At the 2012 International AIDS Conference last July, Black AIDS Institute executive director Phill Wilson delivered a passionate address spiked with a special charge to HIV-positive people. "Everyone living with AIDS must come out," proclaimed the veteran activist, who is openly HIV-positive and openly gay. Phill went on to assert that coming out saves lives, including that of the discloser, by challenging stigma, which limits the provision and demand for testing and treatment. Stigma is arguably the most critical driver of new HIV infections, failures in linkage to care and viral suppression, and deficits of resources and community action. It is generated and entrenched by our fears and hostilities regarding HIV-positive people, and the fear-based silence of HIV-positive people.
Like Phill, I am convinced that stigma cannot be dislodged unless more HIV-positive people come out of our viral closets and break down the barricades of fear and silence. It is no secret that black gay men bear the highest HIV burden in the U.S. and across the diaspora. Our condition demands that we unleash the radical, the "unreasonable." We require a leadership emboldened and reactivated, one that can mobilize HIV-positive black gay men to come out willingly, based on personal cost-benefit-readiness analysis. The change must begin not with our detractors or our barriers but with us. We black gay men who are HIV-positive and serve as outreach workers, activists, STI/HIV testers, counselors, and researchers must now serve as change catalysts. It is high time that many more of us come out as HIV-positive or as having AIDS. We who encourage communities to demonstrate courage must model it in our own right. We know as much as anyone what consequences may meet us, and this contemplation keeps us in our place, like the communities we serve. But we are the ones the rest of us are waiting for. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
Since the onset of this storied plague, the most effective advocacy and meaningful advances have been spearheaded by openly HIV-positive individuals. Many of the early AIDS activists used their status and their stories to topple the bigotry and ignorance of their time. From Bobbi Campbell, the Kaposi sarcoma poster boy, through Rock Hudson, the stricken screen legend, to American icon Magic Johnson, the disclosure of public figures has forced tectonic shifts in how we think and act regarding AIDS. However, the long-haul advances of AIDS activism were mostly won though years of personal and public battles fought by countless unheralded individuals and a handful of acknowledged heroes. It is they who reframed our perception of people living with AIDS, redefined the patient-provider relationship, originated safer sex education, and revolutionized treatment and research advocacy.
Despite their omission from black and queer histories, several of them were black gay men, such as Assoto Saint and Craig G. Harris. None was more influential than Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs. Their work articulated black gay men's realities, including the pulverizing impact of AIDS. With his last film, Black Is Black Ain't, Riggs incorporates AIDS-related illness and dying, his own, into this elegiac exploration of black identity that troubled presumptions of black authenticity. He offers us the ultimate exposure, bringing the camera to his own deathbed, talking to us about the struggle to stay alive, just days away from his last breath. Craig G. Harris, an eloquent community educator whose writing dealt head-on with AIDS, was openly HIV-positive. And when his wearied body bore unmistakable signs, he continued to report to work at Gay Men's Health Crisis, carrying neither shame nor secrecy. Men like Assoto, Craig and Marlon were out as HIV-positive before the cocktail, before Magic, before rock-climbing ads or AIDS-chic, during an era of widespread ignorance and unabashed bigotry. Their fear was not important enough to stay their hand from baring their lives in the service of liberation. This ravaged and resilient tribe left us a legacy of bravery, integrity, selflessness and fierce work. How does this incredible history inspire us to respond as HIV-positive black gay men to the critical state of our communities today?
The epidemic we once called a plague or holocaust looks much different now, including the literal appearances, marketed images, and life expectancies of HIV-positive people. Undeniable advances in treatment, research, advocacy and key prevention efforts, such as testing, have mercifully changed the course of AIDS. Yet ongoing disparities in prevalence, infection and co-infection rates; failures in linkage and retention to care and viral load suppression; and the effects of poverty, homelessness, and stigma still plague black gay men like none other. Stigma kills us not only by motivating the inertia and incompetence of public health institutions, or the hostilities and silences of our families, but by eroding our belief in our own worth, as well as our efficacy, and peeling away the protective coating of would-be self-loving communities and reducing them to apolitical social and sexual networks with far too little collective movement and no shortage of recreational distractions. Black gay men regarded as femme, fat, round-bodied, old (over 40) and sick (HIV-positive) need venture no further than our own "safe" spaces (social media, sex parties, HIV-prevention palm cards) to encounter blistering shade and exclusion. While there are noteworthy examples of friendship circles, Facebook groups, houses (ball community), organizations, affirming churches and events that affirm us, there are not enough of them, and their reach is limited. National behavioral interventions and social marketing campaigns for black gay men focus on getting us to change our individual behaviors, not how we see, think or feel about ourselves and each other.
Our times require a bold and canny cross-generational leadership, an involvement that is not performed for status and accolades or the steady pay of a stable AIDS agency but is innate and willing to be cultivated. We need to become or enlist more men who are willing to relinquish familiar approaches, give up certain reins and take on new ones, to act responsibly and not blame another generation (younger or older) for our own ineffectiveness. How does the aforementioned legacy of HIV-positive black gay men "rising to the love we all need" compel us to respond to the critical state of our lives and our communities today?