HRC Foundation's New HIV/AIDS Project Fellow Discusses Faith Communities, Coalition Building and Gay Men of Color

Associate Editor
Marvell Terry
Marvell Terry

Marvell Terry came to prominence as the founder and executive director of the Memphis-based Red Door Foundation. Now, after working to bring culturally competent care to other HIV-positive young gay men of color in the South, the Tennessee native is setting his sights on a national platform as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation's new HIV/AIDS Project Fellow.

Terry sat down with us to speak about why his work is so personal, what it's like having to choose between rent and medications and how his experience plus HRC's reach are a match made in activist heaven.

First of all, congratulations on the new job.

Thank you so much.

You just made the move to D.C., right?

Yes. I just made the move to D.C.

Can you tell us a little bit about your history in working with HIV?

My history with HIV, more notably, is my work with the Red Door Foundation -- my own nonprofit that I started back home in Memphis to raise the consciousness of that region around black gay men, and to improve the health equity of black gay men, not only in Memphis, but in the surrounding areas -- which is, Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.

When you talk about black gay men, who just like to have fun over the weekend, Memphis was often an entertainment destination, particularly for some of those young guys from Jackson, Mississippi, or Little Rock, Arkansas, or Nashville, Tennessee. It was nothing for us to get in a car and drive to other locations. So when I thought about improving health outcomes for black gays, bisexuals and same-gender-loving men, I had to widen my scope. Because oftentimes they're getting diagnosed in Little Rock, Arkansas, but live in Memphis, Tennessee, or get diagnosed at a club in Memphis and live in Nashville. So how do we work together as a region to improve linkage to care and retention to care?

That was really one of my objectives, particularly among those three state health departments. How can we create a plan for linking young black gay men into care and retaining those individuals in care, to ensure that they can get their medication, that they're going to culturally competent clinics, and that they're not being put on a waitlist when they are diagnosed in one state, and they came to the state for a party or something, but they really reside in another state?

My work also has continued with me speaking out about my own diagnosis. The other day, while in D.C., while I was walking to HRC, I thought about my journey, and remembered that when I first got into treatment my struggle was similar to so many guys -- I bring their voices to D.C. with me. While it's way above 500 now and I'm undetectable, I remember that my CD4 was 2. The woman at the health department looked at me and said, "I'm surprised that you're able to sit up straight." I did not understand the magnitude of having a CD4 of 2.

I also remember not having health insurance. I remember having to make a decision between rent and whether I'm going to take medication. So I fell off medication, not because of my adherence, but because economically it didn't make sense for me to not have a roof over my head, compared to medication.

Recently, my work with the Young Black Gay Men's Leadership Initiative, a cohort of black gay men who address issues and health disparities as they relate to black gay men across the country, has assisted me in addressing it on a national platform. Also my work with AVAC [Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention], which is a biomedical prevention hub located out of New York, has helped me in advocating for PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis], particularly in rural communities in the South.

It sounds like so much of your work is informed by personal experience -- that you were someone who had to make those decisions between rent and medication and had to deal with a lot of systems that were really hard to navigate as a gay man of color.

Yeah. And when you look at the structural and social determinants, I was affected, too, by stigma, particularly in the black church -- not really being abused from the pulpit, from my local congregation, but still being in a culture where being gay is not accepted. Furthermore, talking publicly about my HIV and AIDS status is not something that is condoned, is not popular, to them.

I'll never forget the first place that I decided to speak out about my status was my church. That was the place that had developed me as a leader. That was the place that toughened my skin. It was the most natural place for me to talk about my HIV status. And in my early days, my work was in the church. Because I believe that the black church has a pivotal role in erasing HIV out of our community.

After the Red Door, what made you feel like it was time to move on, and then specifically choose HRC?

I think that at times in our lives we feel a pull. While my work in Memphis was bubbling, and my work in the South was very successful, I also felt I was coming to the end of my work in that area in Memphis. Therefore, I began to seek out other opportunities, not on a consistent basis, but when they came across my desk I would look to see if they were something that could fit into the framework in which I work.

My relationship with the Human Rights Campaign actually goes back about two years. I'm a convener. I started a conference in my hometown called Saving Ourselves Symposium. And about two years ago, I faced a big challenge with the University of Tennessee. We were going to have the conference on the college campus of the University of Tennessee. But due to governmental affairs at the capital in Tennessee, they told us that we could no longer have our event there because it talked about sex. They tried to throw this policy manual at us. And I had all the emails saying that they knew what the conference was going to be about. It was free of charge. I had a whole email chain.

Well, HRC intervened, as well as the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union]. And that began my bubbling relationship with HRC, and them sponsoring the conference every single year.

Why HRC? For me it's not necessarily tied to HRC as a name; they just so happened to be the organization that had the position open. But I think my work with the Human Rights Campaign allows me to address some of the issues that I address regionally on a more national level. What greater organization for me to work for that has this national audience, and has these resources, and that has been a voice within the LGBT community, than HRC?

What is going to be the focus of your work at HRC?

The first obvious thing is that the work is being supported by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Recently, the Human Rights Campaign was awarded a grant to do specific work around educating the LGBT community who are most affected by HIV and AIDS, including young men who have sex with men, and transgender women.

My primary work will be among that audience, but also helping to build social media campaigns that will encourage positive attitudes around one's status, whether you're negative or positive. Also, I will begin to work with HBCUs, Historically Black Colleges [and Universities], to encourage them to talk more about HIV. Statistics show us that young people are contracting HIV. And those young people are on college campuses. Furthermore, those young people are on black college campuses that do not talk about HIV.

So, under this funding, my role is to create campaigns that encourage positive attitudes. It is to provide cultural competence education for providers in the South. I'll also begin to work with HBCUs to make sure that we decrease infection rates on our college campuses.

What are some ideas that you would love to do or bring to HRC?

I would love to see more engagement from my peers. When I say engagement from my peers, that means people of color. I think traditionally HRC has done a great job with trying to reach the black community, or communities of color, particularly with the Project One America initiative that they have going on. But I think we need to go deeper with reaching black gay men, and Latinos, and Hispanics.

With this project I would love to see some new initiatives, and some campaigns and some imagery that will be able to support that black gay men want equality, too; transgender, black transgender women, want equality, too; and that HRC should support the effort.

Another thing that I possibly would like to see is greater collaboration -- and not to say that HRC does not collaborate; that's not what I'm saying. But I think we could greater collaborate with organizations who are already on the ground and who are already working.

So it's not about creating new things, but how can we get in touch with organizations like BYP? Or organizations in Atlanta that are on the ground, or in the South, in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas? There are organizations -- like Brothers United in Nashville, Tennessee -- that are on the ground. As a national organization, how can we best support them to erase this epidemic out of communities of color?

Do you think that the HRC would pursue working with the faith community?

That's something that HRC has already traditionally done. With the Project One America initiative they have released imagery with LGBT individuals in the church. They have fostered conversations with churches in the South. I just want to help amplify that a little bit, particularly around issues of HIV and AIDS.

The Project One America initiative is more about equality, and that God loves everyone. But how can we begin to get black churches to really talk about HIV and AIDS? While the black church has come a long way, I would like to see HRC, particularly maybe in this role that I'm having in the South, help foster more conversation in the black church around HIV from a lens of intersexuality -- that all of this comes into a fork in the road. Particularly in the black community in the South, the church is our anchor. So what's said in the church is something that we hold very highly in our lives. Therefore, I think, the role as a church -- and, hopefully, HRC, in this role -- will be able to assist those efforts.

A lot of what you describe with the work is not HRC coming in and telling people what's what, but really just trying to support and build things. As someone who has a lot of experience working in a region and knowing what the region needs, I think that you working at HRC is going to be a really great fit. I'm excited to see what comes out of that.

Yeah. I think HRC is about coalition building. We're not about coming in and taking over; we're about building up communities in which something is already there -- coming in with more resources, more contacts. I think that will be the role of HRC -- particularly my role, helping support the young people that are on the ground, or helping support these CBOs [community based organizations] who are on the ground, to really respond to the National HIV and AIDS Strategy.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for and

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.