A new U.K.-based initiative is creating a groundswell of action around the sexual health of queer men of color. The Requisite Project recently launched out of PrEPster, an advocacy organization that started in October 2015 to connect historically marginalized communities to information, services, and organizing tools related to the HIV prevention pill.
The project comes less than a year after England’s National Health Service announced funding to enable PrEP availability for the general public outside of the IMPACT trial. While activists in the U.S. are struggling to reduce the barriers to PrEP access for queer people of color almost a decade after approval, the Requisite Project is in a critical place in their country’s PrEP roll-out to be a trusted, community-based resource to engage and inform queer men of color.
The project is headed by Phil Samba, PrEPster’s strategic lead of #PrEP4QueerMenOfColour. Samba initially met PrEPster co-founders, Dr. Will Nutland and Marc Thompson, at U.K. Black Pride in 2017. He expressed a desire to get involved in expanding access to information about PrEP in communities of color, and PrEPster took him to task. Samba was brought on as the strategic mind around reaching queer men of color in the organization within the year.
Samba wanted to find a way for queer men of color to talk to each other, rather than waiting for often imperfect information that comes from larger organizational efforts that aren’t specific to the community. “My frustration came from the powers that be for not sharing this information with queer men of color,” Samba emphasized in our interview. “I didn’t want to be angry at queer men of color themselves for not openly talking about their sexual health.”
The Requisite Project builds on PrEPster’s past model of creating multiple ways for people to engage, create information, and share it. PrEPster used this model in their #PrEP4Women mobilizer campaign, MobPrESH. Drawing on personal experiences of the success of peer-to-peer networks and conducting research studies on the mobilizer model’s effectiveness, PrEPster saw that a similar peer approach could reach queer men of color in similar ways.
As with many of PrEPster’s programs, it all starts with a photo shoot. Campaign models for the project’s promotional campaign are real people in the community; they appear on the project’s T-shirt, which many of the models wear out in the community as a conversation starter. Between sets on the photo shoot, the PrEPster team would hear the models getting real about sexual health. Some shared that they didn’t know anything about being undetectable; others shared that PrEP had been too late for them and they had become positive during the IMPACT Trial’s run.
Outside of creating imagery that is by-and-for community, PrEPster also has elevated the voices of queer men of color in a series of blog posts called “My PrEP Story,” in which Samba and PrEPster co-founder Thompson frequently appear. The stories and a new video feature men in the program, including cisgender and transgender men as well as non-binary people who identify with the program’s central mandate.
PrEP is not the focal point of the program; rather, Samba is committed to combination sexually transmitted infection (STI) and HIV prevention as essential components. “In the U.K., prevention services are often separated,” he noted. “PrEP sits in one place, while condoms sit in another.” The Requisite Project brings all prevention strategies together, including undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), testing, and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
Gus Jordan is a Black mobilizer in the project who has felt excited to be involved, particularly because it feels like the Requisite Project is made for him. “What I love about this project was that queer Black men are at the center. ... So, as a fellow queer Black man, I automatically connect with it on a much more personal level,” he shared in our email exchange. “I feel like I’m doing something great for other queer Black men like myself.”
The Requisite Project certainly focuses on Black men but supports an expansive group of queer men of color, capturing migrant and immigrant queer men as well. Project mobilizers may be Latino and Brazilian immigrants, understanding or experiencing the challenges of navigating a new health care system, unclear of how accessing certain types of sexual health care may impact their immigration status. According to some participants in the project who are coming from South Asia, the Middle East, and throughout Africa, they have faced certain pressures to uphold heteronormative family values. Doing so has isolated them from the spread of information endemic in the capital city’s many queer communities.
Roberto Tovar, a mobilizer in the program, is living with HIV. After moving to the U.K. from Mexico in 2016, he first connected with PrEPster as a presenter for a Spanish speakers’ talk on PrEP. “Including HIV-positive voices [in] the PrEP conversation is necessary,” Tovar said in our email exchange. He went on to emphasize PrEPster’s commitment to including Spanish speakers, especially those immigrating from Latin America and the Caribbean, in the project when so many are left out of traditional outreach. “PrEPster never compromises [on] intersectionality in their projects,” he affirmed.
But Black men particularly have been at the core of Samba’s work, both at PrEPster and through his social media presence. His reasons are as much based on the prevalence and incidence data—which consistently demonstrate the high impact of HIV on Black men worldwide—as they are personal.
“Being gay, Black, and of African origin, I’m in three categories that are all disproportionately affected by HIV, which makes it especially important that I take care of my sexual health,” wrote Samba in the first post of a series on his PrEP story. “Another reason why I started the [IMPACT] Trial was because being on it I can educate others about it, I could raise awareness about it and I can discuss access to it.”
Writing the most recent installment of his PrEP journey in 2020, Samba summed up his personal, political, and professional commitments to supporting all queer men of color: “Talking to each other honestly about sexual health can not only improve our knowledge and wellbeing in connection to sex, but it can also have a positive impact on our sex lives.”
This sense of connection resonates for Shaikho Khalaf, another mobilizer in the Requisite Project. For Khalaf, a core outcome of the project is feeling more in control, by “letting go of the stigma associated with sexuality, holding myself accountable, and feeling comfortable seeking support when I need it.”
Since Samba built up PrEPster’s work with queer men of color, the ripple effect into the community has been critical. More men of color are ordering home test kits through the Sexual Health London platform, according to Nutland. Additionally, Public Health England’s findings from the annual PrEP user survey noticed a staggering increase in Black men using PrEP. The PrEPster team attributes that to Samba’s social media outreach, vulnerability in openly discussing his own PrEP experience, and bringing in mobilizers to share their stories as well.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the Requisite Project’s initial plans for in-person meet-ups, it has not changed the project’s mission. “When we can see people again, I want to be out there and back in it,” Samba says, excited to rejoin offline with other mobilizers he has supported.
PrEPster has emerged as a leader in disseminating affirming, sex-positive information. Through their multilingual COVID-19 library, the organization features resources on hooking up, doing sex work, and accessing sexual, reproductive, and drug-related health care during the pandemic.
This upcoming spring, PrEPster is launching a new program to support Black queer men to better understand other facets of their health outside of sexual wellness, including reproductive health, diabetes, and kidney disease.
This story isn’t just about Samba, but all of the current and future mobilizers of color who are taking control of the sexual health conversation. The PrEPster team’s insistence on peer approaches through the mobilizer framework necessitates the elimination of the hero mentality. “We don’t want white saviors. We don’t want figureheads,” Nutland affirmed. But without Samba, the emerging realities for sexual wellness for U.K. queer men of color could have been delayed or denied altogether.
“People are policy.” It’s an adage in movement organizing about creating movements led by the people most impacted. This sentiment rings truer than ever for the Requisite Project. With Samba currently at the helm, working in partnership with the project’s growing base of queer men of color mobilizers, we can see that people aren’t just policy. People are wellness. People are pleasure. People are power.