THIS IS THE SECOND ARTICLE IN A SIX-PART SERIES
It was to be a triumphant day in Washington, D.C. The Congressional Black Caucus had convened hundreds of people from around the country to announce that the nation’s black leadership was launching a head-on strike against AIDS.
But at the back of the packed hall, a circle of black gay men stood conferencing, furious at the predictable absence of their issues on the stage up front. Out of a panel of some twenty-odd speakers, representing black people from all walks of life, not one represented black gay or bisexual men. This, when almost 40 percent of the cumulative AIDS cases among black men nationally were transmitted through same-sex sexual behavior.
“It was just ridiculous,” sighs Kevin McGruder, executive director for New York City’s Gay Men of African Descent on West 14th Street in Chelsea, recalling the 1998 gathering. It was at this event that the Clinton administration first unveiled its Minority AIDS Initiative, targeting federal AIDS funding for programs in black communities. The men circled in the back were concerned that their issues would be equally invisible when it came time to divide up that money.
“We’ll be an afterthought,” McGruder remembers thinking. “It was almost like black people in a white environment raising issues about race and people saying, “Well, that’ll come as we get all these other issues [taken care of].”
In New York City, black gay and bisexual men account for almost a quarter of both black men living with AIDS and gay and bisexual men living with AIDS. A 1998 city department of health study found that these black men are twice as likely to die from AIDS as their white and Latino counterparts. A 1999 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of men who have sex with men, ages 15 to 22—conducted in seven cities, including New York City—found that blacks are almost five times as likely as their white counterparts to be HIV-positive. In sum, as the CDC recently declared, black gay and bisexual men are one of the most at-risk groups for HIV.
McGruder and others believe that risk stems largely from the fact that too many black men who have sex with men have been rejected by the larger black and gay communities, and seldom find the affirmation of their sexual identity that individuals need to sustain healthy relationships and a sense of self-worth.
“There are places where I can get support around my racial identity, but not my sexual identity,” says Timothy Benston, who manages a Gay Men’s Health Crisis program for black men, called Soulfood.
“The white gay community is built around just that—white gay men. And there’s no real support [in the black community] around a sexual identity. No places where black gay men can go and be gay. So we tend [to meet at] cruising places, like parks, where everything is undercover, ‘on the down low,’ as they say now.”
Gene and Terrence (who requested that their last names not be used)—who have been dating for almost two months—come to GMAD’s support groups together. They are in a supportive relationship. But that bond developed only after traversing the unhealthy sexual relationships that Benston describes.
Last summer, Gene, 35, at the request of his family, returned home to Brooklyn after living around the city for years. He had been sleeping with men—or as he describes it, “in the life”—since he was 19, but had hidden it from his family. One night his mother overheard him discuss being gay in a telephone conversation; the family disowned him.
Six months later, in March, he tested positive. He had never considered his own risk for HIV before that, even though several friends had died from AIDS. After testing positive, exiled from his family, Gene fell into depression. “[The depression] didn’t hit me until I found out I was, you know, HIV-positive,” Gene explains haltingly. “It just all at once hit me.I always thought I was strong.” He quickly adds, trailing off, “Still, I’m strong.”
His partner, Terrence, reassures him, “[There’s] only so much you can take.”
At 30 years old, Terrence is also positive. He says that unlike Gene’s mother, his mother has always been supportive. But after coming out to her three years ago, he fled from his family in Pennsylvania and moved to Washington, D.C., where he developed a drug habit and began dating older men who gave him money to sustain it.
Having never received the guidance—subtle or overt—generally thrust upon young straight men when they are discovering sex and sexuality, and instead learning that their sexual preferences are a source of shame, many gay men end up either seeking anonymous sex or locked in sexual relationships in which they have little power over their bodies. In either situation, they are not likely to demand the use of a condom, or do not value themselves enough to consider the risk of not using one.
Roger Adamson, who counsels the couple at GMAD, says these stories are too common in the black community, where many families and community leaders still won’t embrace gay men and women. “They don’t want to hear that,” Adamson says of black leaders. “So [they say], ‘We don’t want this around here,’ or ‘We don’t want to hear about this issue. That’s y’all’s issue. Take it down there to the white area, don’t bring it here with us.’ ”
Benston notes that while such homophobia is not more common in the black community, it is felt more acutely because of the “dual identities” it creates for black gay men, who need identification with the black community to counter racism in the larger society. It is one thing to be rejected by society at large; it is another to be cast out by the community in which you take refuge from that rejection.
Others trace the roots of the black community’s rejection of homosexuality to early discourse about black power. As black gay activist and author Keith Boykin has written, the most virulent antigaysentiments have come from those who see black homosexuality as a white trait, passed on by the same racist forces that have ripped the black family apart and robbed the male of his masculinity.
Many argue that this association of the gay lifestyle with white people, coupled with an association of AIDS with gay people, has hindered the black community’s response to AIDS. At the least, it has pushed black men who have sex with men to the community’s margins. As a result, an already at-risk group becomes more difficult to reach with HIV prevention messages.
The goal for both Soulfood and GMAD is to bring men in for sessions such as Adamson’s Thursday-night sex and sexuality group. In one recent session, as Adamson playfully urged the 20 or so participants to reveal the maximum number of times they’ve jacked off in one day, it was not immediately clear where the HIV prevention work came in. But the point, Adamson explains, is to make the men more comfortable expressing their sexuality. Many have hidden that sexuality for years. Others, McGruder notes, have turned to the larger gay community only to have their sexuality objectified by white men looking for mythic black sexual monsters. One of the most frustrating parts of his job, McGruder says, is weeding through e-mails hereceives from such men, who mistake GMAD for a dating service.
But the larger point to these sessions is to build community among black gay men. Through that community, black gay men can give each other the support they haven’t found in the larger black or gay communities. “Do brothers feel entitled to be healthy? Do brothers feel entitled to a community that speaks to them?” asks Benston. That sense of entitlement, he concludes, is the only way to truly defeat HIV.
HIV prevention and support programs for black gay men:
Gay Men of African Descent
248 West 14th Street, 2nd floor, NY
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
119 West 24th Street, NY
The Audre Lorde Project
85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY
LGBT Peer Prevention Program run by Bali White
123-125 West 124th Street, NY
People of Color in Crisis
468 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY
AIDS AND BLACK NEW YORKERS, A SIX-PART SERIES:
Part I: Emergency Call by Kai Wright
How AIDS Is Hurting Black Communities
Part II: Black, Gay, At-Risk by Kai Wright
Homophobia, Racism, and Rejection Fuel Rising Infections
Part III: The Tuskegee Effect by Kemba Johnson
For Blacks, a 28-Year-Old Study Is One of Many Barriers to HIV Prevention
Part IV: Double Jeopardy by Kai Wright
In NY State Blacks Rank Highest Among HIV-Positive Inmates
Part V: Black Women and HIV by Sharon Lerner
Rising Infection Rate Reflects an Age-Old Gender Imbalance