Charles Stephens: How AIDS service organizations fail black gay men

As we continue to grapple with the impact of HIV among black gay men, we must will the courage to ask the kinds of questions that will reverse the path we have been bound to. One such question is, in what ways have we as black gay men been failed by AIDS service organizations?

The failure of AIDS service organizations to effectively care for us is by no means singular. Just about every American institution, agent of the criminal justice system and representative of the health care system has failed black people overall. AIDS service organizations thus join in the parade of failed systems that have promised much, but provided little.

I know so many black gay men who have gone to work at AIDS service organizations, only to see their dreams smashed and their creativity smothered. Despite this, many of them still put their best foot forward, working hard for little money. They are committed because they care. I also know many allies I admire very much. I’m especially thinking of one in particular; she works tirelessly on behalf of black gay men, and has demonstrated incredible leadership along the way. She is humble. She has grace. She rises above organizational politics. She has a strong sense of purpose. And most critically, she challenges homophobia over and over again. I wish there were a way to replicate her example across the field.

Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed others who have substituted a lack of leadership experience and community engagement capability with academic credentials and social service jargon. The result of this is a landscape increasingly populated by those ill-equipped to effectively mobilize and build power among black gay men, but well-equipped to perpetuate a deficit-based view of our community.

Another example of the overvaluing of a narrow kind of public health content knowledge and the devaluing of nuts and bolts grassroots organizing is the dependence we are seeing more and more often of financial incentives like gift cards to entice black gay men to attend workshops, HIV programs, and events. This approach does nothing to reverse the structural violence of economic distress and poverty associated with HIV vulnerability. It merely reinforces the colonial relationship many AIDS service organizations are invested in maintaining with the communities they are funded to serve.

Many of these same figures, lacking vision and commitment, land jobs in programs at AIDS service organizations only to become soulless bureaucrats. In these positions, elevated because of their platform, rewarded because of their compliance and assimilation, they get seats at tables where they are fixated on positional power rather than community impact. With no accountability to a community constituency, only to their funders and bosses, they become extensions, if not stunning symbols, of the very systems that desperately need to be reformed.

Social marketing campaigns must resist merely plastering messages like “take a test,” “take a pill“ or “take PrEP” on billboards, palm cards and t-shirts. They must resist using language and words as if following a checklist of things to say. They need to go beyond mere social marketing and move toward creating meaning for black gay men. As black gay men, we need nothing short of a language of resilience.

We need messages that can transcend time and space. This also calls for engagement with art and culture. We need visual communication that isn’t limited to appealing to narrow and superficial pleasures, like beer commercials, but also to messages and symbols that uplift us, stir us, and build power.

Mobilizing and engaging black gay men has to be rooted in art and culture. Anyone working on behalf of black gay men should know films like “Tongues Untied” and figures like the poet and activist Essex Hemphill. All AIDS service organization staff orientations should draw upon these resources to provide background and a sense of purpose.

Taken together, these approaches can be the starting point for a new lens in how we view the work. AIDS service organizations must be willing to change direction, shift, and think more expansively.