I recently attended a “group discussion” (it was really a focus group) organized by Gay Men of African Decent (GMAD). Honey it was a hot mess. The topic? What would social services for HIV negative men look like?
At least that was what we were supposed to be talk about. Instead it turned into two hours of shade throwing, venting and general frustration. Let me set the stage:
It was one of the first gorgeous spring days in NYC and late in the afternoon I got an invitation to attend by a friend who works at GMAD. It was on the way home so I decided to drop by.
At the beginning of the conversation there were about twenty of us, a few more trickled in as the event continued. There were about six GMAD employees and two (random) women. The rest gay/bisexual Black men. What I was really fascinated by was the age demographic.
The majority of the room was ~45 or older (and that’s being generous, no shade). During introductions we had to explain why we came and many of the men talked about “survivor’s guilt.” Essentially when they were in their teens/twenties (before HIV/AIDS) they fucked like crazy, usually without a condom and somehow they managed to stay negative and some of their loved ones weren’t so lucky. One man lost three partners and countless friends. I can’t even imagine.
There were materials on everyone’s seat and the moderator wanted to methodically go through the questions (here and here) and that’s when things got interesting. Three of the older gentlemen got upset and wanted to have a more organic conversation. They spoke of being around during the early years (GMAD celebrates their 25th anniversary this year) and as the epidemic progressed they felt left out as more of the programming started to specifically target HIV positive men. Essentially patted on the back like, “Good job Sonny, you’re negative, just keep doing what you’re doing…” and sent on their way.
I never really thought about it like that.
Being a sex master, I take for granted I’m attached to a lot of organizations professionally I don’t really access in my personal life. My passion is talking about sex/sexuality; public health (specifically HIV/AIDS research) is just how I pay the bills. Many non-profit organizations centered around LGBT issues you wouldn’t need to access unless something was “wrong” (e.g. recovery, homelessness, legal, HIV care issues, etc.). And now that I count, most of my colleagues in HIV advocacy (who fit my demographics) are HIV positive…interesting.
More importantly as a sexuality scholar I was a little disturbed by the question in general. Why would services for HIV negative men look any different than services tailored to positive men?
We ALL need courses on healthy relationships.
We ALL need to know risk reduction strategies including how to properly use a condom and protecting yourself from STIs.
We ALL need to get tested on a regular basis.
We ALL need to communicate with our partners better and learn how to negotiate stigma, disclosure and healthcare.
And most importantly to me as a mental health specialist/advocate, I feel when the mind is right, everything else falls into place, including sexual health. How did I stay negative for thirty years? Before I started having sex I felt the need to be responsible for my own body so I educated myself on the issues and continue to consistently use condoms. It wasn’t rocket science, it was diligence and always putting myself first.
Ultimately I left that night feeling some kind of way. I had never seen so many older Black gay men in one room together (in a non-party setting). I wanted to ask them about their hopes, their dreams…I wanted to know how to stay upbeat God forbid I’m still single at fifty (which was the case for many in the room).
Ironically, as I left The Schomburg Center and walked home through Harlem, I saw many young men who needed to be part of the conversation and weren’t.
I’m leaving out a lot of nuances, but I’m curious about the original question. If you’re HIV negative, do you feel connected to your local GMAD (or GMHC, etc.)?
Have HIV negative men been silenced in this epidemic?