HIV Frontlines: In Newark, N.J., an HIV/AIDS Advocate Finds New Ways to Reach LGBT African Americans
A Conversation With Gary Paul Wright
Welcome. My name is Kellee Terrell and I'm the news editor for TheBody.com. This HIV Frontlines interview is with Gary Paul Wright, the founder and executive director of the African American Office of Gay Concerns (AAOGC) in Newark, N.J. Hello, Gary. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Of course. Can you tell me how the African American Office of Gay Concerns came about? And how long has it been in existence?
Well, let's see. We just celebrated, this past spring, eight years. We've been here eight years. We actually started because a couple of friends of mine had attended an MSM [men who have sex with men] of color conference in Philadelphia -- we're talking like '98, '99 -- and what we learned was that there was no organization, or nobody in the state of New Jersey that was actually addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic for African-American men, black men, especially gay black men.
You said even in 1998, 1999?
Yeah, even at that time. I mean, there was no specific stuff happening. And of course, I'd been with GMHC [Gay Men's Health Crisis, a prominent HIV/AIDS organization] many, many years. So there were things going on, but there was no one really dedicated that we knew of [who was] specifically addressing the situation.
So we said, "Well, we can change that. We can start our own organization." I should have stopped right then and there, because, you know, they say be careful what you ask for because you might get it. But we did. We proceeded, and we put together a little board. We met in my kitchen, Peter [Wright's partner of 20 years] and I and eight of our friends, and we said, "Let's do this."
We got some funding, locally, through the Department of Health and Senior Services down in Trenton. They gave us some technical assistance. And they said, "If you're serious about doing this, we'll throw in some seed money for you." And about a year and a half later we got our 501(c)(3), we found an office, and voila! We opened up on Broad and William Street, here in Newark.
What had you been doing in the HIV community prior to founding the office?
Well, let's see. I started way, way, way back in the mid to late '80s; I was a volunteer at Gay Men's Health Crisis. I'd just moved from Los Angeles. And that was about '84, '85, when the epidemic was really, really starting to make its mark. And of course, back in those days, it was called GRID, which is gay-related immunodeficiency disease, or whatever. And when I got to New York, GMHC was the first and foremost in helping people with HIV and AIDS. It wasn't even called HIV then.
I volunteered for them, and I did work with the [New York City] education department. I did workshops, safer sex workshops, and things like that. I was a little upset because there was not a lot of black participation in some of their programs, so I wrote a letter to Richard Dunn [a New York City reporter], way back then, and he sent it to the education department. And they, well, they hired me. So that shut me up, didn't it?
I started doing work with them, and I founded the House of Latex way back when.
Yeah, how about that? I'm the great-great-great-grandfather of the House of Latex. A lot of people don't know that. When we started out, we were just there with condoms and pins and buttons and brochures. We had our little -- like the old cigarette girls of the '30s -- we had these trays that we made out of tops of Xerox boxes. And we handed out condoms. And we just wanted to fit into the ballroom scene, because it was thriving around that time, in the very, very early '90s. Since then, the House of Latex really grew, and grew, and grew, and then they started walking the balls, and taking it to newer heights. And now they're celebrating 20 years. In fact, next week, they're celebrating 20 years.
Oh, my goodness.
House of Latex, yeah. So they're going to dust me off and wheel me out again.
Can you briefly describe some of the programs that the African American Office of Gay Concerns has?
Well, our main focus is still HIV prevention. We do the EBI (effective behavioral intervention) Many Men, Many Voices. Before that, we were doing Partners in Prevention. And we're still investigating some new stuff for men of color -- black gay men of color -- that are supposedly coming down the block.
We don't want something that's, like, just blackface. We don't want something that, you know, they'd say, "Well, this is designed for African-American men." We really want something that's going to work. And Many Men, Many Voices is good, and it's filling a void right now. But I think we can still do better.
So we do that. And then we have our transgender outreach --
Before you keep talking about that, can you go back and kind of explain what your Many Men, Many Voices is?
Many Men, Many Voices is a multi-session intervention where we talk about the dual identity of being a black man and being a gay man. We talk about community. We talk about religion, how that affects us in what we do, and how we choose our sexual partners. So it's basically made up of, like, maybe six to seven components that can be done on a weekly basis. The guys come back and report every week. Or you can do it like we do -- as a weekend retreat.
Now, the state of New Jersey also does a go-away retreat, where they go off into the -- I shouldn't say off into the woods, but to a place -- and they're actually cooped up in this place for like two and a half days. And it's really, really quite effective. I think it helps build community, as well.
It's good, but I think guys are at the point now [that] they don't want to be told so much what they can't do. I think we have to give guys permission to do some things, but just do them safely. And we have to be able to talk about those things. You know, in the old days, we used to have posters that were very, very explicit. We've gone generic, kinda. So I'd like to see more of that. But, anyway, that's my bag.
We're going to talk about that a little later on, too, toward the end, about sex-ed and culturally competent prevention methods toward MSM, especially of color. So we're going to get to that.
You were talking about the transgender community, which I was going to ask you about. How in touch is your organization with that community and the ballroom scene?
Actually, it's so unusual. Because when I was growing up as a little gay man, I had gone to the clubs in Dallas [Texas], where I grew up. And I knew that there were drag queens who performed. And that was about it. That's about all I knew about transgender [people].
So what happened was when we opened up the office, the kids were drawn in. Some of the kids were drawn to one of the posters, which actually came out of San Francisco, of a little Asian woman who has price tags on her body parts. And [she's] obviously transgender. Like, her breasts cost so much; her lips cost so much. And it was like, wow; these kids are like really interested in it. And then one or two would come up, in these little wigs, and things like that. And I'm like, oh, my gosh.
Now, I'd also been familiar with the house community. But I was sort of once-removed, because I figured that was a society all its own. And I'd done it with GMHC. "Let me move on."
Well, I had to change my tapes. I had to change the way I was thinking about it. Because it's like a totally, totally different world. And I'm looking at these kids who are walking down the streets of Newark in these wigs and fake breasts, and trying to pass as women. And I'm like, you know, these are some brave kids; and why aren't we doing anything for them? So I had another dream. And it said, T.G.I.F. (Thank Goodness I'm Fabulous!). So we started that whole peer support group thing. And we're still trying to address that community the way it needs to be addressed.
There's an EBI -- an intervention -- called SISTA [Sisters Informing Sisters about Topics on AIDS]. What we wanted to do is to do it for our transgender community. But you know, the state of New Jersey was like, "Well, even though you have some transgender women, some are still considered MSM." And I guess, because of what we were doing, we had people down there in Trenton who understand what we're going through. And they said, "Well, maybe you could do something. You know, maybe you could adapt a SISTA for the transgender community."
So two of my staff, Anastasia and Carla, went down and actually took the SISTA training, just to make sure that this was something we thought we could do. And they came back and said, "Yeah." They were like really, really excited. Anastasia's transgender. She started this support group here. And she's like, "Really, really, really, let's do this." So we talked to our people in Trenton, and they said, "Well, let's see if we can get some technical assistance for you." And they did what they needed to do with the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and they came back.
And so now we're in the process of working with University of California, San Francisco, in the transitions program over there, to get technical assistance to bring SISTA to our transgender sistas.
Let's talk about some of the people who access your services. Is there an average age? Are they mostly younger? Older? Is there a mix?
It's a mix. We really don't have any parameters, and it kind of comes in batches. It seems like in the springtime there's a lot more young people. I guess maybe they're getting out of school, they're getting a little frisky, and they want to get out there. They need condoms, things like that. So we get a younger crowd in the warmer months. And then in the winter months, for some reason, the older guys start showing up. And when I say "older" and "younger," I'm thinking it's like age 30 is the [cutoff] age. Under 30, they're still young adults -- adolescents and young adults. Then the over-30 population to me is what I call the mature group, although that can be --
That's questionable, depending on who you're talking about.
Right. But on an average, I'd say, between the ages of 20 and 30. And I'm saying we've got guys who are men who have sex with men, and we have transgender people, male-to-female. That's basically who we are. And we have a couple of Latino clients, not so much. In fact, we're trying to improve our cultural competency. I'm learning Spanish, as a matter of fact. I put money on that Rosetta Stone thing. I'm learning how to say hola and los niños, and all this kind of stuff. It's going to be slow. But we're determined to add that piece to us. Because the Latino community, they're our sisters and brothers, as well. And there's a language barrier there that's keeping us from doing a better job. So that's how we're addressing that. But mostly, it's African-American and young people.
Do you feel like the aging community -- and when I mean aging, I mean 55 or over -- even though they're testing positive, they don't come? They don't access services at your organization?
You know what? That is true. And I'm not real sure why. I mean, we do as many health fairs as we can out here, and we put the word out there. But I think there's not enough -- hmm; how can I say it? There's not enough out gay activity for people that age to feel real, real comfortable. Remember, they grew up in a different time and space. These kids nowadays: It's okay to be open. I mean, they talk about it in their yearbooks. You know, and there are things like that. They go to each other's proms and things like that. So there's a lot of that interaction going on in that age group.
With the older age group, people tend to stay in their neighborhoods, or they get set in a pattern. If they're going to go out, they're going to go out to New York City, instead of staying in Newark, because there are no real bars, gay bars, here in Newark.
I had the pleasure of attending the Status Is Everything launch in Newark a few months back. Can you tell our audience what this HIV prevention campaign is, how it came about, and why social marketing and online tools are key components in this campaign?
That's a loaded question. I'm going to try to answer it as succinctly as possible.
So the first part is: Tell me why it came about.
First of all, Status Is Everything is the name of the campaign. And it is actually something that was one of my dreams. It came to me in one of my dreams. So every piece of material that we've put out at the AAOGC since our inception has had Status Is Everything on there. We explain it to mean whether or not you are HIV positive; or whether you know your status, if you're HIV positive or not. And, just, status is everything.
The Department of Health in Trenton at some point had some funds left over, or there were some funds from the CDC that they could access. And they approached our organization, because of who we are, and our location, and our standing within the community -- which took a few years to get -- and said, "Could you guys come up with something? Because the numbers among gay black men are still rising, and we need to address that. And we're not sure how to go about doing that. And since you guys are here, and we want to concentrate in Newark, do you want to try it?" And I'm like, "Yeah!"
So we got together with Rutgers University, and we did a series of focus groups last summer. We wanted to find out exactly what a campaign for gay black men would look like. Basically, they told us, "You're not going to go out to bars, handing out condoms, because it ain't going to happen here. You need the Internet. You need Tweetering [sic]." You know, all these things that I've been on the fringe of, you know. So they said, "No, you have got to get with it." So my staff made me open up a Facebook and MySpace account.
And I'm looking at these things and I'm going, "I guess people really are on here." And there are some chat lines and hookup sites, too, that make me blush. I'm a certain age, and I've been with Peter, it will be 20 years this month. So, you know, there are some things that kind of opened my eyes, as far as what the young people are out there doing and saying.
But to make a long story short: We worked with a group called FEMWORKS here in Newark. They are a lesbian organization, lesbian owned and operated organization. And we came up with this whole thing, with bus ads, and we got a billboard. But the message we were trying to get across is to find out, you know, testing sites. So the campaign was really about finding a testing site, or going to get tested. You know, test with a friend; test with a family member; test, test, test. Find out your status so you can do the right thing.
We were lucky enough to have been picked to do this. We were also lucky enough to have good people working with us, and good organizations, like NJCRI [North Jersey Community Research Initiative] and Project WOW!, and people like James Credle: They helped us put together focus groups to find out where we should spend our money, or where we should not spend our money.
We're still learning our lessons. But social marketing, tweeting, blogs, reading blogs: This is what people do nowadays. So if you're going to be in HIV prevention, this is where you need to be. We're just trying to keep it fresh and alive. You know, it always costs money, but we've been lucky enough that we've been able to find the funding, so far.
What has the reaction been to the Status Is Everything campaign?
Well, I think the Department of Health is looking at statistics, and they're analyzing, and things like that. There has been -- and I don't know percentages -- an increase of young men getting tested. And we don't know if they are identifying or coming out because of the campaign, or if it would normally happen. But I'm going to take credit for it.
Go right ahead.
If they're coming out as gay men, I say that's great. I think that's just wonderful. I think getting tested is still a scary thing for a lot of people. But it's like once you enter that society, once they gain your trust, you've just got to keep on and keep on and keep on. And people are going to do the right things. Or community norms are going to change. And that's what we're hoping to do, that getting tested is going to be like a yearly thing for people, you know, and to try to stay negative. And if they do find out that they're positive, get treatment. So often -- and I know I'm preaching to the pulpit, I mean, you know, preaching to the choir -- so often in our community, we find out too late about an HIV infection. That way, we get sicker quicker. We die quicker. Or we're waiting till we're just too old to turn that tide. So I think it has happened, and I think we have got to keep on. I think we have got to keep talking to the community and finding out what they want, or what they're expecting.
We haven't had any negative feedback; I'll tell you that much. When you have [ads depicting] gay kids, or gay-identified kids, on buses here in Newark, you might think, "Oh, my God; they're going to draw mustaches on them, or they're going to write fag across it," or something. We have had none of that, knock on wood. Even the city has just been really, really helpful, and behind us, and things like that.
Yeah. Cory Booker, the mayor, was there. And I think that he has been a very vocal kind of ally -- not just around HIV, but definitely around LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues. And I think that that really sends a message to the people of Newark.
And you know, I think that's what it takes. I think if your city officials don't buy into a program, or are at least out there recognizing that there is a -- I don't want to say that there is a problem, but -- there is an epidemic ... Once they come out and say, "We're going to address it," or, "We're going to do something," or, "We're going to help this agency fight that battle," half the battle is almost won, you know what I mean? So we're very, very, very lucky. We've had progressive mayors. And now we've got the LGBT Commission, of which I'm a commissioner, as well.
Can you tell us about that?
Well, certainly, I can. Actually, Councilman Ron Rice Jr. -- Ronald Rice -- when he was elected to the city council, he met with some of us and he said, "You know, we are going to have a commission." He said, "I'm going to do everything I can." This is also after Cory Booker already had recognized our community as a unique community. I don't want to say that he hadn't done anything. He and his office, with Bari Mattes - those people have done a lot, especially for gay young people. They're trying to bring in the Hetrick-Martin Institute and afterschool programs.
But Councilman Rice said, "We're going to take this one step further," and lo and behold, he addressed the city council and put forth this commission. And last year, we actually got a little charter from the city. Now, we haven't gotten any money from the city, which other cities have, but a lot of cities don't have LGBT commissions. So we're not a governing body, but we are in an advisory capacity. And I think, with the help of our community, we're going to make some noise around here. We're already making some noise. It's a positive thing that's happening in Newark.
I wanted to go back to the Status Is Everything campaign. I thought one of the most powerful components was the affirming-ness of it all. You had YouTube clips, PSAs [public service announcements]; I mean, it was very, very affirmative. And I think that has been lacking in some of the prevention campaigns that we have seen. I don't know if you remember the one in Philadelphia maybe four or five years ago. But it was where the black man was at the crosshairs of a gun. And they were saying how AIDS was like a bullet.
I do remember that.
You know, in an area where gun violence that summer -- there had been so many shootings in Philly. And I just think it shows a lack of cultural competency. But it also just shows a lack of sensitivity. And so that's what I thought was really interesting about your campaign: just how affirming it was.
Again, that's what our community told us they wanted. And when I say our community: We did focus groups with young people; we did focus groups with young people who were in the houses; who were not in the houses; we had a group of, shall I say, elder gentlemen -- my age, 55 and older, some mature guys; and a lot in between. And I think each one of those had maybe just a twinkling of the transgender community in each of them, as well.
We just tried to give them what they said they wanted. They wanted to see people who looked like them. And by them, that's like thugs, or Banshee boys, preppy, businessman, and trans. This is who they said they wanted to see. So we took that and FEMWORKS came up with this whole concept about, you know, knowledge is key, and things like that. And it is an affirming thing. We've tried not to be negative. Yeah. Very good. Very observant on your part.
Thank you. I just think that it's something that is lacking. And that's the hard thing about HIV prevention: You don't want for people to contract HIV, so in some kind of means, you want to be cautionary. But then you also don't want to offend the people who are actually living with it. And it's a very fine line to draw.
Because the reality is that people are going to be testing positive, especially if you're encouraging them to test. Because that's part of the problem: People aren't getting tested. And so people don't know. And so when they get tested, the reality is that their result may not be negative.
There you go. There you go. You know what? And that's a real fear. And it's a reality.
One of the things we try to do here is prepare people to go take the test. We also try to have things in place -- and everybody should -- that if they do test positive, what happens now? We don't want you to get a slip of paper that says, "Ah-ha! You're now positive. Bye-bye!"
One of the things I thought was really profound that was said at the launch in Newark for the campaign was, one of the women -- I don't remember her name -- but she stood up and she said that if you're walking around, not knowing your status, thinking that if you test positive, it's the end of your life; she said, actually, it's the first day of your life. Because now you know how to move forward. Now you have the information that you need -- if you're negative, to continue to use condoms, safer sex practices, things like that. And if you're positive, now you know to see a doctor, get treatment. I thought that was really profound. If that was one of the messages that people heard, I wonder: Would it shape their desire to get tested?
And that's something that I think we need, as a community. We need those testimonies from people who did find out that they're infected, and how they are, and their families are, affected by it. We need some positive people saying it's not a death sentence. But, on the other hand, I want people to be reminded that I have got to take pills every day; I've got to do this every day. You know, there are things that I cannot do in order to live my life to the fullest and help you live your life to the fullest. Let's be honest about this, and let's have a dialogue about this.
But, you know, I'm a good person, and I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face, and a song in my heart. And life goes on, doesn't it?
How have people, some of your clients, responded to some of the other programs that you've had? Because I know that, a lot of times, gay youth, they don't have positive role models, or older peers that they can kind of talk to. I feel like our LGBT youth are just kind of thrown out there and told, "Good luck."
We'll talk about the transgender program first. The fact that we have Anastasia working with us is just such a positive thing. She's not the first trans to work for us, and she's certainly not window dressing -- although she does sit at the front desk, because she is the prettiest thing here. Her personality has helped that program a whole, whole lot.
She's very, very shy. And she used to come here just to make condom kits for us. And she would march with us in the gay parade and things like that. She actually applied for a position that I hired somebody else for.
Oh, Gary, you're telling all her business!
Well, but it's all good. I'm proud of her. Listen: Anastasia just came back from -- she went to the YMSM [young men who sleep with men] and YTG [young transgender persons] meeting in Atlanta [Ga.] that the CDC just had. And she was -- not to stray, but -- this is the first time she's ever flown in her life. It's the first time she's ever traveled as a trans woman out of New Jersey. And she just came back, like I said, so empowered. I think she was brave enough just to get on the plane and travel like she did. But she's just a wonderful person, and she's just somebody I would like to mentor better. I wish I could do a better job mentoring her.
What she's brought to the program is honesty. I mean, the girls will sit up here and eat their chicken. You know, we feed them lunch, and things like that. And the stuff would just come out. She's just so quiet and demure, but she's able to draw them out. And she makes them read out loud, and things like that. She's just brought such a dynamic to this agency; it's not even funny.
So it's meeting kids, or meeting people, where they are. That's what we've tried to do.
Looking at some of the specific concerns that gay men in Newark have: Newark is a very interesting city, to say the least. You have a very visible black LGBT population, and there's a lot of activism going on right now, especially the people who we just mentioned. But there's also a staggering crime and poverty rate at play, as well. How does your office address these other things that are at play?
Well, one of the ways we do it -- I mean, if you're talking about housing -- we try to help those people who are HIV positive get out of shelters and go into someplace like St. Bridget's [Residence], which houses people who live with AIDS. You know, we have a connection with Broadway House for continuing care, and their new little program, Genesis House, which is built by monies garnered from what's-his-name -- Bon Jovi. I mean, they've put money into Newark, in some of these places.
We do referrals to the local hospitals. Now we actually do testing once a month here. Newark Community Health Centers approached us and said, "Hey, we're thinking of doing some outside stuff. Are you guys interested?" And we were like, "Well, we can see."
So the first month we did it, we had one person actually come in and get tested. We just had [a testing day] this past Monday; we had seven people come in and get tested. So, within a month, there's a difference there.
We help people try to get jobs. You know, we'll help you; if you don't have a resume, we'll make one with you. Take the experiences that you have already, and we'll put it in a shape that you can take it to an employer. We'll let you practice on our computers. We'll even have a mock job interview. I've sat in and done all those kinds of things with people. It's like, "When you walk into an office, pull your pants up. I know you want to be cute, but ..."
Another thing we try to do is: You can't shield people from harassment, but you have to validate people where they are. I've walked downtown Newark, and I've seen transgender women going down the street who I know, and hear comments like, "That's a grown-ass man." "Look at him, wearing a dress," or something like that. I try to say, "People are people. Leave her alone."
So there is still big, big homophobia. I mean, even though we're more and more open, there is still a lot of homophobia around here, and we try to just be positive. We admit who we are: We're openly gay. We openly work in HIV and AIDS. I mean, that, in itself, can be stigmatizing. My card says, "African American Office of Gay Concerns." A lot of people would be afraid to even say that out loud. But you got to. You got to own what you do.
You were saying how, back in the day, there would be posters that were very, very specific. They would maybe state: "If you do not use a condom and you insert your penis in this man's anus, and you have gonorrhea, you could still transmit gonorrhea, even if you're only in there for a second." Like, that specific.
So let's fast-forward it to now. Do you think that those very specific and in-detail and -- no pun intended -- "raw" kinds of information are what's lacking?
Yes. I don't believe that fear sells, but I believe reality will sell. And the reality is, if you have certain kinds of sex, like unprotected anal sex, you can spread or contract HIV. And I am totally, totally sold on the fact that we need to be giving those messages out there.
I wish that I could do a billboard that has two guys up there, butt naked, getting ready to do the do. But I know that I'm going to cause all kinds of trouble if I try to do something like that. But I can do brochures, maybe. I can do palm cards, or something, that address that. But we've got to.
I believe -- and I know, like, the Hyacinth AIDS Foundation and, I'm sure, NJCRI [feel the same way] -- I would like to get back to the conversation of unprotected anal sex. I would like to, like we were saying, be real with it. You don't have to scare anybody with it, but be real with it.
I think that's the thing, too: Fear and reality are not always the same thing. You're very implicit. If you would tell people, "Look, you don't have to ejaculate inside someone to give them an STD [sexually transmitted disease]," I feel like that would just have light bulbs going off in people's heads. I think they don't understand. HIV is not as -- I don't think contagious is the best word -- but you know, gonorrhea and chlamydia are much easier to transmit. And I think that people don't really even understand how any of that works.
You know what? I agree. And I think we need to start talking about syphilis, and not only can you spread it really easy; but the fact that it's really, really out there. So even if you're not afraid of HIV, honey, you need to be scared of chlamydia and syphilis. Because those things are indigenous to young people, anyhow.
If we're going to refer to behaviors, certain behaviors, then I think we have got to be honest enough to really be explicit about those behaviors. And just to go back to what you said about older men, younger men: I think that's a reality also that people just aren't really, really putting out there.
Now, in the Many Men, Many Voices intervention, they do talk about that. They talk about who's got the power in the relationship. Is it the older? Is it the wiser? Is it the bottom? And people say, "Oh, no; the top always has the power." No. You know, if you're a great bottom, honey, you're going to have the power. You ever heard of power bottoms?
If our audience hasn't, they have right now.
I apologize if you're just now hearing about this.
Because we're keeping it real today.
Yeah. And there's a lot of things that I hear that kind of make me go, "Ohhhh!" And I thought I'd heard everything, especially coming out of the transgender community.
But anyway, now my mind is racing.
But a lot of times there will be a case where an older man who may or may not know that he's HIV infected will have unprotected sex with a younger person. Now, you know, statistics will show you that young people have been giving each other these STDs back and forth for years and years and years, without HIV coming into the picture. But now, all of a sudden, if older guys start doing it, and doing it wrong, and having unprotected sex, all of a sudden we have introduced HIV into that equation, where it wasn't there before.
I think that's what has happened with social networks. You know, HIV entered into that realm, that culture, that subculture. And now it's taken a hold. So we need to do what we've got to do right now so that it won't continue and then affect a whole 'nother generation.
Also something people aren't talking about is the fact that there are a lot of people who were born with HIV. They're coming of age now. Remember, we've been talking about this for, what, 25 years? So we've got a lot of young people who were born with HIV, unfortunately. And maybe they weren't told the entire truth. They might be thinking they're taking vitamins.
I've met a couple of people who found out when they were being sexually active, where they didn't know that they were positive. And I want to say they were, like, 17.
You know, that is a reality. And now we're going to have to find a way to help these kids get through what they need to get through. You know what I mean?
And another thing: It's like when I hear a young person tell me -- which happened in one of the focus groups -- a 18-, 19-year-old told me why he doesn't like using condoms. He's like, "You know, I really don't like using condoms because it just feels better when it's raw." And I'm looking at this kid and thinking, "Why do you even know what it's like to feel raw?" I want to say, "You shouldn't be able to feel that." Now, somebody my age -- and I hate to say it this way, but -- all we had to do was get a shot if we got STDs, or something like that. HIV wasn't around, and sex wasn't life-threatening as it can be now.
So these kids that are growing up with HIV, it's like, why? What are you learning? Why are you putting yourself at risk, when HIV has been around since you've been around?
Because we had eight years of abstinence-only education. We live in a culture where we are afraid to talk about sex. And people are afraid to talk about it; yet, it sells everything. It's everywhere you go, but yet we're not able ... we're so ... I don't know what we are. But we're so afraid to talk about it.
HIV, and everything that's wrapped up in HIV, is uncomfortable for a lot of people. You know, it's not just about condoms. It's about God, religion, fluids, needles. All of these things that we really try to just kind of not think about.
And until there's a cure -- and they've been telling us that one for many, many, many years -- but until there's a cure, there's always going to be a need for folks like me, and young people, peer educators, continuing that message. You know: Use a condom. Learn how to use a condom. Use it correctly.
I don't care how much sex you're having. I'm not advocating everybody go out and screw everything in the world. Because the more partners you have, of course, the more you put yourself at risk. But just remember that one infection could do you in. I mean, that's all it takes, is really one time. So you have got to be consistent. Use condoms consistently.
Well, I think that some people think -- especially among the LGBT community -- that people are policing the type of sex that they want to have. And what they don't realize is, even if that's true, there still is a consequence. And is that consequence worth the behavior?
Right. Right. And I think that's another thing that we try to do. When you talk about meeting people where they are; you know, we try to tell everybody that your life is worth saving.
You were talking about the Philadelphia thing with the bull's-eye. I remember way back in the late '80s, when some writer -- I don't know if it was Joseph Beam or Essex Hemphill -- wrote that black men loving black men is a revolutionary thing. But are we becoming an endangered species? And there was a whole big brouhaha. Are you gay and black? Are you black and gay? What do you mean, endangered species? We're not a group of animals!
But the bottom line is, if we continue to put ourselves at risk in doing these behaviors, we can become an endangered species. Because we really are a species. And we've got to take control, and we've got to do the right things; and we've just got to be out there, just hollering, "Arrrrrrrr." I've been hollering for a long time.
Yeah, you have. But I also think that the issue is that you can holler, but we have to be able to open up people's ears to want to listen to what you're saying. And I think, slowly, it's happening. I think, unfortunately, it's taken black women dying of AIDS for the community to actually now want to say, "OK, this is an issue." For years, gay black men were dying, and no one was paying attention.
Right. Right. Right.
And I think that that's a shame on our community. Now is the time to make amends for that, and to start listening.
Yeah. There's no going back; we've just got to keep pushing forward.
There definitely has been a disconnect between the generations of gay black men, especially in terms of HIV. And we kind of talked about it: One of the theories that's kind of out there as to why there's that disconnect is just because young people feel invincible and don't think that anything can hurt them.
But there's also this theory that one of the reasons that there's such a disconnect with HIV is because they didn't really see, and haven't really seen, anyone die in the kinds of ways that people in the '80s and '90s did. Do you find that to be true, from your experiences?
I do. I really do. You know what? That's what got me involved in doing HIV work many, many years ago. Because people that I were associated with started getting sick, and started dying. One of the last things I did in Los Angeles -- in my previous life, I used to be an actor. I did a play called Punks. And even though it was set after HIV had already been around for a couple of years, a lot of people still didn't know about it. The play dealt with a community of guys who went to the gym in West Hollywood, and how HIV sort of infiltrated that core group, and people started dying.
Well, it was a play, and it was a comedy, and it had a lot of good music. But it was, in fact, reality. Because in my own life, people were getting sick and dying. And when I got to New York, they were dying in droves.
For a long time, I think that we in the gay community -- not to mention the black gay community -- but we in the gay community thought, "Oh, my God; it really is just us." And we had to start fighting for our lives. And then we opened our eyes and it was like, "Oh, my God; it's everybody. It's a lot of people." And I think it was just too, too slow in getting into the African-American community. And now I think we are dealing with the consequences.
Now, as far as the disconnect with the young people, I think it's mainly due to the fact that our families were so silent for so long. You know, "Uncle Joe died of cancer."
Oh, my goodness. Yes.
You know, that whole thing. And still, people would rather die from "the sugar" [diabetes] than HIV. That stigma is still, still there. And until we get rid of that, our jobs are going to be really, really tough. Oh, man.
Is there anything else that you would like to say or provide insight on that I didn't ask about? Anything about the African American Office of Gay Concerns?
Well, I do want to put it out there that although we try to meet the young people where they are at, I mean, there are some guys in their 40s, in their 50s, and in their 60s -- and dare I say, 70s, as well; you all need to get tested, too. You cannot go around thinking that you are immune. That's wrong. It's childish. You know where you've been. You know where you've been, and you know you need to go get tested, so we can get you into care and get you into treatment if you test positive.
But I'm hoping everybody's going to be negative. God, I do hope everybody's going to be negative. So I just want to address that community, as well, and just tell anybody in that age group: We're still not immune; it can still happen. All it takes is one time. Condoms -- use condoms; use condoms; use condoms; use condoms.
Thank you Gary, it's been a pleasure.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.