National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Statement: Why We Must Be About Bold Action Now


When my brother fell

I picked up his weapons.

I didn’t question

whether I could aim

or be as precise as he.

A needle and thread

were not among

his things

I found.

-Essex Hemphill, When My Brother Fell, Ceremonies (1992)

The final verses of poet and activist Essex Hemphill’s powerful work invokes both a stark criticism of the AIDS movement and a call to family, connectedness, brotherhood in a battle that he himself would ultimately lose against HIV/AIDS.

This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, invoking Essex’s poem represents a larger battle against HIV/AIDS that has expanded on many fronts facing Black gay men across the United States, ranging from stigma, criminalization, racism and homophobia. Now more than ever, addressing structural violence and investing in the lives of Black gay men must be strategies to win this battle against HIV/AIDS.

Essex’s poem and his own story sheds a spotlight on where  the epidemic is most pronounced. Research has demonstrated consistently that the epidemic continues to rage among Black gay men.

This National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day we must commit to achieving justice for Black gay men and all vulnerable communities impacted by the epidemic. In doing so, when our brothers fall, such as Michael L. Johnson currently serving 30.5 years for criminalized transmission of HIV, we must be brave in ending systems of mass incarceration that target and maim Black bodies through movement-building with powerful racial justice movements. When our brothers fall to an inaccessible system of health care, we must push for the expansion of Medicaid particularly in the South and target resources that invest in the lives of Black gay men. When our brothers fall to depression and loneliness, we must build social capital, celebrate the sexual liberation, value and culture of Black gay men as part of the larger Black social fabric.

Threading these strategies together requires a brave and new vision to how we reallocate resources and address the epidemic beyond testing, treatment and biomedical prevention. We can no longer ignore mounting research that continues to reinforce and acknowledge that social and structural factors as a root cause for the rising epidemic among Black gay men. Inaction and indifference only reinforces the truths that research resonate. To take aim, to be precise in this era of epidemic, to honor our brothers that have fallen, we must end stigma, criminalization, racism and homophobia.


As we commemorate World AIDS Day 2015 and recognize both the triumphs and challenges of our present moment, we also acknowledge the impact of HIV in the lives of black gay men. We offer in love some ideas in the spirit of carving out a path forward, to inspire an asset-based framework and programmatic and advocacy strategies, designed around our collective dreams and our most sacred spaces. Such proposals seek not to minimize or ignore the pervasive structural violence that shape our social realities. Rather, we seek to recognize the complexity of our experiences, which must encompass both our struggles, and our joys.

Nostalgia Need Not Be Propaganda

We continue to uphold the value of collective memory and movement history. We recognize the incredible tradition of black gay men whose legacies we hold and shoulders we stand upon, particularly black gay men in the South. Though many of their names and contributions have been erased from the more official AIDS movement history, we speak their names in our hearts and we speak their names in our work.

The Critical Present

We acknowledge that World AIDS Day is not only a call to commemorate but also a call to action. This means continuing the on-going fight to ensure health care access for HIV prevention and treatment, insisting upon culturally competent health care providers, community education around and the availability of PrEP, and an end to HIV stigma, criminalization, and other forms of structural violence that serve as barriers to HIV prevention and treatment for our communities. We must also fight the systems that seek to make the lives and deaths of black gay men invisible.

Freedom Is Our Future

As we imagine a path forward, Counter Narrative would like to offer the following considerations:

(1) Programmatic and advocacy strategies that recognize the role of trauma in the lives of black gay men

(2) Coalitions working to end criminalization that are intersectional. Strengthening efforts to integrate racial justice more robustly into HIV decriminalization efforts. And a greater consideration of HIV criminalization in the wider black anti-criminalization movement.

(3) Intergenerational spaces and community-building for black gay men

(4) Cultural competence training that acknowledges an actual black gay history and culture

(5) Research, advocacy and programming addressing the needs of black gay men around aging.

(6) An investment in black gay artists and cultural workers from the HIV realm.

(7) Greater visibility of black gay men in the South, and greater investment in the development of spaces to support community building and engagement

Taken together these proposals are only a step forward, but a necessary step. It’s not sufficient to merely “reach” black gay men, we must invest, we must build, we must inspire.



CNP Statement on National Gay Men’s HIV Awareness Day

This was a statement we posted last year. We decided to repost because its still very relevant and timely, especially for black gay men in the South. 

Contact: Charles

“Our History Is Each Other. That Is Our Only Guide.”
-James Baldwin

September 27, 2014, Atlanta, GA – On this National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Counter Narrative Project recognizes the fierce determination and brilliance of black gay men. We also lift up the amazing history of black gay men involved in various forms of HIV/AIDS activism, an activism often informed by art and culture. Today, we are calling for an unprecedented and completely new investment in black gay men’s art and culture to address HIV issues, drawing upon, building upon, leveraging and harnessing the legacy of black gay men’s history and activism. Our greatest weapon and our greatest tool is our imagination, which can be enriched by an intentional engagement with black gay men’s cultural production.

We are calling for a consideration, particularly by our colleagues in government agencies, of the arts and culture as an innovative strategy to engage black gay men, strengthen community engagement efforts, combat stigma and foster dialogue. We envision the arts and culture as an access point to and key element of resilience, an essential element to how we as black gay men have grappled with collective trauma, function as building blocks of community connectedness, decrease social isolation, and move historical community knowledges to the forefronts of HIV/AIDS prevention and care efforts. Art can also be a means of innovative dissemination for research findings, building critical bridges between researchers and communities.

Linking black gay men to culture is linking black gay men to care: By linking black gay men to care, we must also imagine that to include linking them to culture, linking them to a history, and linking them to community. Additionally, linking black gay men to prevention also means linking them to culture, linking them to history, and linking them to community. If an organization wants to reach black gay men: host a film series, offer a writing workshop, launch a storytelling series, curate an art exhibit, found a conversation series, institutionalize community activist memory. Innovative community engagement builds trust between service providers and community members.

Organizations must be willing to know and imagine black gay men beyond HIV. Black gay men are not merely the sum total of a series of horrible health outcomes. Black gay men are not merely a risk group, representative of the pervasive MSM category, but a people, with a history and a culture, a rich legacy of activism that has meant both our survival and secured our future.

Statistics may reflect, but they never reveal. Statistics are a reflection of the past, but are not our future. The data is not our destiny. To get beneath all of that, means to ultimately design and implement effective community engagement, which consists of social, historical, and cultural context. We insist that even as we continually advance a clinical approach and heightened medical response to engaging black gay men, that such efforts are coupled with a cultural approach. Even our most rigorous and well-intentioned clinical interventions will fail, if they are not reinforced with and by cultural intervention.

Cultural Competence means Cultural Literacy: Cultural Competence means possessing a knowledge of the history and culture of the community you are serving. It is impossible to effectively work with black gay men, to serve black gay men, and not be aware of the history of black gay men’s cultural production and HIV/AIDS activism. This would include artists/activists such as: Sylvester, Joseph BeamMarlon RiggsEssex HemphillTony Daniels, Craig Harris, and Donald Woods. Agencies must also be invested in the development of black gay men, not just reaching “hard to reach” populations. This would build significant trust between community members and community organizations, and provide a way of practicing and demonstrating cultural competence.

Strategic partnerships between public health and the arts: Our current challenges call for innovative solutions, which can be met through strategic partnerships. The role of artists and public health officials, the role of government agencies focused on health and agencies and organizations focused on the arts, should be reimagined to include multidisciplinary collaborations. Government agencies in particular are uniquely positioned to use their convening powers and pool resources to bring diverse voices together in the spirit of collaboration.

Art facilitates critical conversations and combats stigma: We applaud efforts to encourage black gay men to talk about HIV with each other. Even as we applaud those efforts we believe that it would be useful to also use art as a way to encourage conversation. Films like Marlon Riggs’ Black Is, Black Ain’t, the poetry of Essex Hemphill, particularly “Now We Think” and “Vital Signs,” and in our contemporary landscape writers like Marvin White, G. Winston James, Tarell Alvin McCraney and anthologies like War Diaries and Think Again, the work of ADODI Muse: A Gay Negro Ensemble, especially their piece “It Begins,” should be brought into these conversations.  These works present complex narratives of black gay men, that rips down the curtain of silence surrounding HIV, and provides models of black gay men speaking out. There are also a number of video bloggers, writers, social media activists, performance artists, poets, storytellers, filmmakers, and other artists, working today, that should also be engaged as thought-partners in developing cultural interventions that engage black gay men as consumers and producers of art and culture.

Where there is survival there is agency, and where there is agency there are strong communities, made stronger by a sustained culture.  We recognize the power of creativity to not only transform lives, but to save black gay men’s lives. We encourage, we hope, we know, that government agencies can muster the courage and leadership to advance HIV prevention and treatment efforts by enhancing strategic incorporation of arts and culture in their efforts.

CNP Network Call at 7pm EST

Our Counter Narrative Network Call is this Evening at 7pm EST

On the call we will be discussing the following:
– Best practices for coordinating a letter writing event in your city for Michael Johnson
– The “Embrace” project, an exciting campaign that seeks to “counter” the visual narrative of black gay male images
– Innovative ways to engage Poz black gay and bisexual men/highlighting the “Undetectables”group
-“Letter to a Young Organizer” statement planning for National Gay Men’s HIV Awareness Day 
-The “Love and Justice” HIV criminalization conversation at Black Pride Atlanta this year
Please find call info below: 

Dial-In Number: (712) 775-7031

Meeting ID: 242-816-477

Organizational Sign-on Statement in Response to Michael Johnson Sentencing

Joint Statement on the Sentencing of Michael L. Johnson                                                                                                                    

Counter Narrative Project/Positive Women’s Network (PWN-USA)/HIV Prevention Justice Alliance/ National Center for Lesbian Rights

On Monday July 13, 2015, Michael L. Johnson was sentenced to 30½ years in prison (a concurrent sentence) after being convicted of “recklessly infecting a partner with HIV” and “recklessly exposing partners to the virus.” We are outraged by this sentencing and Johnson’s incarceration. This represents a failure of the justice system and a blatant manifestation of structural violence in the lives of Black gay men.

The State of Missouri was able to convict Michael Johnson without having to prove that he had any intent to infect his sexual partners nor demonstrate that he was in fact the person who transmitted HIV to his sexual partners. We are outraged by the criminalization, arrests and imprisonment of those prosecuted under HIV criminalization laws. We will continue to fight for Michael, to repeal HIV criminalization laws, to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex, and to end the stigma and violence perpetrated upon people living with HIV by these laws. With this mission in mind, we are calling for the following:

The Right for People Living with HIV to choose if, when, and how they disclose

HIV disclosure is not safe under every circumstance. People with HIV may face risks ranging from loss of employment to personal humiliation, custody battles, and violence resulting from disclosure. In addition, the burden of proving disclosure rests on the person living with HIV, not her/his partner. While we are committed to helping create a world where disclosure of HIV status is safe, we reject the notion that disclosure of HIV status should be coerced by the State. Laws criminalizing alleged non-disclosure do not make it easier to disclose, and do not protect people from acquiring HIV.

An HIV prevention policy that relies on disclosure of HIV status fails to account for the fact that data shows a person is more likely to contract HIV from a sexual partner who is unaware of their HIV positive status and that effective care and treatment for people living with HIV reduces the likelihood of transmission to almost zero. The best approach for those who are HIV-negative or of unknown HIV status is to practice self-efficacy and care – an approach which could include prevention strategies such as: (1) Learning how HIV and other STDs are transmitted and effective ways to prevent contracting the virus (2) Taking PrEP (3) Using condoms (4) Getting tested with partners for HIV and other STDs (5) Engaging in lower risk sexual activities (6) Identifying support and resources to leave unhealthy relationships that don’t support protecting oneself (7) Confronting insecurities that lead oneself to seek validation by engaging in higher risk sexual behavior.

Today, HIV is no longer a near certain death sentence. With timely diagnosis and proper treatment HIV has become a manageable chronic disease similar to diabetes. People living with HIV can and are living long, healthy, and wonderful lives. And yet, the stigma remains. The truth is that criminalization of HIV is not really about our fear of HIV itself but the stigma that is attached to it. Those of us who are not living with HIV fear that if we contract HIV that we will suffer a lifetime of discrimination and rejection. Given this fear, those of us who are HIV negative should understand why someone who is living with HIV would not disclose her or his HIV status. Therefore, the real target is HIV stigma, including institutionalized stigma which manifests in laws and policies such as HIV criminalization.

Advocacy Against HIV Criminalization is Advocacy Against Mass Incarceration

HIV is a human rights issue, and criminalization of people living with HIV is a social justice issue. Resisting the Prison Industrial Complex means understanding how inequities in the HIV epidemic and sentencing disparities within the criminal justice system interface with laws that criminalize people with HIV. HIV criminalization laws serve as a means of expanding the categories of people subject to imprisonment, by virtue of an immutable characteristic-positive HIV status. In effect, this creates a biological underclass. HIV criminalization does not provide solutions nor will throwing people into prison lower HIV acquisition rates.

HIV criminalization is another manifestation of a broader agenda which has attempted to control the bodies, the sexuality, and the desires of queer and trans people and cisgender women, especially those who are low income and/or from communities of color. This is the same agenda that plays out in attempts to control women’s access to abortion and contraception and reproductive decisions. This not only includes denying low income women abortion services through Medicaid but the criminalizing of pregnant women who are drug users. The sexual and reproductive rights of communities of color, LGBTQ folks, and women has been policed and criminalized throughout the history of this country. Policies based on restricting our body autonomy, stirring up homo- and transphobia, and spreading HIV-related fears have never been and will never be just or sound public policy.

Alternatives to Criminalization: Towards Restorative Justice and Healing

We acknowledge the HIV epidemic has caused immense pain to many in our communities. As a society, we must be intentional about supporting and providing healing for those who have been affected by HIV. We firmly believe that HIV criminalization does not serve to meet these ends. Prisons will not save us. Criminalization is never a solution. Instead, we call for a wholistic approach based on restorative justice principles. Rather than resorting to criminalizing sexuality of people living with HIV, we should treat HIV as an issue of public health, individual health, and human rights and dignity. We must ensure that everyone who is living with HIV (and those who are not) have access to quality and affordable healthcare. As stated above, data shows that suppressing the viral load of a person living with HIV through effective care and treatment reduces the chances of HIV transmission to zero, even if condoms are not used. If states like Missouri are seriously concerned about reducing HIV transmission, they would do better to focus their resources on ensuring their residents living with HIV have access to high-quality, nonstigmatizing, trauma-informed, affordable healthcare. Instead they perpetuate a political agenda that cuts lives short and violates human rights, especially for people of color and those living in poverty, by refusing to expand Medicaid.

Even more importantly than individual actions, we must push for societal changes to the norms and stereotypes that inhibit sexual autonomy and encourage higher risk behaviors. We must advocate for sex education that challenges dominant paradigms around gender norms and heteronormativity. Thus, comprehensive sex education rooted in modern medical science, sex positivity, and harm reduction, and inclusive of all sexualities and genders is crucial. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We must address systemic discrimination that places people at risk for housing, food and employment insecurity. We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

We should demand media accountability on pathologized portrayals of Black, brown, and queer bodies and sexuality.

Demanding accountability

HIV criminalization laws are intricately tied to histories of racism, sexism, and homophobia. These forces in the present continue to enact injustice and perpetuate these laws. For this reason, we call for greater engagement of LGBT and racial justice organizations and leaders in HIV decriminalization advocacy. We know various local, state, and national organizations and individuals have already stepped up to the plate, but more boots on the ground are needed to fight back against these laws. LGBT and racial justice organizations must take more leadership around this issue by resourcing advocacy, defense litigation, attempts to repeal these laws at the state level, and drawing attention to HIV criminalization as a practice grounded in homophobia, racism, and sexual and reproductive oppression.

We are heartbroken at what has happened to Michael Johnson, but we are no less determined to fight for him, fight for his freedom, and the freedom of all our brothers and sisters incarcerated under HIV criminalization laws. We are also equally committed to standing in solidarity with all movements committed to ending oppression from the dominant culture of policing and criminalizing vulnerable communities. Together we become more powerful. We must resist. We will resist. We resist.

Black is not a crime.

LGBTQ is not a crime.

HIV is not a crime


Charles Stephens

Executive Director

Counter Narrative Project

Naina Khanna

Executive Director

Positive Women’s Network – USA

Suraj Madoori


HIV Prevention Justice Alliance

Tyrone Hanley

Policy Counsel

National Center for Lesbian Rights

To sign your organization on to this statement, click this link 

Counter Narrative Strategy Call (Wednesday 7pm EST)

We are relaunching our Counter Narrative Strategy Call. The
call is scheduled for Wednesday June 17th at 7pm  EST

Register here:

Once you register, I will send you the call info. Please register by
tomorrow 5pm EST.

The goal of this call is to start planning our July 2015 programming

*On the call we will discuss the following:*
1) Updates around Michael Johnson’s case
2) Our July programming
3) Discussion around our collective memory/movement history work
4) Share information about opportunities to get more involved in Counter
5) Chat about other issues happening throughout the political landscape.