By Craig Washington
It has been almost three months since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the alarming findings of a study in which 46% of Black homosexually active men surveyed in five major cities tested HIV positive. Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, expressed outrage at the lack of outrage about this astounding statistic in a recent column. He is most troubled by hearing no response from Black gay men themselves. As a fellow poz Black man, I share Wilson’s anxiety.
I do not know if this sample is completely accurate, but I do know that the infection rates of Black gay men are not going down. This is just the latest in a litany of CDC reports indicating that our prevention efforts are failing. I doubt that this study will move us to take to the streets, but maybe the buzz will at least cause us to pause and reflect before we act, to back up before we try it again.
Sexual behavior is as complex as it is primal and cannot be policed by billboard messages or sex-negative directives. Black gay men need the support of viable and affirming communities to maintain their well being, so HIV prevention must be incorporated into a larger context of Black gay community development and multi-issue activism.
Two crucial realities are articulated by this national silence. One is that Black men are not valued enough by our society to merit any public alert regarding their condition. The other is the dearth of infrastructure and capacity among Black and gay or same gender loving men. Too few of those who are not Black and gay give enough of a damn about those who are for this to be truly appreciated as a crisis. And not enough of us who are Black and gay are either willing or able to mount the kind of response this crisis demands. These two realities shape, and are shaped by our political and social climate as surely as the ocean feeds and is fed by the rain.
The majority of Black heterosexuals have made it resoundingly clear that their HIV-related concerns are reserved for women and children. Many Black gay men feel isolated and disconnected, having no evidence of a legitimate Black gay or same-gender-loving community among them.
We cannot dismiss the achievements of our public leaders and organizations, as well as the unheralded triumphs of everyday people. But nor can we deny that they are still not enough and that we have to find the means and motivation to do more. We have not yet amassed the resources required to grow strong communities and mobilize a viable movement that can take on a full range of issues, including but certainly not limited to HIV.
Consider, for example, Atlanta — the now so-called Black gay Mecca. We have no media or bookstores owned and operated for or by openly gay Black people. We have no history center to which I can refer a young man to see an exhibit on Black LGBT history, to learn about Essex Hemphill or Pat Hussein, and thereby learn about himself, his purpose. With the exception of the new Urban Tea Party, we have no place to come together outside of the clubs — none of which are Black-owned, in none of which can we commune in the daylight.
I am by no means a club hater, but clubs are designed to meet specific popular demands. They are not equipped to serve as sites for our cultural enrichment and political autonomy.
The same reality exists in chocolate cities across the country. There exist few places where, on any given day, Black LGBT people can enter and expect to see others like us, and thus find refuge and sustenance. Such public facilities would enable us to expand our interconnection and reciprocal support far beyond our immediate sexual and social circles.
We need a diversified host of Black queer cultural, political and media institutions in order to create a self-loving, extended community that is, as Hemphill might say, “capable of whatever, whenever” the call to action is sounded. Surely we can secure enough Black gay capital to fund our organizations and own the buildings they occupy. Those of us who possess the vision have to convince those who possess the means that the vision is worth their investment.
This level of development will take years, perhaps decades. We must determine what can be done right now, as well as in the ensuing days, weeks and months to come. I believe that, as always, it all comes down to the individual.
I must take stock of my own commitments to my brothers “in the life.” When I am about to do-the-do, will my desire for raw pleasure obliterate my resolve to not infect my partner? When I encounter someone whom I do not find attractive on the street and we clock each other, how do I interact? Does he have to be cute in order for me to speak? How do I talk to brothers at the workshop who live for Internet sex sites and are hooking up 24/7? Do I lecture or do I listen?
Ultimately, the personal norms and values we choose to honor as well as the revolution we build will make the difference if one can be made.