By sending the message that our young black gay males are not acceptable, we contribute to our boys, sons, brothers and men accounting for the highest rate of new HIV infections, and reduce the rate of survival among those we call family.
Love and acceptance: Two words that resonate in the hearts and minds of every human being. Both critical to developing one's wellbeing, self-esteem and social development, love and acceptance are virtues we not only desire to experience but require to feel whole. More specifically and most critically we desire to be loved and accepted by our families. I certainly do. And, I suppose, so does every young black gay male.
Love, Acceptance and HIV
When I think of those I am closest to, I know too many young black gay, or men who have sex with men (MSM), who are HIV positive. These are young black MSM who are my friends, family, and colleagues. Some are living, yet far too many have died of AIDS and HIV-related complications by or before the age of 30. These are young black MSM who battle not only with the virus that causes AIDS, but with the stigma, homophobia, and discrimination that society attaches to who they are as they face a unique set of personal, social, and familial challenges.
Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) have shown that negative attitudes can make it difficult for some MSM to be open about their same-sex behaviors with others. Yet, we see where a lack of acceptance from one's family can create a world of shame and secrecy that contributes to the decisions one makes to engage in the type of sexual risk behaviors that account for the highest rate of new HIV infections among young black MSM. In my experience, at the core of these challenges, families often underestimate the role their love and acceptance plays in impacting the experience of young black MSM. The stakes are raised and become all the more complex when our young black MSM is HIV positive. I believe it is in this space that families can begin to make a difference.
The Influence of Family Acceptance
My cousin Wesley did not receive the acceptance from our family that he needed. When he started the process of coming out when we were both just 19, I was not surprised, but there was no way I could have predicted the chain of events that had been set into motion. If my family is honest, we all speculated about Wesley's sexual orientation from the time he was a young age. It was never discussed, yet somewhere along the way Wesley received the message that being homosexual was not acceptable in our family. I liken this experience to the description offered by Edward Wyckoff Williams that "too many parents frequently still use fundamentalist religious views as the standard to evaluate sexual orientation, and as such see their gay sons (and daughters) as out of favor with God at best, and damned to hell at worst." I remember the day Wesley called me sobbing over the phone after coming out to a family member who made it clear that not only was he not gay, rather he was influenced by not having been forced to do "manly things" growing up, but that his choice was also going against God's will.
As a result, being a young black MSM became a part of Wesley that was both challenging for him to come to terms with and something he felt he needed to hide. That institutional shame and secrecy played an active role in Wesley choosing to engage in sexual activity that led to his HIV infection at age 21. In coming out and disclosing his status, Wesley's rapid deterioration while his immediate family insisted on keeping his HIV status and sexual orientation a secret was a true turning point. In theory, this choice was meant to protect Wesley from further harm but at heart it was positioned to protect the family and keep up appearances. It was only five months after testing positive for HIV that Wesley died. But the family secrecy did not end there. I was asked to keep Wesley's cause of death a secret and this secrecy, in no uncertain terms, contributed to my own inability to cope with the loss. I can only imagine the impact that keeping his true self a secret had on Wesley.
Out of Secrecy and into the Light
While families cannot prevent, nor can we blame them, for all of the stigma, homophobia, and discrimination their young black MSM will face, it appears that the time is ripening for the world to begin redefining what it means to support and uplift our young black MSM, and by inclusion our young black MSM who are HIV positive. As take-a-ways learned from my family's experience, we can do things differently going forward to ensure our young black MSM feel loved and accepted. It can begin with creating space for open, honest communication in my family, particularly in support of the next generation coming behind me. I envision loving my future sons unconditionally, and openly supporting them in being who they are.
At the level of society, we are quite literally seeing progressive thought in these areas unfold before us in media and pop culture. The explosive phenomena of black scripted television shows such as Lee Daniel's Empire and Mara Brock Akil's Being Mary Jane are truly bringing issues of homosexuality and the black family to light in a way never seen before. I am still inspired by the compelling message in a recent episode of Being Mary Jane whereby the family of a black gay male was able to discuss being homophobic yet they were able to put loving and more importantly accepting their son first. Such progressive ideas are critical and necessary as the alternative is risking the loss of our boys, sons, brothers and men much too soon.
As this February marks the ninth anniversary of Wesley's passing, while commemorating National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and Black History Month, I am finding that it is time to honor my cousin's death in a different way. It is time to celebrate the life he lived by living my life, and encouraging others to live theirs to the fullest. This does not mean that Wesley will be forgotten, I loved him exactly the way he was and I know there are many others who loved him the same, but there comes a time to let go of the painful scars left behind when he went away. I will never know if being fully accepted by our family would have made a difference in the choices Wesley made or the outcome of his status, but I do believe accepting him exactly as he was would have made a difference in Wesley being able to further accept himself. All persons from all walks of life need a support system in which they are able to grow, fully be themselves, and to self-actualize. The next wave of Black History is calling us to love and accept our young black MSM for who they are. May our embrace lead the way in ending the spread of HIV/AIDS.