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.  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 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.