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The Rev. Dr. Renee McCoy has only been in the job just a few months as the new director of HIV/AIDS Programs at the City of Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion, but fighting HIV/AIDS is nothing new to this activist and advocate. She has devoted much of the last 26 years of her life to combating the epidemic’s effects.
McCoy, who has a doctorate in anthropology from Wayne State University and whose dissertation examined the impact of HIV/AIDS on black families in America, steps into a tough job. Her department has floundered in recent years from a lack of leadership and vision, high staff turnover and low morale. With over 40 employees, the department provides HIV testing and counseling, manages the federal AIDS housing programs in the city (HOPWA programs), and oversees the distribution of millions of dollars in grants under the federal Ryan White program, providing a big part of the funding for many of the AIDS service agencies in Detroit.
It is now up to McCoy to marshal the department’s forces to fight the virus as it continues to spread.
“There is so much that needs to be done, and there are always these questions, ‘Can I do it? How can I do it and still be safe?’ There is no way to do HIV/AIDS work and still be safe, on any level,” said McCoy, who returned to her native Detroit from New York in 1988, when she was hired as one of the first staffers at the Detroit Health Department’s newly formed HIV/AIDS unit. McCoy stayed at DHD for six years until 1994, when she returned to school full-time to complete her doctorate. While working at DHD she was also the pastor of what is now Full Truth Fellowship Church.
McCoy, a person of deep faith, is mining her spiritual resources and training as a pastor to lead her department to a healthier place.
“I hope to bring together a consciousness whereby we see HIV/AIDS as survivable,” said McCoy. “We need to believe we will survive it, with the help of God and in partnership with one another. It’s where I’m supposed to be. It’s a lot of work; it’s a big job. I’m not even sure what makes it big except the expectations and the enormity of the disease.”
Ministering from Harlem to Detroit
McCoy has experienced the devastation of AIDS since the beginning, and knows the danger it poses for everyone who is impacted. She was the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Harlem in New York in 1981, when the first gay men started presenting with a strange, virulent disease.
“I remember one of the first cases. Someone at the church came to me and said they had a friend, an African-American gay man, and he was in the hospital. I went to see him, and the first thing this man asked me was not ‘Am I going to die?’ He asked, ‘Am I going to hell?'” said McCoy. “It made me realize that we have got to take our spirituality back. I will be damned if I will give up God that easily.”
It is because of McCoy’s deep faith that she brings such incredible hope and enthusiasm to her new job.
“I can remember days and days of being on call at the AIDS hospice, and we’d have seven deaths in six days. We don’t even have an AIDS hospice anymore, and that is reason for hope,” said McCoy. “I remember during my last year at Full Truth, between July 30, 1993 and one year later, I had officiated at 56 funerals, and in many cases I was the primary caregiver. Their parents didn’ot want them. Now, (with the advent of anti-viral drug therapies) it’s a piece of cake! So why aren’t we in the streets yelling, ‘I’m getting tested! Man, take this pill, get this test!’?”
McCoy said she wants the department to have a strong prevention agenda that focuses on HIV/AIDS as a behavior, not a label.
“Last year we did about 10,000 HIV tests, and I’d like to see that increase by 25 percent this year. If you know your status then you’ve got a chance – to change your behavior and to get some help if you need it.”
McCoy said that over 40 percent of HIV-positive people in Detroit are out of care. “They are not even availing themselves of the services we have.”
McCoy also intends to use her background as a pastor to outreach through the churches in Detroit about HIV/AIDS.
“I’ve started working with African-American pastors who are progressive. We are going to pull together a faith-based initiative, not for federal funding purposes. I’m into taking back those words. There has to be a partnership between spirituality and all the secular work we do,” said McCoy. “To a great extent the homophobia in the black community is overstated. There are African-Americans who are homophobic, but there are many who are not. HIV is becoming a heterosexual disease and we need to talk about it. It,Aeos not about a down low thing – it’s about people who are having sex.”
Coming out, and out, and out…
McCoy believes that society needs to be more “out” about sexuality and honest about our intimate lives as a means of protecting ourselves.
“I’ve been out for 40 some-odd years, and I’m still coming out. I sorta figured at this age I’d be done coming out. At one level I’ve been out – it’s who I am. But now that puts me in a position of always speaking about sexuality. You’ve got to make sure that the needs of the most neglected are the first to come out of your mouth. Coming out for gay men, for transpersons, it’s another dimension of coming out that I am coming out and constantly talking about sexuality.”
Forcing sexuality back into the closet is a recipe for disaster, said McCoy.
“Abstinence only – it’s ridiculous. We have a society that has been sexualized for 50 years. How can we have a commercial that promotes Viagra, and then tell people not to do it? Viagra commercials are OK, but then follow it with a condom ad, or a PSA to get tested,” she said.
“To a certain extent we participate because we don’t talk about sex enough,” said McCoy. “We have this attitude that sex is bad. If it’s bad, then we don’t have to be responsible,” she reasoned. “We have to know that sex is good, that sex is sacred. And sacred sex is safer sex.
“But because some church says that we are bad, then we say, ‘well, we’ll just be bad and won’t be safe.’ But if we reclaim our spirituality and understand sacred sex, then we will protect it. Maybe we need to be talking about sexual celebration. If we can see sex as sacred, as a celebration of life, then you want it as clean and as safe and as possible.”
Recent statistics show that in Detroit there is a greater likelihood that new HIV diagnoses will be African-American men who have sex with men, less than 25 years old. The majority of people with HIV/AIDS have always been gay men, but McCoy said that as the epidemic has shifted to more black men, we have stopped talking about it.
“We’ve lost that lust for life that was part of the early years of the epidemic. We have got to breathe life and hope back into HIV/AIDS,” she said.
She plans to energize her staff, and let them become the roles models for others working against HIV/AIDS.
“Even with all the turnover in the past few years, they had constructed a good staff. The challenge with the staff is to make them understand how good they are, how competent and how great they can be,” said McCoy. “I’d like to help that staff to develop the skills they have that they haven’t been using. I want them to have a passion for excellence. If we do that, we’ll be all right.”