An HIVer Finds Unique Ways to Educate Gay Men About HIV
An Interview With Brian Datcher
I'm here with Brian Datcher, who does HIV education and prevention for gay men of color in Connecticut. Brian, tell me a little bit about your job. How long have you been doing it and what exactly do you do everyday?
I have been doing the prevention part of my job for over five years now. Basically I help educate gay men of color about HIV prevention and HIV. I tell them where to go get tested, what to do if they have unprotected sex, and where to go to get support for people who are positive or people who may be positive and not know that they are positive. I encourage them to get tested for HIV.
In your area of Connecticut, how are people getting HIV?
Mostly the mode of transmission seems to be drug use, but among gay men of color, MSM (i.e., men who have sex with men), it's basically unprotected sex.
Are these mostly younger men or older men or both age groups?
It's kind of funny. It's young men and then it jumps to older men, between 20 and 44 -- that's the range of people who are gay men of color who are getting infected with HIV.
What time do you go to work?
Well, it depends on the weather, but basically I go to work maybe from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., maybe from 6 until 11 or sometimes from 12 until 5.
Where do you go?
I go around to neighborhoods in Connecticut, meeting places like the basketball court, the park, the block where some guys hang out or to what I call the peep show, which is the bookstore where men tend to have unprotected sex in the video booths back there.
This is a pornography book shop?
Yes, it is.
So what do you do? Do you hang out? Are you nosey? Do you say, "Excuse me. Hello." How do you enter into a conversation?
I come into the bookstores, usually at 8 or 9 at night. The store clerk will allow me to go into the back. What I'll do is walk around the booths in the back, and I'll put out some packets with condoms and information about HIV and where to get tested, things like that.
Most of the time people will stop me and ask things like, "What's in the packet? What are you doing? Is this your job?" So I explain that this is what I do. This is my job.
Sometimes they'll ask me questions about unprotected oral sex. They'll ask me whether you can get HIV from oral sex, and I'll tell them, "Yes." A lot of times they won't understand that, but I'll educate them about the ins and outs of unprotected sex.
Is the owner of the bookshop OK with you coming into his store and doing this?
Yes. It's against the law, what goes on there, but I tell the owner, "What goes on is your business and their business. I'm basically just here to save some lives."
I see. I imagine you see the same people all the time in the bookshops.
Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't.
And they don't mind you talking with them?
No, they really don't. They're looking forward to me coming sometimes, I think, just to get the package and to get the information. Sometimes they want to get tested. They ask a lot of questions about getting tested. I tell them there are different kinds of tests. I tell them that it's better to get tested than not knowing. Sometimes they say, "What you don't know won't hurt you."
I tell them, "No, what you don't know will hurt you."
Do you have addresses to give them where they can get tested?
Yes, I do. I have a card with my name on it, or the health department's name on it, and information about where to get tested there or other places around the county.
What's the age range you find in the bookshops?
Basically, their ages are between 30 and 60.
Are they men of color?
Yes, men of color. African Americans, Latinos, some white men. But later in the night it's mostly men of color.
Are these men married?
Most of them are. Yes, they are, and they don't necessarily identify as gay or bisexual. They are men who are married and they are men who have sex with men. That's the category.
Is it a gay porn bookstore?
No, it's pretty much straight, gay, whatever goes.
Do they have pictures of women in the window or men?
They have pictures of women. I'd say it's like this: It's an adult bookstore where they have gay videos, they have straight videos, and they have transgender videos. The whole thing, the whole shebang.
But most of the people who are going into the video ?
Yes. I'd say 95 percent of the people who are going into the booths in the back are basically having sex with other men.
I think that is kind of surprising. Is that well known?
Well, it's not well known to somebody in the mainstream who is not doing HIV prevention or working for the health department, but it's well known. I've known this for a long time, but outside of that community it's not well known at all. When I tell certain people that they are like, "No, I don't think so."
I'm like, "Yeah, it goes on."
But that's why I do what I do.
So all the women worried that their husbands are going to these bookshops and meeting women or looking at beautiful women have other things to be thinking about.
Yes, that is correct.
How knowledgeable do you find the people who you encounter there are about HIV? Do they know anything? A little bit? Are they willing to take any risk whatsoever?
Basically, they know the basics -- that if you have unprotected sex you can catch STDs [sexually transmitted diseases], also known as STIs [sexually transmitted infections], or HIV. But they feel that it's not true that you can get HIV through oral sex. I'm always saying, "If you look through that hole, what comes through that hole, don't mess with it."
They say, "No, you can't catch HIV like that."
I have to explain, "You can catch HIV like that." I have to break it down: "This is how you can catch it."
Then they say, "Oh, that's right." If you have brushed your teeth or done anything like that and have got blood in your mouth, that's a mode of transmission.
Tell me about the holes?
There are holes that are cut in the sides of the walls of the booths.
What are these holes called?
And what happens?
A person will stick his penis through the hole, or his mouth or his butt, whatever the case may be, and have sex. Or sometimes they'll come into the booth with the person and just have unprotected sex.
Are these rooms busy? Are there lines to get into them?
[Laughs.] No, not really. You asked earlier if it's a known thing. It's not really known, but the people who go there regularly know that this goes on there.
This goes on around the country in these kinds of places?
In my experience, I would have to say as far as I know yes. Yes.
So it's good to have a prevention educator there.
That's correct. Yes, definitely. You could have the problem of scaring somebody away, and the proprietor might say something to you about that. I tell the proprietor, "Look, we can work together, because if I tell the health department they're going to come back here and they're going to tell the police department and the police are going to come back here and shut you down, so I think it's better if we work together."
What other spots do you visit?
I usually go down to some of the clubs, not necessarily the gay clubs, but some of the straight clubs in the city that I do outreach in, because in the African-American community there aren't very many gay clubs and the ones that there are are kind of far away. Most of the gay, black guys will go down to a local bar, just the bar down the street, most of the time a straight bar. I go and do my outreach there. Some people I do know, some people I don't know. Some people will see me coming, and I'll talk to people and they'll ask me questions. I'll tell somebody I know, "Here take this, I know what you're up to."
Sometimes guys will sit at the bar and have drinks and after a couple of rounds of drinks things start to happen. Last call for alcohol, lights start fluttering on and off and you start to look around to see who's available. Sometimes it's not a woman; it's a guy. That's what happens.
Don't the men think you're interfering? They're just sitting there having a drink, and you're there with condoms assuming all kinds of stuff. Don't they ever get angry?
Well, no. I make sure I don't go into a bar saying, "Hey, I'm here looking for gay men. Here are some condoms!" In the city I do outreach in, there's a close-knit community. Everybody knows everybody, so a lot of people already know me. I'm not perceived as a threat. I'm not exposing them. It's a routine. They see, here I come again with a bag full of condoms. If somebody sees me, I'll say, "Can I talk to you?" and I'll go outside or take them aside. I'll say, "You can get tested here, if you think you were exposed to HIV. Maybe you need to go get tested. When you get tested, make sure you talk to a counselor." Basically, I don't have a problem. Because I'm well known, I really don't have a problem.
So where else do you go?
I go to the park. At the park where I go there is a basketball court, a playground and just a little hangout. There are some guys I know there who may not be known to be gay, but I know that they do have sex with other men. They say, "Brian, where's my pack of information?"
I say, "Here. Here's your packet with condoms and information. If you need something else, let me know." Sometimes the health department will come down with a van and do HIV testing.
Another time when we talked, you mentioned doing outreach to transgendered people in parks.
Is that the same park?
No, it's a different park. I usually end up there last. It's a park that's close to the downtown area. The people over there are transgendered. I'm always giving them information. I give them condoms, but mostly I'm talking to them. Kind of talking to them about their issues, finding housing with their partners, getting a job. Most of the time all they do is pull tricks to make money, and a lot of them are young. The youngest one there is like 14 or 15.
And the oldest?
I don't know. Maybe in their late 30s.
And these people are all transgendered sex workers of color.
Are some of them Hispanic, or are they all African American?
There are some that are Hispanic, but most of them are African American.
And their clientele?
Basically older guys.
White or African American?
Mostly white. White and black, but I would say that 85 percent of them are white. Mostly white guys.
And they are mostly over what age?
I would say from the mid-40s to the mid-60s.
Are they coming in fancy cars or not so fancy cars?
Some fancy cars. [Laughs.]
So it's a range.
Yes, some are not so fancy. When I do my outreach on the outskirts of town, there are a lot of wealthy suburbs there, so a lot of them come there to do their dirt.
How many people are we talking about that work in this park?
A good six or seven.
Are they different people all the time or the same people?
There's like four of them that are the same ones. Sometimes they get arrested and then they go away and then they come back. It's basically the same four.
Do the police crack down on them?
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Most of the time they crack down on them during the summertime. I don't know why. But most of the time the police don't bother them that much.
Do you know whether many of them are having unprotected sex?
Of the ones that I have talked to, of the seven, I would say that at least three of them may be having unprotected sex. They may tell me otherwise. I ask them, "Are you having unprotected sex?"
They'll tell me, "Oh, yeah. Yeah girl. I'm working it out."
I tell them, "OK, I'm just making sure. Here's your packet. Let me know if you want to get tested. You know where to go."
I know that at least two of them are HIV positive. As far as I know, they use protection. As far as I know. That's not a given. I know that they've been using protection, as far as I know, for at least two years, since I've known them, from them telling me that. I don't know if that's true. I don't know what was going on before that.
Do the people who are paying for the sex want to have protected sex or do they want to have unprotected sex? What are they willing to pay for?
What they tell me is that most of the guys want protected sex, but there are some guys that don't want to use condoms.
Would you say that most of the people in the park who are selling sex are pretty desperate?
Yes, some of them are young guys. They've been thrown out of their houses because of their sexual orientation. They've been picked on and went through the whole gamut as far as being picked on. They don't know where to go, and they don't have much of an income, because they want to dress as a woman and it's hard for them to get a job. So this is what they end up doing.
The people at the park are pre-op? They haven't had sex reassignment surgery yet?
None of them?
None of them.
So do you think it's getting better? If these young people have been rejected by their families, do you think it's getting better or worse for transgender youth and gay youth of color?
I want to say better. The reality is that it may be getting better little by little, but every two steps forward is four steps back, somehow. In the African-American community it's such a big thing. Being gay is one thing, but transgender, that's a total flip. It's not really acceptable. With education it's getting a little better.
Yes, I'm very optimistic.
But these kids, they are in a pretty high risk profession.
Are you really the only person who talks to them and treats them nicely? Do they have any support whatsoever?
There is a support group that some of them used to go to through the community health center. It's every other Wednesday, I think. They tell me they enjoy going there. They have somewhere to talk. They enjoy the person who facilitates it, but they say that's really the only place they have to go, and they can't be going there all the time. When they get a chance to go, they do. They say they wish they had a gay, lesbian and transgender center, so they had a place to go and talk like at the mall or McDonalds. They do have one other place to go, which is good, but it's not a place to stay. They talk for an hour or two and get something to eat, and then they are out.
Where are they living?
I think they are all staying in an apartment building or a two- or three-bedroom house up the street from the park. I think it's one or two who stay at the apartment and then the rest come in and out. They're there, they're not there, depending on what's going on. I know that at least two of them are homeless. They sleep here, they sleep there, wherever they can lay their head down.
How old are the homeless ones?
One is about 19 and the other one is 30.
So the park, the bookshop and the clubs, those are the places you frequent? The two kinds of park, the ones with the basketball courts and the ones with the ...? Are they different parks or the same?
They are different. One has a basketball court, a baseball field and things like that. The other park closer to the downtown in the city is just like a park you walk through or stroll through with just some trees or bushes and things like that.
So these are your regular haunts.
Yes. And then, when it's the summertime, when the weather gets warmer, I go to the park near the beach down there in Long Island Sound. I see people that I know are gay, that everyone else knows are gay. I talk to them, give them information about HIV. They all want to know who's got what. I tell them, "Don't worry about that. Take this so you won't get it." [Laughs.]
Do you think you have prevented any infections?
I believe I have. I believe I have. I know that people I know have gotten tested. I would say that at least 10 people that I know have gotten tested.
That's good. Well, we are going to be talking every few months. As you go out on your nightly walks, keep us in mind so that you can report back and tell us what you saw and what's going on. Hopefully, we'll hear good things, and some of those young people in the parks will find homes and get jobs and find some acceptance somewhere. So thank you very much.
To learn more about Brian Datcher, click here.
Click here to e-mail Brian Datcher.