by Jessica Carreras
After over two decades, HIV/AIDS is still one of the top five causes of death for black men – and most of those men are gay. Fortunately, it's not a fact that groups like AIDS Partnership Michigan, Mpowerment Detroit and the National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition are willing to sweep under the rug.
At a town hall meeting on black gay men's health Thursday night, men from all those organizations – plus others from the community – tackled the tough questions about the state of HIV for black men and how to fight back against an alarming statistic – that 46 percent of black, gay men are infected with HIV.
The event kicked off the 2008 HIV Prevention Leadership Summit, held in Detroit's Renaissance Center from June 11-14. It included both a startling telling of national HIV/AIDS statistics and included a lively discussion between the audience and panel members, who included James Mathews and Jeremy Toney of Mpowerment Detroit, Hank Millborne of the Black Pride Society and AIDS Partnership Michigan and Allen Edwards of R.E.C. Boyz, as well as national HIV activists.
The event was hosted by NGBMAC, who stated that they hoped to gain valuable information from local black, gay communities to use in the fight for the rights of black gay men nationwide. "The work that we do, especially in Washington and down in Atlanta at the (Center for Disease Control), is about you," NBGMAC National Policy Advisor Cornelius Baker said to the crowd gathered at the town hall. "The voice that we take into the room are things that you told us and so we use these forums and town halls … to hear what's on your mind and to hear what your challenges are in your community.
"When we walk into the offices of the CDC, that's what we're talking about: What's going to work for you and what's going to help you in your lives and what's going to keep all of us healthy and well and living into a very long, long age."
The town hall comes just weeks before National HIV Testing Day on June 27. Coincidentally, the hottest topic of discussion of the night was testing, its impact on the rising statistic of HIV cases and how to get young, black, gay men to get tested.
"I got tested in October of 1986, three months after HIV tests came out because it was available, I was a gay man and you want to know. You want to know if you're healthy," Baker said. "My partner had died in 1985 so there was a reasonable chance that I was positive. And I was.
"But it's 2008 and I'm here with you and it's because I got tested."
Baker, along with newscaster and radio personality Charles Pugh, who moderated the panel discussion, stressed the importance of going to the doctor. "Men tend to look at health a lot differently than women," Pugh admitted, adding that the skewed perception often leads to ignoring potentially bad problems.
"We have to believe in ourselves enough to go to the doctor when we need to, to get our cholesterol tested, to get our prostates checked, to get an HIV test and to tell our friends to get tested," Baker added. "Not just once. You do it repeatedly. You do it throughout the whole of your life to make sure that you're healthy from whatever."
The panel members noted, however, that convincing young, gay men to be safe and get tested – especially ones who are not out to either themselves or their friends and family – is challenging.
The problems brought up were numerous – funding, stigma and a lack of acceptance were among them. But one, they all agreed, was exceedingly important: The need to address these men as people, not problems.
"I think that everything we have out there is great, but nothing really truly speaks to the total gay man," Jeremy Toney, a peer advocate at Mpowerment Detroit, said. "We're not all about sex, so if you don't address all the other needs of young, black, gay men, they don't want to hear it… . What about the rest of me? What about school? What about work? What about clothes? What about hair? What about going to the doctor? What about STDs? Everything is 'HIV! HIV!' and you get tired of hearing the same thing all the time. You need something that speaks to the whole person."
"They are whole people who walk through our door," echoed Hank Millbourne, who is both the associate executive director of AIDS Partnership Michigan and president of the Black Pride Society. "They're not an HIV infection. They're not a statistical element."
The men voiced, however, that it was difficult to reach these men through comprehensive programs that addressed all of their problems without the necessary funding, both private and federal. "I think what we have to be clear about in this room is that it's going to take money to do this job," Roosevelt Mosbey of NGBMAC said from the audience.
"It's important to have private money. It's important for our communities to raise money and to give it to each other," Baker added. "We have a history of the government not supporting our work… . We need to look at how we give what we have to build something and to make sure that we're capable of advocating for our own lives."
However, Baker added, it's also the obligation of those in HIV/AIDS work to come forward to their government to ask for funding. "We don't need to feel guilty at all when we go to the government and say 'We want money for this purpose and you're going to give it to us.'"
Other panelists, however, believed that passion trumped any monetary needs. "It's not always about money," said Toney, adding that much of advocacy and prevention work goes beyond a paid position. "It's not about 9-to-5, behind-the-desk prevention. If you're not out there in the trenches, then it's not going to work."
Overall, the men agreed that it will take all of those things – funding, passion and creating safe spaces for black, gay men to be out and talk about their issues – to turn that 46 percent of infected men into a much smaller number over time.
"I think we have a lot of work to do," said Rudy Carn, chair of the NGBMAC. "But one thing we don't want to forget is that 46 percent are HIV positive, but 54 percent are not… . We need to make sure that they stay not positive."