When he finally made it — on camera — to a medical provider, he was given what seemed to be bad news: His CD4 cell count had dropped significantly. And yet Jacory left the medical clinic smiling. For the first time, he understood that with medication and lifestyle changes he could actually reclaim his life. He finally felt empowered to take control of his health. Jacory isn’t alone, and his story touched a chord with black America — at least those who watched the Ling special.
HIV workers agree it’s that kind of basic HIV education that needs to reach the thousands of Americans who still believe HIV is a death sentence and think treatment involves swallowing 30 pills a day. Including Jacory’s story in Our America was certainly laudable — the whole special was — but it may be part of the problem. Black gay men rarely make the news except as connected to HIV statistics.
“Organizations must be willing to know and imagine black gay men beyond HIV,” Stephens said in a statement issued for National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day in September. “Black gay men are not merely the sum total of a series of horrible health outcomes. Black gay men are not merely a risk group, representative of the pervasive MSM category, but a people, with a history and a culture, a rich legacy of activism that has meant both our survival and secured our future.” Stephens argues that the “black gay identity [is] a unique social location, point of political struggle, and space of joy” and he hopes that Counter Narrative can “amplify the voices of black gay men” by bringing visibility to broader issues affecting the population, including poverty, criminalization, and lack of housing. “We believe that visibility is necessary for cultural change, and cultural change is necessary for social change.”
Rashida Richardson of the Center for HIV Law and Policy agrees that HIV criminalization laws have an inordinately high impact on black gay and bi men. In a recent webinar, “We Are Here: Toward an Advocacy Agenda for Black Gay Men in the South,” Richardson explains this is because HIV criminalization lies at the intersection of forces that affect black gay men disproportionately: incarceration and high rates of HIV infection.
“One in three black men will be incarcerated during the course of their lives,” Richardson says. “Gay and transgender youth who end up in the justice system are at risk of being labeled sex offenders, regardless of what crime they have actually committed. Queer people of color are more likely to be targeted by police for stop-and-frisks, which can lead to HIV criminalization charges” if, for example, the officer comes in contact with an HIV-positive person’s saliva. The complexity of the issues facing gay and bi black men — and how they intersect with HIV rates among African-Americans — may be one of the reasons activists like Stephens and Gilmer see the need for black gay men to collaborate with other disenfranchised populations to stop HIV’s death grip on their communities.
At the AIDS conference, Gilmer publicly apologized, on behalf of black gay men, for helping render transgender women and men invisible, insisting “we must include transgender issues in the black gay men agenda.”
Later Gilmer spoke in the “We Are Here” webinar about the need for black gay men to fight for justice alongside other underprivileged groups rather than becoming involved in what he calls “privileged movements.” For example, Gilmer points to the fact that marriage equality has been the primary focus of the larger LGBT community but “gay black youth believe that HIV should be the central issue.” (Presented by the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance and the Counter Narrative Project, the webinar focused on HIV criminalization and incarceration, mental health and trauma, intersectionality, social justice, engaging faith communities, access and barriers to health care, and the role of culture in community engagement, mobilization, and building power. You can watch the entire 90-minute video here.)
Building coalitions can be difficult, even with seemingly natural allies like black women with HIV. As Ling reports, there’s still a widespread belief among African-American women that HIV is contracted via sex with their male partner who has gotten it from another man. This narrative, says Moore, paints black gay and bisexual men as “the enemy” who are “single-handedly responsible for HIV in black women.” Which in turn sets up what Gilmer calls “a fight for who is more devalued — black women or black gay men.”
Although studies indicate the narrative isn’t true, black gay men are frequently forced to “carry the burden of HIV,” Moore adds, because they often become the focus of HIV stigma and fear.