Looking Beyond HIV When It Comes to Gay Men of Color

Much has been mentioned about the fact that many African-American men, especially youth, are getting infected with HIV in growing numbers. Many of those who are noticing are scratching their heads and asking why is this happening, especially in this day and age when almost anyone can get a free condom from anywhere at anytime, not to mention the abundance of prevention messages that are displayed all over major cities, from billboards to posters to pamphlets and so on. What has created so many deaf ears to a matter that is still relevant in communities of color? I won't say I have the answer, but speaking for myself, as someone who has been HIV-positive for 26 years, even I sometimes get tired of hearing about HIV, especially when I find that it's only when HIV is brought up that gay men of color are made visible.

When it comes to HIV prevention, the one thing that seems to be missing is something I call the 360-degree approach. In this approach all aspects of the life of a gay man of color are looked at. Instead of throwing a condom in a young gay black man's hand, first look at what his world looks like. What are his life circumstances? What societal barriers prevent him from getting the message on HIV? Is it poverty, homelessness, unemployment, racism? How does he identify? How does he view himself? Does he feel that he has any worth? This is important, because if a young gay black man doesn't feel that he has any worth, then how can he value his physical self?

Nevertheless, a 360-degree approach is rarely used when it comes to reaching gay men of color and informing them of the realities of HIV. In fact, by excluding the 360-degree approach, most of the messages on HIV reinforce the notion that the only value gay black men have is connected to sex and, to be more frank, their body part. There is an uneven marketing approach in which gay black men are only fully represented with reference to sex. A 360-degree approach would entail helping young gay men of color realize that they are visible, that their worth goes beyond sex, and that as black men, their feelings of disenfranchisement in a system that was not designed for them are legitimate.

As young gay black men search for meaning and information on their emerging sexual identity, the media contribute to their feelings of invisibility, as often there are no representations of persons or images that they can emulate. In that search for identity, many such youth find only sexualized images of gay black men and feel that this is what it means to be a gay man of color. This sexualized self-concept may be one of the reasons for rising HIV infections among young gay men of color, as they may feel that their only means of being visible is by expressing themselves through the physical act of sex.

My sexual orientation aside, the absence in the media of people who look like me is pronounced. I flip open magazines such as Out or Details and I'm nowhere to be found. If I allow myself the pleasure of going to a movie, my face is absent there, too, as all I see are larger-than-life gay black men who exist solely to roll their eyes and garner laughs. In the storylines of Glee and Modern Family, I look for my story and find only static. All too often the mainstream media limit representations of gay black men to those in dresses, stripped of masculinity. What does it tell you when the only gay black man people can think of is RuPaul telling us to "turn to the left" and "sashay"? Unfortunately, he remains the most visible representation of gay men of color. Yes, I know there's now Frank Ocean, but most people wouldn't know who he is. And besides, his announcement, which happened to coincide with his album release, could have been an opportunity for an important, nuanced discussion, but instead it was turned into a marketing tool.

Sadly, I know that the one place I will see a gay black man like me is on an HIV awareness poster, where he's telling me to wrap it up, or, better yet, he's on HIV medication and jumping in the air, because we all know that when you take HIV medications, that's the first thing that comes to mind (slight note of sarcasm there).

So in this discussion of HIV, many prevention specialists have to understand that before gay black men can even think about HIV, many are still grappling with three important questions: 1) what it means to be black, 2) what it means to be a man, and 3) what it means to be gay, in that order. The fact that so many prevention messages jump straight to the last question without addressing the first two might be the reason that they fall on deaf ears.

The biggest threat is complacency. After so many years of bombarding gay black men with one message, we have to realize that that message might start to have the opposite effect. We have to broaden that message and talk about depression, mental health, relationships, and, most importantly, the ability to love oneself.

In closing, I have to say that as black men, no matter how we identify, we must step up to the plate and not only make ourselves visible but find comfort in our masculinity and see it as a source of strength, not weakness. We have to see where we stand in the 360 degrees and what responsibilities we have. For those who are comfortable with their identity, the greatest thing is to be a role model for a young gay person of color. And maybe in that bonding, that young person will say, "So that's what a gay black man looks like." And in that responsible role you can help illuminate what seemed to be intangible. Realize that the young man you're speak to is way more than the target of a prevention message, and that he has more value than the free condom he can get at the clinic.