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How Did Karamo Brown find his way back to Hollywood?

KARAMO BROWN

After a decade away from Hollywood, The Real World star Karamo Brown is back on MTV and is ready to take on the high rates of HIV in the black community.

Karamo Brown made history as the second out gay black man on reality TV when he appeared on 2004’s The Real World: Philadelphia (the first was Marcellas Reynolds on 2002's Big Brother). Brown instantly became a role model, simply for providing visibility to gay and bi black men.

Brown, who was a licensed social worker for nearly a decade after The Real World, has always wanted to help others, “especially men of color who didn’t have anyone.” Now that he’s back on TV (hosting shows like Are You the One: Second Chances), he considers his work as part and parcel of that because of the visibility it brings.

“I hate the term role model,” Brown says, choosing not to use the phrase about himself. But he hopes to be someone that other guys can look to and think, “Oh, if he did it, I can do it too.”

Brown took a more proactive step in 2015 by cofounding the organization 6in10, with HIV-positive minister Donta Morrison, to address the high rates of HIV in the black community. The name reflects the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s prediction that six in 10 gay and bisexual black men will contract HIV before they turn 40.

The non-profit organization partners with the CDC and creates viral campaigns, like its #UNSHADE effort calling on the African-American LGBT community to stop stigmatizing HIV. The clarion call from 6in10: “By eradicating the HIV shaming and shade that occurs within the black LGBT community, we can begin to change the six in 10 statistic.”

Although Brown isn’t poz himself, he says, “The HIV epidemic has always been on my mind, it’s always been something I’ve spoken — and speak — about, because it affects us [so much].”

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The group 6in10 was launched in part when Brown’s appearance on a radio show was abruptly canceled.“I was supposed to be talking about HIV/AIDS awareness in the black community,” Brown says, “And I got canceled.” The producer reportedly explained it was “because the host ‘did not care about the topic,’” Brown recalls. “I thought, You don’t care about black people? LGBT people? HIV? Because either way I’m going to be pissed off!”

Brown says it was this anger that “propelled me into making sure… we were telling our own story, sharing our narratives.” In particular, 6in10 focuses on improving the mental health and self-esteem of gay black and bisexual men. “At the core,” the former social worker says, “If you can’t change your mind, you can’t change your heart, you can’t change yourself, you can’t change the way you’re living your life.”

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“As African-Americans,” he continues, “we don’t focus enough on mental health. Your self-esteem and the way you see yourself in this world is the reason you react the way you do. If you don’t value your life, then, ‘Why would I put on a condom? Why… [avoid] risk?’ We focus right there, so that way we can start at your heart and your core, and then everything else can move forward.”

In addressing self-esteem, Brown isn’t just focused on encouraging individuals to fight stigma or proudly share their poz stories — he also wants to transform the black community so it’s less hostile to its LGBT members. “We have to start making sure that churches start to talk about… black queerness in a way that’s affirming,” Brown says, “because a lot of young black men are in the church. And that’s where they start to learn this self-hate behavior.”

6in10 also targets parents by speaking to parent/teacher associations and other groups to help them “understand how they can support their children… [especially if they] identify as gay or bisexual, or trans, or queer, or gender non-conforming. How do you have those conversations [on HIV] in a positive and healthy way, so that way they don’t put themselves at risk.”

To better assess how to position their appeals to parents and black churches, 6in10 is currently doing market research in 12 schools and four churches.

Aware that PrEP uptake hasn’t been as widespread among black gay men as among their white counterparts, Brown blames marketing (including public education campaigns) and access (including “perceived access,” since he says many people mistakenly believe the HIV prevention strategy is only available to white guys or those with money).

“I get so tired of people trying to market to African-American gay men — or African-Americans period — in the club,” he adds. “Nobody in that club is going over to your table to get a condom or get a pamphlet. It’s just not happening. So, take your condom table… out of the club,” he argues.

Instead, Brown recommends that organizations recruit DJs as partners in sharing the message. “Make sure your DJ says every five songs, ‘Hey make sure if you go home with somebody, love yourself, protect yourself,’” he suggests. “Do things that are more creative, get out of the box. Encourage them to say, ‘Hey, see your doctor, get PrEP.’ Let [people] know that it’s available to them, you know, with or without insurance.”

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There also needs to be more messaging in the black community about embracing medical care. “I never saw my father go to the doctor,” Brown says. “It took me until I was probably like 26, or 27, to get a primary care physician. In my mind, unless I’m like coughing up a lung, why do I need to go to the doctor? And I think those types of stereotypes still permeate the black community. We feel like that’s not for us, we don’t have access to that.”

Brown thinks that’s one of the reasons African-Americans living with HIV don’t always get the care that they need, while studies show white HIV-positive people seek care and reach undetectable levels at higher rates.

“Also,” Brown adds, “I think there’s a lot of stigma when it comes to gay black people, trans people — we just don’t want to go to the doctor and be judged. It’s very hard to sit in front of a doctor or a physician, who’s supposed to be caring and understanding, and tell them, ‘I think I might have an STD.’ People are embarrassed. And part of that embarrassment goes back to their self-esteem and mental health, of like, well, taking care of yourself — you should never be embarrassed about that.”

As 6in10 gets off the ground, Brown’s television career is also taking off. But the truth is that both his advocacy work and TV career almost didn’t happen.

In the wake of The Real World, Brown admits, “I got addicted to drugs, to cocaine, and was like partying every night, wasting away, killing myself, basically, because I didn’t know how to deal with this sort of new reality fame. I was getting messages that I loved from people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you stopped me from killing myself,’ but I didn’t… know how to respond [or] what to do. [It was] a lot of pressure.”

Then something happened that snapped Brown out of his addiction and forced him to grow up fast: he discovered he was someone’s father. His son, Jason, was already 10-years-old when Brown first met him, and, a short time later (in 2007), gained full custody of the pre-teen.

“It’s the greatest gift ever,” Brown says now. “You know, being an openly gay man, I didn’t ever think that fatherhood was a possibility. Obviously, I was scared, I was terrified… but luckily, I grew up in a family that embraced being together and taught me… you have to step up. And it was the best decision ever.”

Brown put aside dreams of becoming a TV star and buckled down into the social work career he’d prepared for in college. He also ended up adopting a second son, who would later give Brown another life changing gift.

“He was writing a paper on living your dreams,” Brown recalls. “And he asked me if being a social worker was my dream. …I could say ‘Yes,’ which was a lie. I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well why don’t you go after your dreams?’ I quit my job, maybe two months later.”

He was hired by Oprah Winfrey to host #OWNSHOW on Oprah.com, then recruited to be a panelist on Dr. Drew on Call, in part because of his social worker background. He filmed 54 episodes on Dr. Drew, between 2014 and 2016.

Last year, Carlos King, a producer known for his work on Real Housewives and Hollywood Divas offered Brown a spot on The Next 15 with other former reality stars like Tiffany Pollard (I Love New York) and Claudia Jordan (Real Housewives of Atlanta). In addition to hosting both Are You the One: Second Chances on MTV and a new History Channel show, The Unexplained, Brown is getting into producing and has been filming a show he developed. Details are still under wraps, but it should premiere in early 2018.

“This has been a three-year journey since I got back in the entertainment industry,” Brown says. “I would just tell people to watch out because I’m about to be a force to be reckoned with.”

Find out more at 6in10.org.

Editor's note, this article has been edited to note that Marcellas Reynolds was the first out Black gay man on a reality TV show.

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