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.

6 Responses

  1. Stephaun Wallace

    Very well said Charles. Many of us have been saying this for awhile, and it is refreshing and encouraging to hear this message coninuing to be herelded. It is critical that we all engage in this work socratically and compassionately, to hold each other accountable and maintain communication, relationship, and vision.

  2. Malvin Abbott Jr

    I find it funny how the blame here is placed on the organization rather than the individuals that they are seeking to serve. The sexual education and well-being of black men should be a priority in the community yet media would rather portray us as hoodlums. Hardly ever regarding those of us in the community doing positive work to ensure that Black Gay men are being educated and know how to protect themselves. I found that without incentives a sum of black men could care less about their health or taking an HIV test. Seems like a lot of issues being pointed out and one sided solutions. We all need help with ending the HIV epidemic. Blaming organizations that are at the forefront of the battle and saying their failing helps no one. Maybe we should all step back and see what success means to different people, organizations and the community.

  3. Andrew

    Before we all start singing kumbaya and blaming HIV/AIDS organizations and their hard working leadership lets step back and define individual responsibility. Playing the blame game does not help the individual affected or infected. This is yet again another example of paralysis by analysis. The last time I checked those gift cards and other incentives were working. Without them attendance at sex education workshops was abysmal to say the least. Tell us ..what is it that will make the gay men take pills, honor Dr appointments and practice safer sex. Rather than play a blame game lets put our minds together to come up with more effective ways and behavior change among the gay men such that for once they are the ones coming looking for services not the other way round. Its always the easier of the two options blame the provider and exonerate the client. These in most cases are not kids, but adults who should be responsible for their sexual health as well as the welbeing of their partners and community. As for the Community Organization leaders they will continue to be innovative so as to get the message across even if it means dolling out gift cards to entice attendance. Live with it or for once become responsible.

  4. J.Rush

    I actually don’t see this as a “blame game” at all, and I think that characterizing it as such is a bit lazy. I’m relatively new to this work (I entered the field with a legal, policy and grassroots mobilization background) and my time in the field has been…interesting. I think a lot of people tout “I’ve been working in this field for X amount of years,” as if that makes you a sole authority on the work. It doesn’t. In what other field would you have increasing and consistent deficits every single year (the rate of HIV infection among Black gay men is constantly on the rise) and still be allowed to tout your “successes” or walk around as if you’re the end all and be all of public health?? If we held the leaders in this field to a corporate standard, most would be let go and new leadership would be put in place to effect change. However, instead we have the same people giving the same presentations at conferences, with the same people at the table, talking about the same issues from the same purview, with the same people being given promotions and increased visibility while deficit margins continue to widen. What the author here is talking about is a re-framing of how we do this work. And it’s time, obviously or the rates of infection wouldn’t be what they are. He’s absolutely right: we need more grassroots community mobilization and creation of REAL power among Black gay men, and we can’t do that while we have this top-heavy model of selected individuals clinging to their nice positions (and pay) and carrying out business as usual. If people can’t see that then maybe it’s time for a career change, cause we have to be REVOLUTIONARY at this point if we’re going to turn the tide, not keep going with the same standard fare.


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