Life, love and HIV within the context of the black, gay male experience was the topic of a town hall gathering on Friday, May 17, held at LGBT Detroit’s brand-new expanded campus known as its #SafeBraveSpace. This meeting was a culmination of the efforts of two groups in addition to LGBT Detroit, The Black Bear Brotherhood — a social collective for black, gay men of size and their admirers — and the Onyx Great Lakes Chapter — a leather fraternal order for men of color. Jerron Totten is LGBT Detroit’s legislative advocacy specialist and social outreach coordinator and helped put the event together. He said after meeting both groups at last year’s Hotter Than July — the world’s second oldest black, gay pride event — he was excited to see the groups collaborate to host community forums like this one.
“They always coexisted in the same community and would be in the same spaces and I believe what happened is that they came to the consensus that we can do more together and make a bigger impact together. Since, first of all, there’s a lot of overlap in Black Bear Brotherhood and Onyx and people who have engaged historically with LGBT Detroit,” Totten said. “So, why not bring all those people together since we all know each other? And we already know that we have some shared resources and some individual resources that, if we can pull them together, we’ll be able to make the most impact.”
This particular event drew a crowd of several dozen and was sold out on its Eventbrite page, according to L. Michael Gipson the lead organizer of this meeting, principal of The Black Bear Brotherhood and the event’s host. The third of its kind in an ongoing series, Gipson said when he addressed the crowd that he had been eager to tackle the topic of HIV for some time but wanted to be intentional in how it was handled.
“The last topic we did was crystal meth and sex work, the topic before that was political power how do we gain it. Our two-year anniversary is May 27. We purposely have not tackled HIV because when we say black, gay men the first thing that we all hear following that is something about HIV,” Gipson said. “But with the update in the HIV criminalization laws and knowing how many of our brothers are, in fact, impacted, we felt it was critical that you know what the law is, both as people who may not have HIV and as people who may have HIV.”
Changes to Michigan’s HIV Legal Landscape
The meeting kicked off with a presentation from the ACLU of Michigan’s Jay Kaplan who is the LGBT Project’s staff attorney. He outlined in four points Michigan’s recently adopted HIV statute’s originally proposed by State Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo:
1.) “A person who knows that they are HIV-positive and engages in anal or vaginal intercourse with another person without first informing that person that they have HIV and has the specific intent to infect that other person can be guilty of a felony — whether or not HIV was transmitted.”
2.) “If you’re HIV-positive you don’t inform [your partner], you engage in anal [or vaginal] intercourse, you transmit HIV, even if you didn’t have the intent to infect another person, you can be charged with a felony.”
3.) “If you engage in intercourse and you don’t inform and you’ve engaged in what is considered to be reckless disregard, even if there’s no transmission, you can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison or a $1,000 fine. If they find that there is not reckless disregard, then no criminal charges can be brought. Another flaw in this statute is that they don’t explain what is ‘reckless disregard.'”
4.) “If you’re HIV-positive and you’re in a medical treatment that you’re adhering to and your viral load has been suppressed due to this medical treatment protocol then you can’t be considered to have acted with reckless disregard.”
Kaplan followed up by saying that though the law still contains flaws, it is a marked improvement from its previous iteration.
“It’s problematic with this too because it assumes that everybody has access to a medical treatment program and is going to benefit from the anti-retroviral medications,” Kaplan said. “In the long run, it’s much, much better because it’s focusing on behaviors, looking at intent in most instances and looking if someone was actually infected, but we still can do better. This was a result of a compromise with the current legislature.”
Understanding HIV Treatment and Prevention
Kaplan’s presentation was followed up by an interactive game show that was played for the audience’s benefit to cement information surrounding HIV treatment and to allay some of the fears and misconceptions that might exist surrounding it and those affected by HIV. Gipson shared experiences from his own background and career involving HIV prevention.
“Around the time I was born if you were gay you were considered crazy, it was a mental illness. And then, you were an outlaw or a criminal until about 2002, so I was a criminal from 16 until 2002 anytime I engaged in same-sex relationships,” Gipson said. “Then we got same-sex marriage and that was a huge change in what we could expect. We also now have PrEP and in what we can do to prevent HIV. We now have U=U which is information that is totally different than what we used to share with people and, I think, for people who work in HIV prevention as I used to for a time, sometimes we get all this kind of information that’s very common knowledge for us over the last five years, but that the public still actually doesn’t know.”
For instance, though pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP is a preventative measure for HIV, even Gipson’s health care providers don’t often know its intended use.
“I still, as someone on PrEP, have to educate my nurses, my doctors, the medical assistant, literally every single time I access health care that I’m not HIV-positive, not living with HIV but I’m on this medication which, to them, can only be viewed in a lens of having HIV,” Gipson said. “This was particularly burdensome when I was getting surgery for a hernia and so you have new nurses every few hours who would say, ‘Oh, I see you have this HIV med,’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s not that.’”
Some of the questions posed to contestants covered topics like the effectiveness of PrEP for a daily user in pill form — 90 percent — those who receive it as an injection — 70 percent — and the brand name of the medicine — Truvada.
Love, Dating and Relationships
The final section of the town hall meeting opened up the discussion to a panel of six participants, two of whom represented single black, gay males, and two couples both monogamous and polyamorous. Gipson started that portion of the programming with a question about their thoughts on the new HIV rules within the current landscape in Detroit among men who have sex with men.
“Because one out of two black gay men is projected to get HIV it’s important to talk about that and also about how does that impact relationships and how we deal with them. In some ways we’ve gotten some good news and mediocre , OK news about that,” Gipson said. “But as brothers in the community where that is the truth, and we’re also still the most likely to get incarcerated under such rules, what were your first impressions of the changes you heard in the HIV criminalization tonight?”
Panelist Thomas Wendell Williams III spoke first.
“For me, the changes that I saw I was still very critical of like the fine,” Williams said. “One, I was thinking about the fact that we’re disproportionately targeted by this and if a lot of us struggle economically and financially, how are we goig to pay a $1,000 fine on top of everything else we’re probably dealing with? So that to me was a slap in the face and rubbing salt in the wound of someone that’s in poverty.”
Other panelists agreed the changes weren’t ideal but did seem hopeful that it was a step in the right direction. Ronald Moore was a panelist representing the senior, black, LGBTQ community. He said that in his eyes the changes didn’t affect him directly, but he saw how some of the existing flaws could be problematic for those living in poverty.
“It didn’t really impact me that much because I think my practice is just to assume that anyone I’m having sex with is positive and I’ve never relied on what the other person says, I’ve always relied on myself to take responsibility because I own what happens,” Moore said. “I do think it’s homophobic and all that stuff, but it doesn’t cause me to change.”
Gipson followed up with various questions about the impacts of the HIV law and the stigma surrounding the disease even among the LGBTQ community. Overall, when asked about the importance of sharing information even within the community, panelist Amar Rushing summarized it well.
“I think it helps because there’s a lot of misinformation and lack of understanding within our own community,” Rushing said. “These changes and things that are happening help us connect and learn from each other.”
To learn more about the Black Bear Brotherhood visit blackbearbrotherhood.life. Find out more about Onyx Great Lakes Chapter at onyxgl.com and visit lgbtdetroit.org to learn more about it and its new #SafeBraveSpace.