Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rising in a Lavender Light

A COP 24/7 Special

COP 24/7 has been steadfast in our charge to keeping issues connected to the dilemma of HIV/AIDS front and center. We realize that its been 30 years in this struggle and much research, medication developed and intervention measures implemented. However with all these measurable outcomes, there continues the need to assert the citizenry that staying vigilant and vigorous with prevention methods and messages should be apart of their safe sex arsenal. Remember that "Sex Happens, Keep it healthy!"

Commentary Special

With all the mail that I get forwarded to this forum I find myself reading and often re-reading much of it to make sure that I've not overlooked a piece that full fills this forum mission to inspire, empower and certainly enlighten. The following speech given by David Malebranche during the recent US Conference on AIDS in Chicago jumped off the page to myself as it distinctively pointed out the recklessness and robust adversities that exist as barriers for African American advocates, activist and researchers. Unfortuatnely they must endure with policy makers and public health institutions that are systematically failing with penetrating messages in the SGL community, resulting additional increases of incidences and infection rates. Not to mention the entire "care paradox" of those tested but not in care including the over 4000 in Arkansas. Ladies and Gents this state is not absolved of some of these same conditions that Mr. Malebranche speaks to. I'm appalled at the lack of African American males who attend meetings, engage in participation without seeking incentives, or have accepted a "fatalistic"premise that HIV is nothing more than a norm in their lives. While not realizing that if they don't address the situation someone who doesn't look like them might or might not give a damn. I abhor the attitude that my own personal involvement gets lukewarm reception from my fellow brothers who have mischaracterized myself possibly based on shortsightedness or plain old ignorance. I have expressed at the "HIV table" that often I don't get a sense of a commitment but rather more "cut and paste" bureaucracy on a check off list. I'm puzzled at what appears to be a lack of leadership mixed with strained realtionships from local African American physicans, clinicians and clergy groups concerning this health malignancy. Hear this my brothers and sisters, stop abdicating your responsibility to notice what's happening in the world around you. Take a stance and speak out on what may be nothing short of genocide that is being perpetrated as you await your next SSI or SSD check. Of all the items that I've posted in this forum, this speech is one of the finest personal testimonies that I've heard and it moved me to share it with each of you. Many thanks to JC for making sure that I got access and I hope that each of you will hear the message and be empowered.

  Why are Black same gender loving (SGL) men still experiencing increasing rates of HIV in this country while every other group’s rates are leveling off or decreasing?  That is the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the HIV medical and public health communities, and at the end of a long week of travel, conferences, speaking engagements, clinic work and social networking, one of the structural causes of this racial disparity crystallized for me. 

 This week I have attended a conference on the health of sexual minorities in Albany, New York, taken care of patients at our HIV clinic in Atlanta, spoken in front of an advisory council at the Office of AIDS Research on men who have sex with men (MSM) in Washington, DC, and co-facilitated a workshop at the United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) on HIV testing practices among Black physicians in Chicago, IL. In between these formal duties, I have also had several meaningful conversations among my Black SGL colleagues, mentees and friends. What I have observed and heard during all these experiences has bothered me profoundly. They include:

·         Initiatives for “LGBT health” that actively deny the role of race and culture in sexual expression and identification

·         Federal meetings on HIV that bemoan the horrific statistics among Black SGL men, yet only 2/30 people at the table during these discussions are Black and SGL, including myself.

·         Realizing that I am only one of a handful of Black SGL medical providers that do clinical HIV work in this country

·         Hearing that a student health center at an Black male historically Black college has no young Black male medical providers

·         Listening to stories of young Black SGL men working in environments supposedly dedicated to addressing the racial HIV disparity, yet the white heterosexual and gay male leadership only sees them as window dressing and use them as “key informants” to gain access to a “hard to reach” and “at risk” population

·         Black SGL junior researchers and faculty being railroaded by both White gay men, White heterosexual women and Black heterosexual women who use key code phrases like “feeling threatened” and “felt unsafe”

·         Receiving yet another email about another non-Black SGL researcher obtaining large funding to “study” Black SGL men while Black heterosexual and SGL researchers applying for similar funding are turned away by the truckloads. 

 Let me be clear – none of these events I have listed above are new, nor are they surprising by any stretch of the imagination.  What these examples do, however, is further illuminate the race and gender-based politics that are present at multiple individual, community and institutional levels that set the proverbial table for a colossal failure when it comes to successfully addressing the HIV racial disparity among Black SGL men in this country.  As Black SGL men, we occupy a very precarious position in society – we get to experience the same everyday racial prejudices as every other Black man, yet we also are privileged and lucky enough to experience the racism, jealousy and sexual objectification of our White gay male counterparts; the envy and disdain of our Black heterosexual brothers who think that we are all attracted to them, yet covet our freedom from the confining shackles of social constructions of Black masculinity; and the contempt of many Black heterosexual women who admire our styling and personal etiquette, yet get caught up in a matrix of self-induced confusion over being physically attracted to us, angry we aren’t attracted to them, and fearful that the primary goal in our lives is to steal their men from them.

This swirling and intersecting dynamics makes for curious interactions with our non-Black SGL colleagues when addressing HIV among Black SGL men, and amounts to a certain “plantation politics” that only serves to paralyze our individual lives and goal of our work.  It seems that when it comes to HIV work, while we as Black SGL men are good enough to toil in the fields of community outreach, condom distribution, peer navigation and collecting data such as interviews and focus groups, we are curiously absent or underrepresented in the big house of data analysis, publications, federal meetings and conference presentations.  Many of us are more than intelligent and talented enough to occupy the positions held by our White gay male and White/Black heterosexual female colleagues, yet we are often placed in and allow ourselves to be relegated to subservient positions in HIV clinical, research, policy and community initiatives that target our own community.  Even more insidious is how when we question the accuracy, relevance or appropriateness of some of the culturally incompetent programs that are developed for us but not by us, we are perceived as a threat or quietly dismissed, blacklisted for having the audacity to be critical thinkers and advocates for the health and welfare of our own SGL brothers. 

Sound like a familiar slave narrative where external trauma becomes internalized to the point where a psychological inferiority complex now sustains itself?  It should, because it is.

Despite all this, what is phenomenal and amazing about us as Black SGL men is the ridiculous reserves of resiliency that we demonstrate in the face of these conditions, when we are merely trying to help our own community. And all this while many of are living with HIV, or live in constant fear of contracting HIV simply due to our “risk grouping” or because we are attracted to other Black men. At times when we first face racism, sexual prejudice and gender biased negativity in the work we do, we may respond in a very angry, aggressive manner that amounts to shooting ourselves in the foot and giving our tormentors the exact reaction and outcome that they are looking for so they can justify their low expectations and getting rid of us.  However, as we grow and mature, we realize that as the cliché says “everything happens for a reason,” and maybe these traditional avenues of employment, advancement and public health work weren’t constructed for our benefit at all; perhaps there is a better path that more compatibly resonates with our lived experiences as Black SGL, one that is more conducive to facilitating both our individual health and our health as a community. 

I am not writing this to suggest that we blame the current failure of HIV public health initiatives targeting Black SGL men on the non-Black people who are readily handing funding and employment to work in our communities yet are not quite qualified to do so.  What I am saying is also not akin to some Herman Cain or Clarence Thomas “pick yourselves up by your own bootstraps” narrative.  No one in this world makes it on his/her own, and we are certainly no exception.  We have all had phenomenal men and women placed in our lives to make the rough times of our journey much easier to navigate. The truth is that the line between structural and systemic inequities and individual responsibility is a fine one, often as fluid and mercurial as the ocean waves. Racism, sexual prejudice and economic distress will always be present in this country – our challenge is to find new and resilient ways to cope with these realities as individuals and communities, and actually thrive in spite of the barriers they present.

There are structural and race-based inequities in the fundamental approach and delivering of the current glut of HIV “research studies” and “public health interventions” that go far beyond rates of unprotected sex, high co-prevalence of STDs, late testing practices and sexual networks (many of the commonly cited factors contributing to the HIV racial disparity among Black SGL men).  We have come to a time where this “crisis” or “state of emergency” is no longer such a thing – we can’t be in perpetual crisis mode and expect to move forward.  What we are really witnessing is the reality of HIV among Black SGL men being bought and sold as a normal reality of our lives, which is far from a crisis, but even more concerning as it becoming internalized as an eventual and unavoidable life expectation.

We come from a long history of resiliency, creativity and positivity, from Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen during the Harlem Renaissance to James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin.  The solutions to us being the masters of our destiny will not be to just settle for being the “community” outreach workers and research assistants in these projects and interventions.  If we choose to continue on in these plantation-like settings because we need the employment, we must demand the responsibility to assume positions that are appropriate for our level of training and intellect, in which we are writing the grants, leading the sampling and recruitment strategies, analyzing the data and presenting the results.  Even more importantly, if we feel these projects or employment environments are toxic for us, we need to remind ourselves that we have always had the creative force and power to pursue another path to achieve the same goal.  In other words, we can and should pursue other avenues to approach general health among Black SGL that incorporates social media and creative approaches such as theater, film, writing and performance to complement the traditional academic and  community based organization approaches in order to reach a much larger audience. HIV is a virus, not a lifestyle that defines who we are, and the sooner we digest that concept, the better off we will be.

I caught the Broadway show “Wicked” last month in Atlanta, which tells the story of Elpheba, the so-called “Wicked Witch of the West” who was deemed “wicked” by the community because of her green skin, magical powers and tendency not to conform made her “different.”  The best number of the show is a song entitled “Defying Gravity,” when Elpheba realizes that the bland, conformist world of Oz is a world in which she will always be seen as exotic, always be objectified and always be reviled.  In this realization, she casts a spell and takes flight, rising above all the followers and mediocre inhabitants of Oz, embracing the uniqueness that makes her special, not wicked, and that few have been able to comprehend.  It is imperative that we truly accept and revel in what makes us special as Black SGL men, but we will never achieve that realization if we continue to allow larger societal systems and institutions to tell our narrative for us. If we do, we will simply be enabling these systems to keep us locked in subservient roles by allowing these inequities in hiring, staffing and employment to continue without calling attention to them or simply changing direction as we soar to our own destinies.  We are not simply the “wicked” pathological carriers of disease that many portray us to be – we are powerful beyond words, and we all should expect much more from ourselves. 

So fly brothers, fly. Life is too short to settle for mediocrity and HIV as the norm in our lives.  Our ancestors have repeatedly given us the roadmap of what it means to be resilient in the face of adversity – it’s high time we incorporate these lessons in our own lives.

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