Over 100 people were present at The Loudermilk Center in downtown Atlanta on Sept. 24 for the opening reception of thefourth annual MSM (men who have sex with men) Symposium sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH).

The reception preceded two days of workshops and presentations geared toward addressing health and social issues such as homophobia, faith and substance abuse in the lives of gay and bisexual men of color. This year’s theme, “Stigma: Peeling Back The Layers,” took on the monumental task of addressing many of the social and political barriers that often lead to an increase in new HIV and STD infections in gay and bisexual men.

According to DPH, the state of Georgia has held some of the nation’s highest rates for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases among men who have sex with men. A 2013 state health profile published by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks Georgia first for diagnoses of HIV and primary and secondary syphilis among all 50 states. The MSM symposium intentionally provides a safe space for this population to learn, speak out and discusses topics directly related to its health and wellness.“We cannot allow stigmas surrounding HIV, STDs and other topics impacting MSM to remain a barrier to saving the lives of Georgia citizens in need of important health care services in our state,” says J. Patrick O’Neal, M.D., director of Health Protection at DPH in a statement.

Michelle L. Allen, state STD director for DPH, echoes O’Neal’s statement and uncovers an additional layer to the problem facing those at risk for HIV/STD infection.

“Individuals who are infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDS) are at least two to five times more likely than uninfected individuals to acquire HIV if they are exposed to the virus through sexual contact, according to the CDC,” says Allen.“That is why we are proud to organize events such as our annual MSM Symposium to offer essential education and tools that will help the public understand how to prevent the continued spread of HIV and other STDs.”

Keep it on the down low?

Nearly twelve years have passed since the term “down low” exploded into the pop culture lexicon, etching fear into the hearts and minds of black women everywhere. Almost overnight, MSM and bisexual black men began to be portrayed as heartless monsters intent on infecting unsuspecting black women with HIV and destroying their lives.

Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett, an openly gay couple of 20 years and creators of the 2007 television series, “The DL Chronicles” on Here TV, captured the hysteria surrounding the down low and provided nuance for a discussion that became oversimplified and drenched in homophobia. The Los Angeles-based couple is now married and going by their chosen surname, “Gossfield.” Both were on hand to screen an episode of the series and to discuss the persistent down low myth in relation to HIV at the reception for the MSM Symposium.

“There is a lack of self-responsibility and misconceptions about who has HIV, who can contract HIV and how you can contract HIV,” says Quincy Gossfield.“I think we do ourselves a disservice when we position this conversation around the DL as the reason for new HIV infections among black women,” says Deondray Gossfield. “What we’re not talking about is the self-responsibility piece and that’s the core of the disease. The last time I checked, DL men were a very small piece of that puzzle.”

The Gossfields did not hesitate to address the connection between the down low and the rigid definition of masculinity black men are expected to adhere to that undoubtedly play a role in choosing a life of secrecy over authenticity.

“We have tried to find a place in society to be respected and to hold as men. In psychology it’s called ‘the cool pose,’” says Deondray Gossfield “It’s this figure of strength and heightened sexuality. And America has embraced that. America has given us a place at the table as that character. For gay black men who find comfort in this character, psychologically, somehow fear their brothers (who they view are like women) as a threat to this position we’ve gotten.”

A collision of spirituality and sexuality

The black church is the center of black life. And whereas, the church has historically been a beacon of light and social justice for the black community, it has also consistently been a source of pain and rejection for those who are attracted to the same gender. Many researchers have often linked depression and low self-esteem among black gay and bisexual men to risky sexual behavior.

Atlanta resident, Derrick Tennial, an openly gay minister and author of “Saved, Sanctified, and Same Gender Loving: A Story-Journal to Spiritual Reconciliation,” addressed the topic of spirituality and sexuality on the first day of the symposium.

“The sessions were awesome!” says Tennial. “I was able to provide practical steps for MSM to confront their sexual identity and the hurt inflicted through the misinterpretation of the Bible allowing us to be set on a path to higher spiritual consciousness.”

Organizers of the MSM symposium say they are committed to finding new and innovative ways to address issues of importance to MSM populations when the symposium returns in 2016.

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