Friday, August 3, 2007

Pride and Promises

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in 2005 released the findings of a study which found 46 percent of gay Black men surveyed tested HIV positive. This statistic remains a shocking example of the epidemic's disproportionate impact on gay and bisexual men of color. This blogger examines new initiatives to curb HIV and AIDS among these populations in the cover story in the New York Blade. Activists and Pride in the City organizers spoke about new and innovative ways to curb the epidemic. These initiatives, one can easily conclude, are needed as HIV and AIDS continues to ravage these communities.

From left: NBGMAC Chair Rudy Carn and New York City Council Member Letitia James [D-Fort Greene] discuss ways to curb the impact of HIV and AIDS among Black gay men in the city.

This weekend, Pride in the City organizers welcome tens of thousands of LGBT people of color to Brooklyn and the Rockaways for a four-day festival of cultural events, picnics, dances and galas.

But the Pride event is more than a time of communion and fun. The newly formed National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition (NBGMAC) and other activists view Pride in the City as an important chance to highlight new initiatives to curb the rates of HIV and AIDS among Black gay men.

NGBMAC has been two years in the making. It was in March 2005 that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention released results of a five-city study that found 46 percent of black men were HIV positive, making them twice as likely to be infected than other gay or bisexual men.

According to the data, African-Americans account for 12 percent of the U.S. population but comprise 47 percent of all HIV cases.

“There was a national need to respond to numbers like that,” said People of Color in Crisis Executive Director Michael Roberson, “particulaly to do advocacy around black gay men.”

“Anytime you have rates that big, you’d think you’d need money to specifically target that population,” Roberson said. He explained that government money is usually put under the umbrella “people of color,” which could include blacks, Latinos, Asian-Pacific Islanders and heterosexual women.

The NGBMAC addresses the crises specifically to black, gay men. On Wednesday, Aug. 1, health-care officials and activist joined members of MGBMAC at a town hall meeting at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott Hotel to discuss the crisis.

The NBGMAC called upon the federal government to support local prevention and testing efforts. It also advocates for mental programs for Black gay men, initiatives to combat homelessness among LGBT youth and renewed efforts to combat HIV-associated stigmas and discrimination.

NBGMAC chair Rudy Carn, who also co-founded the Atlanta-based National AIDS Education & Services for Minorities, Inc., said the coalition seeks to overcome the many divisions and conflicts, which he feels have hindered previous collaborative efforts. He added the NBGMAC responds to a more basic need.

“The coalition came about because we as gay men saw too many of our brothers dying,” Carn said.

Leo Rennie of the District of Columbia Department of Health agreed. He and other NBGMAC members met with CDC officials in August 2005 to present specific recommendations in response to the agency’s study. Rennie lamented the CDC has yet to respond. He added, however, the agency’s failure to act only confirms NBGMAC’s charge.

“It [is] two years later and we have not gotten a response out of them yet,” Rennie said. “That’s a shame; that’s sad, and that’s why we formed the coalition.”

POCC’s Roberson praised the coalition as innovative. He said the federal government must earmark more money and resources to address the epidemic’s continued impact among black gay men in New York and across the country.

“Nationally, the amount of money allocated for HIV specific [issues] is not enough,” Roberson said. “When we look in comparison to terrorism and HIV dollars we spend globally, we are not taking care of home at all.”

Roberson and POCC helped create of the Coalition of Responsible Entrepreneurs in May as a way to use New York’s bar and club scene to reduce rates of HIV infection through party outreach, prevention campaigns and HIV testing at clubs.

“Last year, one of things we noticed was historically, the blackgay promoters didn’t work collaboratively together to have good parties,” Roberson said. By working with the promoters, he explained, the group could do more HIV prevention outreach.

This year’s Pride in the City event is the pilot for a new HIV awareness campaign called “Tonight, I promise.” Roberson explains that “patrons wear a ban that says, ‘Tonight I promise…’ To love myself, to engage in safer sex, maybe drinking less, taking less drugs, doing this harm reduction thing.” When people pay to attend the events, they receive one of the bans. Roberson hopes that HIV testing and prevention work will soon be carried out within New York’s many clubs and parties.

Eighteen promoters from across the city have joined the CORE in the weeks leading up to Pride in the City. Ricky Day of the Party Promoter Coalition said the confab allows safer-sex and prevention messages to reach a much broader audience.

“The way to good health is to love yourself,” Day said. “Health and harm reduction are an important part of the coalition. Without self-love, there won’t be any of us left to party.”

One of CORE’s goals is to register 10,000 black gay men to vote by August 2008; another goal is to make New York the epicenter for Black gay culture.

Roberson argued that gentrification also has a direct impact on the rates of HIV and AIDS among black gay men. Specifically, he said, the more restaurants, gyms, bars, clubs and other establishments that cater to black gay men, the more healthy the men will be.

“We need to be able to do that and do that in a collaborative way,” Roberson said.

New York City Councilmember Letitia James (D-Fort Greene) and Gay Men’s Health Crisis Executive Director Dr. Marjorie Hill, Ph.D., whose agency has faced tough questions about its own HIV prevention work in recent weeks, were among those present who praised both the CORE and the NBGMAC.

Others expressed skepticism. Calvin Clark, co-owner of Langston’s Lounge, a Brooklyn bar popular among black gay men, expressed frustration at what he described as a lack of concern among many Black gay men about the impact HIV and AIDS continues to have. He further speculated a return of the high-profile ACT-UP protests of the 1980s and early 1990s as a way to highlight the epidemic’s continued impact among black gay men.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Clark said. “We ain’t squeaky enough.”

George Bellinger of the Hunter College School of Social Work questioned whether the coalition itself could bridge gaps between young black gay men and safer-sex and prevention messages.

“Young people don’t have to talk about HIV,” Bellinger said. “They take their meds, they go to the party and look fabulous.”

Bellinger added he feels Black gay men must begin to openly discuss HIV and AIDS if they hope to turn the tide against the epidemic.

Carn agreed that the response to the epidemic among black gay men remains painfully slow at times. He concluded, however, the NBGMAC will continue to make a difference.

“Too many people think the disease is over—it’s not,” he said. “It is our time. We need to take this and move forward. We can do this. We can save our brothers’ lives.”

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