A Healing Circle of Men: North Florida Manreach 2015

The ball of string came flying through the air toward me. I caught it awkwardly, stated my name, said something about myself and then held on to my section of twine while tossing it to someone else across the room. Thirty-five men, many strangers to each other, sat around the circle at this weekend retreat in the woods. The recipient of my toss announced his name and gripped the string before throwing it back across the circle. Gradually a web of twine formed to connect all thirty-five men. It was a beautifully intricate pattern of geometric shapes that graphically exhibited the interconnectedness of the men who came together for this gathering.

I was at 2015 North Florida Manreach, an event based on Colorado Manreach, which formed when representatives of two HIV prevention providers serving rural areas worked together to create a weekend retreat at which gay, bisexual and queer men could gather, share from their hearts, have a few educational opportunities, and a whole lot of fun. Ultimately the purpose of Manreach (REACH stands for Rural Education in Action for Community Health) is to create a supportive community for men in rural areas, one that provides strength through emotional resilience that translates directly into better health and fewer risky behaviors. North Florida Manreach was organized by Butch McKay of OASIS in Fort Walton Beach and Rick Vitale of the Florida Department of Health, which gave funding for the event.

I was invited to provide a few educational workshops to the group. Living in a large gay community I was moved by the challenges facing these men. Ironically, even in my "gayborhood," creating meaningful interpersonal relationships can be difficult. I was particularly aware of the challenges these men face as I drove hundreds of miles to the retreat center in the pine forests of the Florida panhandle. Stigma, geographic distance, and sometimes even violence, create barriers between these men, meaningful community and mutual support.

The hallmark of Manreach is the heart-centered circle. The term heart-centered refers to the sense of safety created and the feelings expressed when each man is allowed to honor his feelings and the feelings of others. A heart stone is passed from man to man. The holder of the stone can share whatever is on his mind or simply pass. There is no cross-talk, which means one does not comment directly on another's sharing but rather speaks his own truth. I am familiar with heart-centered circles and know their astonishing power which was clearly evident at this gathering in the woods. Often for the first time and well before the stone had gotten even half way around the circle, men began sharing their histories of trauma, abuse or other emotional struggles.

To someone who hasn't been in such a circle it is difficult to comprehend how this format could so quickly establish a safe emotional space. It creates trust that allows each participant to be vulnerable and speak what is on his mind, and more importantly, in his heart. Most men socialized in our culture - whether gay or straight - have a tough time allowing themselves to open up. I know of no other place in our gay/bi/trans communities (except perhaps a well-run therapy group) where this sense of safety and connectedness is so readily available to a circle of men. This formula has two components. One is the act of speaking from one's heart, which is certainly profound. The second and perhaps more important is the experience of being heard. It is incredibly healing when deeply-held feelings and secrets are shared and received by others. When a person is truly "heard," the result is implicit acceptance and validation of the feeling. It forms strong connections at an energetic level.

Manreach heart-centered circles are not therapy. They are gatherings of like-minded men speaking their truth in a safe setting while having lots of laughs. Participants take away information on topics as diverse as elements of self-esteem, HIV criminalization, PrEP and alternative self-healing techniques such as breathing and visualizations. Each evening culminated, despite the soggy weekend weather, with a campfire. For me the fire represented a purification of the things each of us wanted to leave behind, as well as a primal sense of tribe.

How can such circles impact HIV, especially in the rural south which has the highest rates of new HIV cases and the poorest health outcomes in the United States? It starts with connection. The men gathered that weekend live in far-flung, rural areas in which mutual support is challenging. Stories of stigma, discrimination and even violence abounded. Young transmen shared experiences of institutional discrimination. Many men shared stories of bullying and hate. Those living with HIV reported guarding their status from neighbors and even friends. Those that were negative noted a resistance to getting tested. Yet this was not a gathering where any sense of victimhood flourished or where war stories took center stage. These circles focused on solutions, generating emotional resilience. Strength grew with each man's sharing, forming a web of relationships and intimacy that is rare in any community, no matter what sexual orientation.

These connections translate directly into a sense of empowerment and shatter the illusion, so easily accepted in rural areas, that we are alone. The circle of men crosscut generations (young men as well as elders who, for example, recounted the struggles establishing the first gay pride celebrations in this area); race and ethnicity, and HIV status. New friendships were established and old ones renewed. By midday on Sunday, each man left not only with new tools and skills for his own health but also with a sense of the interconnectedness with men necessary to build strong, resilient communities. It is these healthy connections that will heal our communities and improve our health.

My experience at North Florida Manreach reminded me that in the gay community hook-ups may be easy to find, but authentic, intimate relationships among men are rare and something we need a great deal more of.

To watch for announcements of the next North Florida Manreach follow www.aidsoasis.org. For general information on Manreach see www.manreach.org.

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