The HIV epidemic has taken millions of lives. People lost to the epidemic come from many demographics, but there is one particular group whose specific experience in the HIV/AIDS epidemic has molded my own advocacy: Black queer men.
Black queer men have revolutionized the United States health care system through theory, literature, policy, leadership development, operational development, and more—even though our efforts are often overlooked. To counteract that, I want to use this piece to speak about several Black queer males who have inspired me and strengthened my efforts to address HIV/AIDS and to change our health care system.
The names I am about to say are heroes for Black queer men everywhere, even if you are unaware of their efforts. There are so many Black queer men who deserve recognition, but I will focus on five: Mario Cooper, Kenyon Farrow, Darnell Moore, Cedric Sturdevant, and Yolo Akili Robinson. This article is to provide honor for Black queer men during Black History Month. Their work has forged a path for many young Black men to enter public health, advocacy, science, literature, and other interdisciplinary fields to decrease HIV infections.
The Legacy of Mario Cooper
When I think of Mario Cooper, I consider him a forefather for policy advancement related to HIV/AIDS in the Black community. He was a voice for change that challenged the way people engaged with the Black community. He also called out Black leadership for failing to acknowledge the inequalities that were further enforced in the Black community during the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. In 1996, Cooper told The Washington Post that Black gay men were vulnerable to HIV because of their intersecting identities.
“There are an incredible number of factors that go beyond merely knowing how the disease is transmitted,” he said. “It involves the search for affection and, no doubt, the thrill of risk-taking. But I think it also involves the devaluation of oneself because one is Black and gay.”
Cooper was the first Black chair of the AIDS Action Council. He encouraged cross-collaboration with large institutions such as Harvard AIDS Institute, National Minority AIDS Council (now NMAC), Kaiser Family Foundation, and Gilead Sciences to foster educational efforts and curb HIV/AIDS’ potential to devastate the Black community. Even though I never met Cooper, my mentor Susan Wolfson was close friends with him and loved him dearly. She introduced me to his work once I met her in 2015. I started to research Cooper’s work and quickly understood how his leadership in the past influenced my work today. I especially admire Cooper’s organizing skills, particularly when it came to policy and advocacy. Through his part in many people’s efforts, he was able to brief the Congressional Black Caucus, which then successfully asked the Clinton administration for a special $156 million allocation for AIDS programs for communities of color.
Even while dealing with his own long-term neurological ramifications from HIV, as well as debilitating depression, he was not selfish. Mario Cooper always found a way to advocate for people who had less than him. HIV/AIDS wasn’t just an issue for him or other queer Black men, but for the Black community. Cooper’s legacy influenced my decision to attend law school, because his legacy was fueled by activism, policy, and challenging influential Black leaders and research institutions to step up and show up for communities. Mario Cooper’s legacy is as a beacon of change for young advocates like me.
Home State Hero From Mississippi
Cedric Sturdevant is a father figure to many Mississippi youth due to his courageous efforts to motivate and educate Black queer youth and transgender women living with HIV/AIDS. I remember Cedric's advocacy work before my HIV status changed in 2013. His willingness to educate the masses was always remarkable to me. But more personally for me, once my status changed, Cedric helped me understand my relationship with leadership in Mississippi when it was time to address HIV and health care in a poor health care–system state. Cedric had all the experience related to advocacy and leadership development, but one thing Cedric did not have was a college degree. This caused Cedric to miss out on opportunities—because of the elitist framework of the field, a degree equals higher opportunities.
But Cedric’s work never needed a degree to foster his path to positively impacting Black youth in the community. As we worked together on conferences and panels, we grew closer. He encouraged me to continue to get my education. He knew that even with experience, people could shun you if you didn’t have a degree. Cedric motivated me to receive my Biology degree from Tougaloo College. He knew a science degree would help my efforts to fight against Mississippi’s institutional racism. Even when I wanted to give up studying biology, I could hear Cedric’s voice some days, saying, “Antwan, Mississippi needs you to finish that degree!”
Even though I knew Cedric's statement was true, it wasn’t the case for him. His many decades of advocacy are something that should be classified as monumental in Mississippi. Cedric is a renowned leader all throughout the United States—and a degree didn’t do that for him. Cedric’s passion, love, and dedication made him this type of leader.
Fierce Uncle Farrow
Kenyon Farrow is a profound writer, communication strategist, and organizer. He works at the intersections of HIV/AIDS, prisons, homophobia, and leadership and builds platforms for progressive racial and economic justice issues for LGBTQ communities.
Even with all the incredible work Kenyon has done, one of his talents that might go unnoticed is his connection with other young queer Black men. He fosters leadership in HIV, writing, and social/systemic justice. I met Kenyon in Jackson, Mississippi. That was the first time I ever heard of him, but he agreed to meet me through my mentor Susan Wolfson, and we sat and talked for a few hours about the vulnerability of being Black and queer and how the two intersect. After that conversation, I continued my undergraduate degree, graduated, and moved to Berkeley, California, to start my life as a new researcher in public health and policy reform.
After finishing up my internship at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, I decided to stay in the Bay Area and reclaim this place as my new home. Throughout my transition to applying for career jobs in public health, I was stuck for a moment, until Kenyon had a conference in San Francisco. He agreed to meet with me for lunch, and we started to chat. During this conversation, Kenyon really said something to me that only an uncle figure can say sometimes to make you understand. I was going on and on about not just wanting to work any ole job. And Kenyon stopped me in my tracks. He said, “Look, Antwan, I don’t give a damn if you had to work at Foot Locker and I had to come in there to buy shoes for you to get a commission, but you need a job. And once you get that first one, Antwan, you’re in the door!”
As he smiled and sat back, I understood what he meant. I didn’t have the privilege to just be picky about my opportunity, but I needed to figure out what I wanted and to seek those opportunities. He extended me an offer to write for TheBodyPro, reshaping my engagement with writing and how writing is a fundamental component of liberation in the Black community. Kenyon’s words of empowerment kept my mind strong during the three months I was looking for work in the Bay Area. Once I got my first job at the GLIDE Foundation in San Francisco, all I could remember was Kenyon saying, “I don’t give a damn, but you need a job.” Tough love is sometimes the best love.
Big Brothers Fighting
Yolo Akili Robinson the executive director and founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM). Yolo's work has intersected with HIV/AIDS, violence prevention, family intervention to counsel Black men and boys, and Black masculinity. Yolo’s work was extremely important for me during my summer of research with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and my host organization, ETR, based in Oakland, California. I was doing qualitative research on peer-led HIV services in Jackson, Mississippi, and my mentor introduced me to Yolo to do an in-depth interview, where I learned about his efforts in Los Angeles with BEAM.
I was struck by his ability to link taboo subjects like mental health, capacity-building, HIV, and poverty in the Black community and how these subjects are intersected and affect the Black community on a multitude of levels. Yolo’s clear elaboration inspired me to dig deeper to figure out how to cross-collaborate with others to build a platform that can extend throughout the United States, to engage and mobilize a movement for healthy bodies and minds for Black people. Yolo is a big brother everyone needs in their lives, full of wisdom and courage.
Darnell Moore is a writer and activist whose work is inspired by anti-racist, feminist, queer of color, and anti-colonial thought and advocacy. I first meet Darnell at the ViiV Community and Youth HIV conference in 2019; he was a guest speaker introducing his book, No Ashes in the Fire. Darnell uses his platform for others to tell their own stories to bridge understanding between people. I was able to work with Darnell last year for a podcast called, “Being Seen: How Do Storytellers and Their Stories Shape Society?”
One of the topics we discussed on the episode was this question: If we create more nuanced and accurate cultural portrayals of identity and experience, can we change our actions, behaviors, and perceptions? On episode 10, Darnell and I explored the pain behind stigma and the power we must use to dismantle it. We also discussed how we as people can build communities and platforms to eradicate prejudice, oppression, and injustice for people living with HIV and what people can do who are not living with HIV. Darnell has created pathways for younger Black queer men to be proud of who we are, and to share with the world who we will become.
The men above, for whom I have shown great love and gratitude, are not the only Black queer men who have reshaped policies, literature, health care, public health, mental health, and advocacy. But these are some people who have directly impacted my contribution to the fight against injustice related to HIV and health care inclusion for Black queer men to be a voice for communities. Queer Black men can be overshadowed, but Black queer men are important to the vital change we need for HIV progression and health care reform. Our voices are not here to be stored in the back for the benefits of conferences and panels. Our voices can uplift a nation because we know how it feels to be silent, disregarded, undervalued, and misused. But even with opposition against these men, they still found a way to better our society and mentor younger Black youth—and for that, I honor them for Black History Month.