Silence = Death: Remembering Dr. King

Fifty years ago, four black college students tried to order coffee at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were asked to leave. They chose to stay. For that, they were terrorized. But as dozens of customers kicked their chairs and hurled racial epithets right up to their faces, some ignored them altogether and carried on with their day, as if nothing was happening.

As communities of color confront an alarming level of racism and homophobia, the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. could not ring more true: "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."

When it comes to the fight against HIV and AIDS, the silence of mere bystanders--"the good people"-- is perhaps the most deafening of all. And it's preventing some of the most tangible progress we could be making to defeat this disease today.

We have come a long way since the birth of the civil rights movement. Although our communities aren't being subjected to those unconscionable forms of lawful racism that defined our nation's early history, still other forms of systemic discrimination continue to persist, often times under the radar.

This is especially true for young gay black and Latino men, the majority of whom grapple with public stigma and homophobia from multiple angles--both overt and covert--on a regular basis. Young gay men of color are seldom represented in the media, let alone favorably. Even worse, public perception of young gay male relationships is all too frequently hyper-sexualized: focusing on chiseled bodies and glossy imagery without any regard for their love, strength and resilience.

In 2010, GMHC developed and launched a subway campaign to address these discriminatory issues head-on. The #ILoveMyBoo subway campaign promotes positive images of young gay black and Latino men, while celebrating their relationships.

Our campaign also raises awareness around a life-threatening issue that's currently being overlooked by the broader public, even our fellow LGBT advocates: young gay men of color are at the highest risk for contracting new HIV infections. And that's showing no signs of slowing down.

Although they represent only half of New York City's population, 75% of new HIV infections are among blacks and Latinos. Of these new infections, a whopping 56.8%--more than half--are among men who have sex with men (MSM). For those who survived the height of the crisis, HIV and AIDS may no longer feel like a death sentence, thanks to public and government support and direct access to HIV testing and long-term medical treatment.

But for the majority of young gay men of color who lack access to these resources and are struggling with the twin evils of racism and homophobia, that's just not the case. Because we remain appallingly silent, we are at risk of losing lives and leaving behind the very disenfranchised people Dr. King fought to uplift and protect.

Today, we are at a promising crossroads to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic in New York. With the help of life-saving medications PrEP and PEP and a strong commitment from our city and state leaders, the HIV and AIDS community is embarking on a robust plan to curb this disease by 2020.

But reaching young gay men of color where they are--and helping them fight this disease effectively-- needs to be front and center in our plan.

That includes directly addressing racism and homophobia as public threats that are contributing to young gay men's vulnerability to HIV infections. It means promoting family acceptance, which strengthens resiliency and allows young gay men to better negotiate safer sex practices. On a policy level, it means supporting gay-affirming interventions like gay-straight alliances and age-appropriate sex education programs in schools, so that young gay men have an inclusive support system moving forward.

This is a challenging time in this country relating to racism and homophobia. But as Dr. King reminds us, "our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."

It is our job to break this silence now. To continue much-needed dialogues and public service campaigns about how black and Latino lives matter, how young gay men's lives matter, as all lives matter.