researcher and assistant professor at Emory University's School of Medicine in Atlanta, and activist Keith Boykin, author of the controversial best-seller "Beyond the Down Low." Both men emphasized a need for more extensive research to be done on and about Black gay men.
"We are more than walking HIV statistics," proclaimed Dr. Malebranche. "We must conduct research that adequately addresses every aspect of our lives, both qualitative and quantitative.
"Statistics don't tell the whole story and neither do interviews with 10 or 12 people," he argued.
Boykin, more recently known for his efforts at setting the record straight about the infamous "down low" phenomenon, stressed the fact that the "down low" discussion is but a distraction from the real issues at hand.
"The down low is not the cause of the Black AIDS epidemic," declared Boykin. "The real reason why we are obsessed with women who are infected by men who are on the down low is because we don't want to deal with the reality that Black gay men are the greatest victims of this disease.
"Rather than talk about the tragedy among Black gay men, we create an illusion about straight Black women. It is much easier to talk about sympathetic straight Black women who are being infected by stereotypical deceptive and predatory Black men than to address what is really going on."
The group has issued a list of recommendations to address HIV infection rates among Black men who have sex with men, for consideration by governmental officials in critical positions with responsibility for curtailing the epidemic in the United States. A published report of the findings of their collective research will follow.
In 1982, when the mystery of the AIDS epidemic was fueling a fire of fear and segregation for the gay community at large, one Baptist minister in Los Angeles decided to take a stand. Rev. Carl Bean, nationally known for his vocals on the Motown club classic "I Was Born This Way," organized a bible study for the families and supporters of African American gay men who had been rejected by the churches they had served in for years.
Rev. Beans' bible study grew into what is now known as the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, with 12 established churches throughout the nation. The primary work of Unity Fellowship is to proclaim the sacredness of all life, thus focusing on empowering those who have been oppressed and made to feel shame. The movement's motto is "God is Love and Love is for Everyone" and its membership includes worshipers from all walks of life, both gay and straight, Black and White.
I personally came to know the Unity Fellowship Movement while living in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had relocated there in hopes of getting a handle on both my sexuality and my HIV status. Pastor Tanyia Rawls and her partner, Elder Gwen, selflessly opened up their hearts to me and made me a part of their family. I credit the love and support they gave me with transforming me into a Black gay man who is free of shame and doubt about the man God created him to be.
"I believe that the faith community can completely change the flow of efforts in reference to Black gay men and HIV/AIDS," says Pastor Rawls. "Jesus was led by the human condition. Whether we get it or don't get it ...whether we like it or don't like it, there is a segment of our community that is dying and at risk and we must do all that we can as a church to help make sure that our community lives."
According to Rev. Rawls, the church is still the greatest institution within the Black community. "The church is in a position to give people permission to live," she says, boldly. "We can do things from a faith-based perspective to show African American gay men that we not only love them, but that we honor them and we need them to survive.
"I don't know how many Black men hear that and I definitely don't know how many Black gay men hear that. Can you imagine what would happen if from pulpits across America on Sunday morning, instead of the 'Black gay bash, you're going to hell sermon', some preacher gets up and says 'I love you as you are, Black gay man and we need you to survive and will do everything in our power to help you do so ... because God loves you and so do we'. Do you know what kind of drop we would see in the infection rate?"
For more information on the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, visit www.ufc-usa.org.
Off the top of her head, Pamela Johnson, Assistant Director of Treatment Education and Advocacy for the National Minority AIDS Council, could name two agencies nationwide whose primary focus is Black gay men. Just two. The frightening reality is that while estimates indicate that nearly 50% of this population may already be HIV positive, institutions whose focus is prevention, support and treatment of HIV/AIDS in the Black gay community are virtually non-existent. However, one of the agencies that she was able to name has been reaching out to this disproportionately affected community for 20 years.
Us Helping Us was started in 1985 by a small group of HIV-positive, Black gay men. Collectively, they were interested in researching a more holistic approach to maintaining their health -- incorporating mind, body and spirit into the healing process. This small group developed into a larger one, which then branched off into smaller groups throughout the Washington, D.C. area. From their meetings and research emerged a 12-week workshop, which also served as a training ground for other men interested in hosting a group of their own.
This network morphed into the full service agency that we know today as Us Helping Us, with programming that reaches into Maryland, Virginia and as far as West Virginia. With 19 full-time staff members and a two million dollar budget, UHU continues to set the pace nationally for prevention and support services geared towards Black gay men. Aside from basic services such as rapid testing, counseling and case management, UHU does a considerable amount of work at combating stigma and homophobia within the Black community at large.
"I think that it is really important that we support and educate the families of young Black men who are beginning to identify with their feelings towards other men," says Dr. Simmons, executive director of Us Helping Us. "A kid who is curious about his sexuality will, unfortunately, encounter homophobia years before he encounters a Black gay man, or anyone else for that matter, who will tell him what the lifestyle is really all about. Families are in a unique position to break that cycle."
Us Helping Us also does a great deal of work with the transgender community, a population that is arguably the most underserved community as it relates to HIV services and prevention. "At least people view Black gay men as people even if they do consider us to be an abomination to society," says Dr. Simmons. "I don't think that people even view transgender people as people and we have to stop that."
When asked his opinion on the future of Black gay men in this country, Dr. Simmons stalls for a moment and then expresses what sounds like a glimmer of hope. "The real issue is that, right now, I don't think that we really see ourselves as a viable community. However, I'm encouraged when I see our young people express and address some of our issues in ways that us old folks never have before," he explains. "I get excited by the energy that I see in a lot of the young Black gay men today. It gives me hope."
For more information on Us Helping Us, visit www.ushelpingus.com.
Contrary to popular belief, Black gay pride celebrations are more than weekend-long circuit parties. If fact, the first "official" Black Pride, which took place 15 years ago in the District of Columbia, was a one day event to raise money for HIV/AIDS service organizations within the African American community. Since then, more than 20 cities throughout the country have established Black Prides as affirming spaces for Black gay men and lesbians to meet and network with others like themselves.
In 2001, in an effort to organize the 20-plus Black Prides in the United States and abroad, the International Federation of Black Prides (IFBP) was formed. The primary goal of the federation is to develop sponsorship strategies and to provide technical assistance, networking, mentoring and support for its members. Each year, the group comes together to set a detailed agenda to determine what issues their respective prides should address. HIV/AIDS is always at the top of that list.
"Collectively, we come in contact with close to a quarter of a million Black gay men every year," says Earl Fowlkes, president of IFBP. "Most of these men are outside of the radar when it comes to HIV prevention. They come out for these weekends and then return to their low-key sexual networks."
In many cities, such as Chicago, AIDS service organizations actually head up their city's Black Pride in order to take advantage of the opportunity to outreach to this otherwise invisible, at-risk population.
"We [Black gay men] don't have a means of mass communication, per se," says Fowlkes. "We don't have a television network or a radio station or even a national magazine for that matter. So outside from the clubs, Black Pride becomes our primary mechanism for reaching out to one another."
Currently, the IFBP is researching ways to conduct a more concerted effort as it relates to HIV/AIDS prevention. Fowlkes, though, is quick to point out that the collective is not interested in "one-shot deals," rather they are seeking to establish more intimate relationships with their attendees.
"I don't have anything against traditional outreach efforts," Fowlkes explains, "but outreach has got to be about more than just handing someone a condom and some literature without having some mechanism for follow-up in place. This is where our collaboration with local community-based organizations (CBOs) becomes critical."
The Federation hopes that through these collaborations, they can assist CBOs with identifying various subpopulations within the Black gay community, and implementing measurable prevention interventions that will reduce the HIV prevalence among Black gay men.