07/02/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Our Culture Is Our Survival

It's not that black gay men don't care about HIV. We do. Trust me on this. A lot of us are just more committed to dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex, or working against issues like severe unemployment, housing insecurity, economic justice, and gentrification, than working singularly around HIV/AIDS issues.

Being a black gay man, like being a part of any community under attack, means having to fight in more than one arena to save your life. That's just the way it is. This also signals a historic shift in both our collective consciousness and sense of shared struggle.

My long held suspicion has been that for a certain kind of progressive activist, and not just black gay men, they might not always recognize HIV as a "serious" social justice issue. That's partly our fault. HIV/AIDS advocates are notorious for articulating complex policy ideas and demonstrating an almost freakishly fluent command of data, but not always as successful at speaking to the hearts and minds of black gay men. It's hard to do that with PowerPoint. Data, not unlike theory, is important as a means to prove, and maybe even convince, but it does not always clarify. And though there is perhaps an appreciation for intersectionality, and some recognition of what it means, in many HIV advocacy realms, its not always fully integrated into the work. Its not easy.

To bring intersectionality into our work more, we would have to grapple with identity and we would have to grapple with culture. Additionally, we would have to admit that for a lot of black gay men, HIV is no longer central to their political landscape. This is the moment we are in now.

This is also part of what inspired the statement that The Counter Narrative Project put out on National HIV Testing Day:

We wanted to point to the ways that cultural production can be a tool to engage black gay men around HIV, and also a strategy toward movement building. A way to reframe HIV to more accurately reflect our contemporary concerns and priorities. Cultural production, particularly rooted in storytelling, can also help relocate HIV, where its still a critical issue we are engaged in, but a recognition that it exists alongside many other issues. We of course want to construct bridges across issues, not erect electric fences. We want to clarify, not to make a case, but to connect to the truth of our experiences.

Black gay men have far too often been reduced in the context of HIV as either a number for a grant deliverable or data to be collected. We all know it. Because we are seen as a walking set of risk behaviors, we have been disconnected from our culture, and clinical recruitment has replaced community building. Anyone working with black gay men should know, that we have a community behind us, we have a history and a culture.

So in the midst of such grand scientific revolutions, particularly in the biomedical HIV prevention realm, we are also insisting upon a cultural revolution. If we are to accept an HIV landscape that no longer believes as fully in the effectiveness of group and community level behavioral interventions, we insist upon the development of spaces and institutions that can continue to mobilize our communities, hold our stories, provide culturally relevant programming, and offer an entry point, a door, a passageway, for young black gay men seeking community. We also insist upon resources that can advance the proliferation of more leaders (and not just middle-managers at large social service agencies), more cultural production, and more institutions.

In the days following National HIV Testing Day where many of us made grand pledges to rid our communities from HIV once and for all, we must look to culture. I also hope, for anyone working with black gay men, including black gay men themselves, that we seek out to learn how we got to where we are now. We have to go back as far as slavery: Jan Creoli in New Netherland in the 17th Century. We have to go back through the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement, up through James Baldwin, and the 1970s and the beginnings of formal black LGBT organizing. We have to understand not only history as heroes and holidays, but the history of the present, the forces that brought us to where we are now. This is as much the work of memory, as it is history.