Not Enough Being Done to Counter African-American Myths About HIV, New York Advocate Says

Q+A with Kenyon Farrow, Communications and Public Education Coordinator for the New York State Black Gay Network

What is the focus of your HIV/AIDS activism?

Our focus is to strengthen the capacity of organizations that serve black men who practice same-sex desire, as the lingo goes. But also to change the culture of how both communities and government respond to the lives of those men. So part of that work is community organizing among black gay men, but also doing public advocacy, and media campaigns around HIV/AIDS, stigma, homophobia, violence and how all of them are inextricably linked. We're just now beginning to look at the "meat and potato" issues as they relate to black LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] communities. I don't think we have enough information about poverty and housing, and there's the rhetoric that the LGBT community is rich, because they don't have kids, and you know -- not in my experience is that the case! So, doing the work to see how these other inequalities impact black gay men.

What are the biggest obstacles you encounter in your work?

The biggest obstacle is the lack of adequate funding of our work and our member organizations that are doing the work, mostly the social service end of it. Also, I think that the levels of homophobia and stigma, even among black gay men, make it difficult. I've been a proponent of more action-oriented, in-the-street stuff to highlight issues. But people have real fears about being publicly in the streets as black queer folks, and inviting levels of violence and hostility. That fear inhibits some activist work that could happen.

Where do you find the most support?

We find the most support amongst each other as organizations. We also have found some support from other people of color, like Latino LGBT groups and organizations. Some black women's groups have been very supportive, specifically ones working on HIV/AIDS issues as well. Because there are still levels of stigma with black women around HIV/AIDS, for various reasons.

What is the most critical AIDS issue facing the African-American community?

Right now, where black men who have sex with men [MSM] are concerned, it's critical to reduce the terrible rates of HIV and the real concrete relationship that black homophobia has to those rates. That's why we are launching a campaign focused in New York City, based on the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]'s five-city survey showing that black MSMs have an HIV prevalence rate of 46 percent. That in and of itself is critical, just those numbers.

What is the best way to address that?

One, most of our black AIDS organizations are primarily funded to do counseling, testing, referral stuff via the CDC or other government funding, and while testing is important, it's not prevention. What we really need are prevention methods that include community-organizing efforts and social-marketing campaigns that deal with stigma but also address issues of the value of black gay men's lives in black communities.

Another huge issue here in New York City is related to just physical violence against black gay men. There were four murders last year, and several beatings, and also two murders of two female-to-male transgender people -- and little response from black communities and the gay community. The issue of violence, and where those attacks are coming from, and the impact of homophobia from some small but very vocal black churches, has a large impact.

Where is the most progress being made in combating the epidemic in the black community?

Issues of homophobia were a more visible presence in the media, largely due to the work we've done. I do feel the tide turning, even as last year was full of a lot of tear-shedding for most of us. We did an event at Riverside Church with several organizations -- Gay Men of African Descent, Unity Fellowship Church, and the Empire State Pride Agenda. We did an event called "Revival: Victory Over Spiritual Violence Through Grace," which was like a church service and an advocacy tool to deal with homophobia from the black clergy. That had a huge impact: 400-plus people attended, and AP did a wire story that was picked up by 70 different outlets across the U.S. The New York Times ended up doing a huge piece in September on Unity Fellowship Church.

The National Black Justice Coalition is now having a national presence. Kanye West's statement on homophobia in hip-hop on MTV certainly was a huge turning point. Then Al Sharpton deciding to focus on homophobia as a critical issue in the black community. All of this is leading us to a healthier place.

I would also add Noah's Arc being on TV. I had a friend who just came out to her grandmother in Chicago, and the first thing her grandmother said -- her grandmother was very religious, and conservative, and she wasn't really sure how she was going to deal with it -- was, "Oh OK, I know what that is. I get the LOGO channel, and I've seen Noah's Arc!" It's kind of silly, but, I mean, having specific people on TV that look like you and who are identified as lesbian, gay, bi or trans has a very different impact for black communities than white images do.

What are the top myths that you encounter about HIV/AIDS in the black community?

Because it's been such a public conversation over the past couple of years, the myth of the DL [down low] -- that the men on the down low are the reason for high rates of HIV among black women. There is just no evidence to support it -- in fact, there is evidence that points otherwise.

What is the source of this myth?

The source is really crass media that likes to sensationalize. It makes for a juicy story. This had been a conversation in the black community for a number of years, but the story that took the conversation to the next level was the New York Times Magazine story from late 2003 about men on the DL, which was full of problems and inaccuracies, and then following that was J.L. King's book, On the Down Low, and him being on Oprah. A lot of media jumping on salacious tales, without doing any homework, really set us back a lot.

What is the best way to counter this myth?

It's really hard. The best way to counter it is, more black LGBT organizations have to do more work publicly to challenge these stories when they appear, and to hold media accountable for spreading this information. So that's one thing. And we don't have enough -- my role here at the network is communications and PR -- and one of the things is, we don't have the organizational mechanism in place to respond on a national level to media and our representation in media. As we do more organizing work in the black community to destigmatize homosexuality, it will go a long way in diffusing the sensationalism that allows those stories to take root. If people weren't so horrified and titillated by the thought of homosexual sex, there would be no DL and no DL sensationalism.

How is the AIDS epidemic different in the black community than in other communities?

One way is just in prevalence, the higher rates, and all of the things that higher rates of HIV expose about racial and economic inequalities. We also see higher rates of unemployment in the black community, higher rates of lack of access to adequate health care. Those things really impact the prevalence of the virus in the community.

This is one of the things I've been saying about HIV when people talk about men on the DL spreading HIV to black women. Well, black women suffer from a lot of diseases more than other groups, even more than black men -- heart disease, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer -- not just HIV. AIDS just has a much bigger stigma than diabetes, so it takes on this other meaning.

Do you think that activism is an effective way to fight the epidemic?

It's one of many tools. Activism ultimately is about empowering the people who are involved in it -- and on a larger scale, shifting balances of power. It allows us to highlight issues of HIV/AIDS in the community that we can't in other ways. We need some ACT UP tactics. I think also we need people talking about policy, about safe schools, about violence.

What could help African Americans get tested -- and therefore treated -- earlier?

It again comes to the question of stigma. There is a whole bunch of reasons around why black folks don't get tested. One is lack of access to health care, but also the real history of racism, abuse and exploitation by the health-care industry. That feeds a real fear going into medical establishments.

What are your fears and hopes for the next generation of African Americans as they face the risks of HIV?

My ultimate hope is that there will be a cure. But at base level, I definitely hope that there is a decrease. Just last year there was a small decrease in new HIV infections in the black community in America. What's going to get complicated in the next 25 years, and we're already seeing this, especially in New York, D.C., and certain areas of the country, is larger black immigrant populations, from West Africa primarily.

As we think about the black community -- or the "African-American" community -- shifting because of immigration from the Caribbean, South America, and West Africa, that changes the nature of the risks of HIV we face. We are going to have to deal with that soon or we are going to see a bigger impact in the next 25 years.

Can you recommend one action that everyone can take to end the epidemic?

When I used to do community health specialist and education stuff in high schools in Cleveland, Ohio, where I'm originally from, I would tell people all the information about how you contract HIV and STDs and show all the gross pictures, but, ultimately, the fear tactics didn't work. They're scared only for a certain window of time. Sexual urges are human. Feelings of love and affection all override fear.

So what we have to be able to do is -- in those moments of passion, or even, people having sex when they're lonely or depressed, or all the different ways people use sex -- make certain decisions to protect ourselves, but also be willing to communicate with our sexual partners about sex in general. I remember being in high school, and I would just kind of have sex, but have this sort of shame about it, and I wouldn't face-to-face talk -- whether it was in the heat of the moment, before, after or whatever about sex, and what's pleasurable, and levels of safety. So if I could give people one thing to do, it's to communicate openly with sexual partners about sex, sexuality and safety in general.

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Kenyon Farrow

About Kenyon Farrow

Kenyon Farrow is the communications and public education coordinator at New York State Black Gay Network (NYSBGN), an initiative of 16 state black organizations serving black men who have sex with men. NYSBGN builds the capacity of its member organizations and communities of Black men who practice same-sex desire through technical assistance, training, public education and advocacy. Farrow, a longtime grassroots activist, was also an ally of the queer/trans youth of color community project called FIERCE! in New York City and southern regional coordinator of Critical Resistance, a national organization that advocates for alternatives to prisons and solutions that create real safety for communities most impacted. Farrow is also a published writer of several essays, and the co-editor of Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out.