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.
As boldly as many of us have stepped in the past, we must face today's fearful meridian, the crossing we avoid until the tomorrow, which never comes when we are ready, what Audre Lorde called a "luxury of fearlessness." As I write this I consider how I hold myself accountable. I am rarely challenged, because my engagement is so public, yet I rarely spend time having intimate conversations with HIV-positive men. It has been years since I have opened my home and had intentional conversations with others like me. I cannot remember the last time I opened my heart and dared speak of what terrifies me about this stage of life. I need to risk getting closer, more intimate, if I am serious about supporting other black gay men and asking them to support me, regardless of sexual or romantic interests. There are lines and canyons I still have to cross. Each of us must determine that crossing for ourselves. It lies at the intersection of our deepest fears and the deeds we are called to risk doing.
Many of us who are openly gay and regarded as models and leaders are not fully out about our HIV status. There are HIV-positive gay men who will speak at outdoor Black Gay Pride events, give guidance to their gay "children," facilitate 3MV sessions, conduct outreach and testing, bring their partner to the family reunion, and remain in the viral closet. This is a jagged dissonance, a contradiction rarely addressed at conferences, summits, and other spaces where community figures convene. How do we reconcile the explicit messages we present to black gay men countering homophobia and HIV stigma with the messages we imply through our HIV closets? Where is the integrity in challenging gay men to relinquish their imbedded shame as we demonstrate and justify our own? How could we admit that our local communities already suspect, if not know, our tea, yet refuse to speak to it and shatter the silence? Our secrecy cheapens the value and dilutes the potency of our words. The good work we do loses credibility and thus its effectiveness.
Being HIV-positive should never be conflated with being gay, no more than gay should be regarded as "the new black." However there is one principle that applies to all stigmatized identities. Silence feeds stigma. We can no longer allow silence to persist or perpetuate it ourselves. Some of us work for AIDS service organizations or other supportive employers and would not risk losing our jobs, insurance coverage, or workplace status. Others may work in less-friendly or even hostile settings where, despite protection afforded by the Americans with Disabilities Act, one could still be fired, demoted, or subject to scorn and isolation. I suspect that many are most concerned with the social and sexual rejection that comes with outing the unspoken yet presumed reality. We are the many men we work with. We want to avoid the personal stain associated with being both out and HIV-positive. But like any cutting-edge fashion, the scarlet letter loses its sting when more people wear it. No matter what real or perceived risk we anticipate, HIV-positive black gay leaders must honestly assess the threats we associate with disclosure and come to terms with our fears and the courage our work demands. Many of us are trained to help people assess risk and come up with goals and action plans based on that assessment. It is high time that some of us apply those skills to navigate "the road before us."
We cannot afford a luxury of fearlessness, nor the presumed right to operate like the majority of black gay men who need our leadership. We who are HIV-positive black gay men, regardless of role or title, act on behalf of other black gay men need to "come out" as HIV-positive. We must reset the standard for how we are living with HIV, not as vectors or statistics but as real men unashamed and committed to our communities. One does not need to be a longtime activist or health provider; all that matters is their story and the willingness to tell it. Former porn star turned preacher Kevin Mines revealed his status in the 2012 documentary The Way to Kevin, which premiered at MIX FEST, a black LGBT film festival. When we set free our truth, we give other gay men evidence of the possibility that they too can set themselves free, not to mimic us but in their own time and their own way. We have testimonies to share that may alter the lives of those who hear them and change us through the act of delivering them. This frees us up to pass on real life skills and tools to men who may not come to our workshops but may be found on Facebook or Jackd. It will take more than case managers and co-located clinics to get more men into care and help them reduce viral loads in our communities. When more of us teach openly from our experience, not from fact sheets, about adherence, disclosure, and how to talk to one's doctor and manage appointments, our brothers will not only listen, but they will uptake the norms and values, the drive toward self-care and mutual regard that cannot be instilled through boxed interventions. More dialogue will be opened, more tongues may be untied to unleash a new generation of activism and community building. We are many men with many voices that must be raised higher than ever before.