January / February 2012
by Tomika Anderson
Joseph Richardson, PhD, assistant professor of African-American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park and an expert on at-risk black men, sees this lack of self-love reflected in the carriage and demeanor of many of the black teens and young men he encounters—be they gay, straight or queer. These are men already shackled by the chains of poverty, fatherlessness, mass incarceration and a lack of educational opportunities.
“I am sure there is a significant population of alienated black men who may ‘put in work’ [slang for street hustling] by trading sex for drugs or simply engaging in [sex with men] for money to survive,” says Richardson, who is also a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient. “I read an article on black transsexuals recently. It examined how many of them have to engage in sex work to support themselves because the stigma of being transgender hinders them from integrating into society,” he says. “At least 50 percent have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, and at least 20 percent are HIV positive. [Theirs] are the stories that are not being discussed enough in the black community.”
Tikili took advantage of free therapy when he attended Duke University; nonetheless, he says that as a black queer man he often walks around feeling invisible—like a second-class citizen. “I was on this panel a few weeks ago, and we were talking about the lack of role models in the queer world,” says Tikili, who is now a community organizer with Health GAP (the Health Global Access Project). “I was like, There aren’t that many black queer or gay role models, you know? So we have to create our own communities in order to not feel isolated and alone. [Even] the term ‘gay’ is a mainstream, white thing.”
Eliminating labels like “gay,” “transgender” or “MSM” would help put an end to the stigmatizing, says Cleo Manago, founder of the national nonprofit AmASSI, the African- American Advocacy, Support-Services and Survival Institute. “Can we just refer to folks as what they really are, which is human?” he asks. “We’re always so busy trying to categorize people, we forget [their humanity].”
Manago helped organize an often heated panel discussion about black manhood this past July—a month before the CDC’s latest bombshell. He recorded the event and turned it into a 37-minute educational film. About 200 black people gathered for the historic “I Am a Man: Black Manhood & Sexual Diversity in the Black Community” summit, held at the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem. Civil rights leader Sharpton, Manago and others sounded off on a range of topics influencing the community—from Uganda’s aggressive anti-homosexuality campaign to same-sex marriage to hip-hop’s hypermasculine message—offering lengthy opinions on just about everything but the hulking elephant in the room: HIV.
The omission was no accident. “What we attempted to do at this forum,” Manago says, “was go beyond the typical HIV discussion, go deeper into some of the prejudices, the brainwashing, the attacks on black men and the way black male voices and attitudes in our community are compromised.” When events are billed as HIV related, he says, people don’t show up.
Farrow makes a similar point. “Most media coverage of AIDS here—as opposed to coverage of HIV/AIDS in Africa—is stigmatizing,” he says. As examples, he mentions stories about black men on the down low and criminal prosecutions of people accused of not telling a partner their HIV status. “No wonder people avoid public forums discussing HIV,” Farrow says, adding that such forums draw mostly people already living with the virus or people working in the field.
The question remains: Does the solution ultimately lie in more community-based initiatives—or further government intervention?
The CDC insists it’s the former.
Researchers there say the federal agency is already doing its part to extinguish the flames of the crisis by expanding funds for disproportionately affected populations. In addition to launching the “Act Against AIDS: Testing Makes Us Stronger” campaign—the latest phase of an ongoing public awareness and education campaign to encourage testing among black men who have sex with men—the CDC recently unveiled a new five-year, $55 million funding opportunity for community-based organizations (CBOs) to expand HIV prevention services for young gay and bisexual men of color and their partners. It’s all part of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy unveiled by the Obama Administration in 2010, which aims to cut new HIV cases by 25 percent by 2015, reduce overall health disparities and get more HIV-positive people on treatment and into care.
“We are making sure we direct our resources—in these days of limited resources—toward those interventions that will prevent the greatest number of new infections,” says Donna McCree, PhD, MPH associate director for health equity at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. “We are supporting only the best combination of interventions—making sure that they’re targeted to the right populations and that they’re at a scale big enough where we can make a significant difference.”
Manago, founder of the nonprofit AmASSI, takes issue with the CDC’s approach, which he says is increasingly focused on HIV testing.
“The CDC is no longer putting most of its money into prevention, instead primarily focusing on testing,” he says. “How the heck does testing somebody prevent HIV?”
Indeed, as has been shown again and again, black men and women consistently have the same or fewer sexual partners and risky behaviors than whites. But the high prevalence of HIV in African-American communities means that each sexual encounter carries a higher risk than for other groups.
Moreover, Manago says, the CDC approach doesn’t help get young black MSM into care if they do test positive.
He believes the reason the agency stopped placing a heavy emphasis on behavioral prevention is that the approach has failed to reach targeted populations over the years—largely because it did not address HIV among black men in culturally relevant ways.
“None of their models were originally tested on black men,” he explains. “They have no models that are organic or [respectful] of black men’s lives and communities. If you test models that are affirming and motivating to black men—and considerate of their lives and culture and inter-dimensionality—you will have more success,” Manago says.
Other experts add that the same can be said of HIV medicine itself—meaning, for instance, that for years researchers ignored the need to recruit black participants for drug trials. Or that insensitive research terms have not been adjusted.
“The term ‘MSM’ is one used by health providers, not our community,” Manago continues. “If you keep on calling everything [that targets us] ‘MSM’ or ‘gay’ [it won’t work.] The whole reason the term MSM was created in the first place was to categorize diverse men who did not identify as gay. But they keep on giving that MSM money to gay-identified organizations, which defeats the purpose.”
Ron Stall, PhD, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Science, says the problem goes far beyond the CDC.
“HIV prevention programs are terribly underfunded for gay men of all races,” he says. “Over 60 percent of all new HIV cases in our country now occur among gay men. Prevention can and does keep gay men from becoming infected with HIV, and this saves the health care system a lot of money. Given this simple fact it would be great if the White House and Congress did more to invest in HIV prevention among gay men, which would yield especially impressive dividends among black gay men.”
Stall wants to see the government put its money where its mouth is—and for the black and gay communities to step up. He lists some essentials: “Provision of better access to medical care for black gay men [is critical],” he says. “Also the creation of social settings where black gay men feel welcome and valued as human beings, not only in the gay community but in their home communities.”
For this to happen, says University of Maryland professor Richardson, the federal government must be willing to work with grassroots community organizations to create more spaces for youths who are too often shunned or abandoned by their families, churches and communities for being gay.
“We need to make more of an effort to serve as and support ‘social parents,’” he says. “Some of the best parents for our youth are not biological. We need to invest in the unusual suspects—those who can do the most work with black male youths—because they play valuable roles in their lives,” Richardson says. “I gained some of the most insightful lessons about manhood from my coaches, uncles, teachers and older men in my community. When you talk truthfully to a young man about the insecurities you have personally experienced while evolving into a man—whether it’s school, sports, sex, whatever—they identify with you. Your presence also has to be consistent.”
Richardson—who helped conduct a study of juvenile incarceration in the Washington, DC/Baltimore metropolitan area before funding ran out—says the government needs to create social welfare policies to give young black men in general a fighting chance. That includes more effectively tackling black unemployment, winning the war on drugs and not being so quick to send a black man to prison.
“We must change our mass incarceration policies, which remove so many black men from families and communities,” he says. “Mass incarceration is draining our community of social capital, which has a snowball effect on everything. Parents have to become better parents, but when men are not working, the black family will ultimately remain broken.”
The damage and disenfranchisement emerged historically, Richardson says. “The disruption of the black family occurred around the same time as de-industrialization, when black men could no longer support a family as unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Now one out of three black men can expect to be incarcerated, which basically excludes us from the labor market, student loans, voting rights and public housing.”
In short, Richardson says, the United States must be willing to take responsibility for two centuries of systemic racism and oppression that have stripped black people of the will to properly care for themselves—or for each other—emotionally, psychologically and physically.
“We have to make it more culturally acceptable for black men to see a doctor,” he adds. “One reason black men are so afraid of hearing bad news [from the doctor] is that we already have enough to deal with. This is just one more thing to add to our plate—now we have to learn we’re not healthy. As men we have to begin to encourage each other to stay on top of our health, not in a nagging way, but we need to be our brother’s keeper.”
And that’s true whether you’re straight or gay, positive or negative.
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