I WILL BE HEARD: Countering the Narrative of 1 in 2 #IWillBeHeard

Craig Harris

Craig Harris

The landscape ahead for our movement can be reduced to a single key moment in 2016: the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). There, the Director of CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP) Eugene McCray took to the mic at the plenary to present new analyses on the lifetime risk of acquiring HIV:

Half of black gay men are projected to be diagnosed within their lifetime... if current HIV diagnoses rates persist, about 1-in-2 black men who have sex with men (MSM) in the United States will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime...

Billed as the "first-ever comprehensive national estimates of the lifetime risk of an HIV diagnosis for several key populations at risk and in every state," the hypocrisy of the announcement is that it fails to be comprehensive on multiple levels for Black gay men. The public health response has been anything but comprehensive: more resources for testing and treatment, increase access to PrEP, particularly in the South. A stagnant strategy that has been implemented by CDC's High-Impact Prevention program since 2010, despite continued elevated trend of HIV among our community.

Yet the more striking narrative is the reduction of Black gay men to a number that fails to capture the comprehensive social factors that impact our lives. We must understand that the landscape for Black gay men is far more complex: we must address the social, racial, economic injustices and state-sanctioned violence in the form of criminalization and homophobia that makes every 1-in-2 of our brothers vulnerable to HIV. Ultimately, this data:

  • Fails to capture the collective trauma that Black gay men have endured since the 1980s.
  • Fails to empathize, empower and embolden a community that continues to be oppressed under the weight of injustice and structural failures.
  • Fails to imagine our possibilities.
  • Fails to capture the stories and history of those Black gay men who are unheard, those who have overcome, those who resist and risen.

If this is the narrative weaved using this data by a system that seemingly seeks to both help and encage us - we must ask critical questions at this point to counter the narrative and direction of the HIV/AIDS response into 2017 and beyond:

  • How do we as a community respond to 1-in-2 data nationally?
  • Do we allow the very same institutions that reduces us to numbers to continue a formulaic response?
  • How to do we shift the dominant paradigm from testing, treating, prevention to one that also addresses structural issues?

The answer lays in all of us. If "Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act...," here in 2016 we must be revolutionary in our own collective response to the HIV crisis among Black gay men, when the system itself has failed to be revolutionary for our community.  We must embrace that it is in our very identity and culture as Black gay men who love each other to be revolutionary. And in our response it is urgent that we must:

  • Commit to achieving justice and revolutionary acts of love for Black gay men and all vulnerable communities impacted by the epidemic.
  • Liberate our community from the structural forces associated with health disparities:  ending systems of mass incarceration, inaccessible systems of health care, counter forces such as personal and collective trauma, depression and loneliness, the lack of investment in leadership and community development, and the devastating impact of stigma on our communities.
  • Be revolutionaries in sharing stories of our own realities, truths, stories and narratives. Storytelling alone is a revolutionary tactic to achieving social and political change.
  • Counter the current narrative with one that has the power to shift, deepen, strengthen and revolutionize the HIV/AIDS response.

While we are committed to threading our individual narratives together to build power, mobilize our community and strengthening our political autonomy -  as a movement we must recognize that the hope of achieving social justice inevitably converges our narrative with other powerful movements rising in this tumultuous social and political dynamic. Rising movements against anti-black violence, police brutality, and criminalization of Black bodies represents a unique opportunity to work in coalition and insert our narrative into other movements as well. To that end, we must remain committed to working in coalition with other allied movements as a strategy of building collective power and achieving liberation from social injustices that make us vulnerable.

Through simple acts of everyday activism, storytelling, political engagement and resistance, we can insert the realities of Black gay men to reform policy, end social injustices and change the landscape of the HIV/AIDS response to one that centralizes our holistic struggles and narratives. It is the time that our history becomes the data. That we as Black gay men embrace our collective culture, be insurgents for our narrative and act as revolutionaries to resist, rise and be heard.