Counter Narrative Project Statement on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Charles Stephens-charlesfstephens@gmail.com

“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 Beam, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Tony 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.

The Counter Narrative Project Statement on National HIV Testing Day

“If we believe our lives are priceless, we cannot be conquered”

– Essex Hemphill

 On this National HIV Testing Day, we, the members of The Counter Narrative Project, affirm the strength, courage, resilience, and power that black gay men demonstrate everyday. We support the goals of this national day of action and are invested in it’s outcomes. We also see this day as an opportunity to set forth a new approach in HIV prevention efforts, specifically an approach embedding cultural interventions that promote organic, collective responses into outreach initiatives for black gay men.The Counter Narrative Project is committed to realizing this vision. We seek to disrupt the dominant and oppressive narratives surrounding black gay men through media engagement, technical assistance, advocacy, storytelling, and collective memory.

 New Directions in Engaging Black Gay Men

We believe that the use of culture and cultural production – such as film, storytelling, oral history, poetry, fiction, dance, and other forms of expression – must be incorporated as indispensable components of HIV prevention efforts, including HIV testing strategies. We must be bold and innovative, if we are going to truly inspire resilience and impact the lives of black gay men. We must post Audre Lorde poems on the walls of HIV testing offices, organize film screenings on National HIV Testing Day including such works as Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston, curate art exhibits with community members grappling with what it means to be black and gay in the tradition of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, take groups of young black gay men to see Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play Choir Boy, or even host writing workshops in the tradition of Black Ink and Other Countries.

We recognize the power of our words and images, they provide us with important tools, to inspire dialogue, promote civic engagement, and facilitate social change. The work of artists such as James Baldwin, Joseph Beam, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Essex Hemphill, Donald Woods, and Craig Harris, embedded in our collective memories, are a part of this tradition. Black gay men are not outside of a community, a culture, and a history, and we insist that we imprint our culture into the HIV prevention conversation. Never has this need been more urgent.

 Testing Makes Us Stronger. Testing Makes Us Vulnerable   

HIV testing is a dialogue and opportunity that extends beyond the moment of the test. We seek to rethink what HIV testing means for us now, to imagine the various meanings we ascribe and inscribe to HIV testing, and to create a different conversation around the test.  This includes how we think about and position black gay men that are reluctant to get tested, a choice that could also suggest a resistance to entering the HIV medical surveillance system.

“your penis, your vagina, your testicles, your womb, your anus, your orgasm, these belong to the State.” – Essex Hemphill

 Prevention strategies must first and foremost be rooted in human dignity, respect for persons, and our right to sovereign and autonomous control over our own bodies. We caution against strategies that pressure, coerce, or force men to test. Testing also makes us vulnerable.Standing in that vulnerability is an act of faith and courage that commands respect.

 A Call to Action for Black Gay Men

Today we call on black gay men to tell their stories about the many tests they have experienced, endured, survived, and prevailed. We call on black gay men to speak their truths, share their experiences, and name their desires. We call on black gay men to reclaim their voices in HIV testing, and draw upon our rich culture and history to facilitate that process. The use of culture not only teaches and inspires, it reminds us of the all-too-unheralded power of black gay men today.

“We take care of our own kind when the night grows cold and silent. These days the nights are cold-blooded and the silence echoes with complicity.”– Joseph Beam

Contact:

Charles Stephens

charlesfstephens@gmail.com

 

Find us online:

twitter/ @buildingdesire

facebook/ facebook.com/thecounternarrative

tumblr/counternarrative.tumblr.com

thecounternarrative.org

 

Solutions Panel: Bridging Research, Policy, & Practice/Black Gay Men (2008)

Over 5 years ago, back in 2008 actually, I had the opportunity to convene a panel discussion on bridging policy, research, and practice in the issues impacting black gay men. I called the panel “Solutions,” because true to my nature, I wanted the discussion to be solution driven. We held the panel at the Atlanta Central Library. Below are the transcripts from that discussion. Special thanks to Louis Graham for transcribing this discussion. I am so inspired by the brilliant insights that my colleagues offered in their remarks. This event was truly historic. Not surprising many of the discussion points are still relevant today: 

Solutions Panel: Bridging Research, Policy, & Practice in HIV Prevention Work

September 13, 2008

Moderator: Charles F Stephens

Panelists: Louis F Graham, Craig Washington, John Peterson, Jeff Graham

In the early years black gay men gathered in living rooms, community centers, basements of churches, among friends, and across lines of difference. These gathering places were where information was shared, stories were told, secrets were confided, support given, and bickering and healing occurred. These were the places that mark the beginnings of this community’s HIV prevention work. As we turn the page and write new chapters of our history, weave new narratives and develop more sound strategies, it is important that we learn from our past, halt the silences, and fill the gaps that might exist. And certainly, there quite simply is not a gap as stunning as the one existing between researchers, policy advocates, and practitioners of HIV prevention for black gay men.

HIV contraction rates are unacceptably high among black gay men in the United States. In 2006, among MSM with new infections, 35% were black; and among blacks with new infections, 63% were MSM[1]. Twenty-seven percent of new infections occurred in black or Latino MSM[2]. Nationally, according to the CDC, new infections among black MSM increased 12% from 2001 to 2006[3].

It has been nearly three decades since the first officially confirmed case of AIDS and there is still a paucity of research on those most affected by the pandemic. Nonetheless, current research suggests that a significant contributing factor to high rates of HIV infection among black MSM is undetected or late diagnosis. Black MSM are both less likely to be tested for HIV and to know their HIV status, and as a result may unknowingly expose their sexual partners[4]. Men who are unaware of their HIV infection are more likely to engage in behaviors that may put their HIV-negative partners at risk than are men who are aware of their positive status[5].

Additionally, less explored but suggestive, are studies which indicate that intra-community homophobia and heterosexism play an essential role in identity development (i.e. internalized attitudes and beliefs concerning homosexual behavior, etc.) and ultimately HIV transmission[6]. Many studies also estimate a relatively moderate to low rate of consistent condom use among black MSM. In one study, black MSM who reported not carrying condoms regularly and who reported non-supportive peer norms for condom use were more likely to engage in unprotected receptive anal intercourse[7]. The rise in HIV among gay men, and especially black gay men, must be seen in the broader context of declining sexual health and bold new policies, research, and service provision will be needed to eradicate HIV infection.

The SOLUTIONS panel was convened on September 13, 2008 at the downtown Central Branch of the Atlanta Fulton Public Library to explore and offer remedies for the gaps between researchers, policy advocates, and practitioners working with and on behalf of black gay men. We agreed to name the panel SOLUTIONS, to highlight the importance of moving beyond just describing the problems that exist, but developing resolute strategies. The panelists included: Louis F Graham, doctoral student in public health at the University of North Carolina Greensboro; Dr. John Peterson, Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University, and one of the fathers of HIV prevention research on black gay men; Jeff Graham, Executive Director of Georgia Equality, and a policy advocate with years of experience and countless successes; Craig Washington, Prevention Program Manager at AID Atlanta and community activist. Charles Stephens, Program Coordinator for the black gay men’s program Deeper Love, was the moderator. This event captured the need and the urgency of finding new and innovative ways to bridge our work and collaborate across disciplines and methodologies.

Common themes running across the panelists’ comments in the proceedings below include: a much needed focus on more expansive, comprehensive, and innovative HIV testing strategies; community leadership development that centers on experience, formal training, and commitment; and significantly increased policy advocacy efforts at all levels of government and community institutions. Louis Graham provided commentary on the usefulness of employing a socioecological approach to HIV prevention and suggested as a starting place to immediately implement over-the-counter home-based and routine opt-out HIV testing; expand research topic priorities to include psychosocial health factors, sexual shame and embarrassment issues, among others; and to begin increasing utilization of advanced and innovative qualitative methodologies which can shed light on more complex social and cultural phenomena that are likely playing a major role in HIV transmission. Jeff Graham spoke briefly on the pressing need for black gay communities to find their own voice and work in unison with other communities to rally and compel legislative bodies, federal departments and agencies, and local governing offices and entities to reprioritize HIV prevention; as well as to work outside of government through alternate means. Craig Washington’s remarks focused on casting the problem of HIV as a human rights and social justice issue that primarily affects poor, marginalized, and oppressed communities with structural challenges (i.e. housing); and the need for injecting a tangible love into prevention efforts that highlights intersectionality and cautions against denigrating and stripping black gay men of their sexual agency and freedom. John Peterson offered a historical perspective of research on black gay men and articulated the need for more black gay research by black gay researchers. The transcribed discussion that follows is an excerpt of the SOLUTIONS panel and has been edited for clarity.

Charles Stephens: Welcome to Solutions. I am Charles Stephens, and I am moderating this event. …each panelist will for 10 minutes talk about solution-centric approaches to HIV prevention in black gay men.

(more…)

Hugging Ministry

Image

By: Steven G. Fullwood

The idea for a hugging ministry is rooted in three beliefs:

People need to and should be hugged.

People need to be reassured physically that humanity isn’t completely bonkers. Hugs remind you of the beauty of the world. You feel less alone.  

There’s no join my group because it’s just a hug, not a religion or Scientology. Hugs both benefit the hugger and the huggie.

The idea came to me a few years ago in a serious, yet humorous way. It was combination of things but two things stand out. One involves black SGL/gay/Bi/Trans men. No matter where I go in the US or abroad, I meet, talk and break bread men who seem to be dying from a lack of touch. I’m not bullshitting. Put another way, we are dying to be touched. It’s partially the cultural moment, a cocktail of schizophrenic social media isolation, combined with ageism and body fascism making us all a little insane. The profound loneliness plaguing many men I know and love has expressed this, and often. Being a 20th Century homo can make you crazier than you already are, this lack of affirmative touch.

(more…)