A Seat at the Table: How Empowering Young, Black, Gay Men to Lead Can Address Spikes in HIV

The most recent statistics indicate that an entire generation is being impacted by HIV on an epic scale. HIV cases among young, black, gay and bisexual men increased by an estimated 48 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ultimately, it is impossible to discuss HIV/AIDS in the black community without addressing the importance of tolerance. It is up to us -- relatives, co-workers and friends -- to engage our black, gay brothers in a conversation that is constructive and rooted in concern, one that turns to them for insight instead of turning them away.

There have been significant political and medical advances made in HIV/AIDS prevention. The National AIDS Strategy, a key achievement of Barack Obama's presidency, is a prime example. By focusing with laser precision on at-risk groups and prioritizing addressing disparities in HIV, there will be historic gains. On the scientific front, advances in biomedical HIV-prevention tools, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, have given us signs of hope even as we take a collective gasp at the work ahead of us. However, HIV has never been merely a public health issue but a social one, as well. It is an issue that impacts us not only abstractly but also in a very real and tangible way.

The black community as a whole has made substantial progress, more than is credited, in terms of embracing our diversity. Many unsung heroes and heroines have taken great strides in challenging anti-gay attitudes. Straight allies have also spoken out unapologetically in support of their gay brethren. However, there is still work to do, and HIV/AIDS makes building bridges across orientations even more critical. The black community has just as much of an incentive to be a part of the solution: the "win" is the lives of our people, the lives of young, black, gay men. These men are valued; their lives are priceless. They are assets to our communities.

We can't solve what is perhaps the greatest obstacle facing the gay Millennial generation without having young, black, gay men not only assist in the efforts but also lead them. And they can't lead if they aren't at the table. Historically, we can look to many examples of young people playing a critical role in social movements. However, all too often, perceptions about youth, no matter what background, might limit our ability to see them as leaders. Additionally, anti-gay sentiments create an environment that can hinder the willingness of some young, black, gay men to speak out and take charge.

The stress and strain of having to challenge negative attitudes might zap energies that can be better channeled in grappling with HIV/AIDS. Black communities must train, support, and sustain young, black, gay men to play central and critical roles in HIV/AIDS prevention. We have to inspire their leadership and make civic engagement appealing to them. Finally, we have to create healthy organizations that develop their leadership within. Organizations cannot afford to be poisoned with intolerance; it's divisive and counterproductive.

The challenge before us, in light of the dizzying statistics regarding HIV/AIDS and young, black, gay men, is one of ownership. Black communities (and not just black, gay communities) have to own this and make engaging young, black, gay men a priority. We must expand how we imagine leadership. Our picture of young, black, gay men cannot be framed only in problems and statistics. We have to search for the things that are working in their communities. We have to ask how some young, black, gay men are remaining safe -- and empower these same men to answer.