Young Black Gay Men: What Do We Need?

By Brandon Horsley-Thompson, Participant in the 2013 NASTAD Black Gay Men’s Technical Assistance Meeting

Brandon Horsely-ThompsonI came into the field of HIV prevention to make a difference in people’s lives. It’s been a long road full of deaths, fighting within the community, mismanagement, and numerous encounters with young Black gay men, who felt like their lives were not worth living. I recently attended NASTAD’s Black Gay Men’s Technical Assistance meeting, jam packed with information about the Affordable Care Act and enrollment, state based population specific HIV continuums of care for Texas and Tennessee, and new advancements in biomedical prevention – PrEP and home testing. The meeting put into context how all of these systems interplay with the health department and its constituents and provided strategies for working with Black gay men in this ever shifting landscape. However, at the beginning of the second day of the meeting, I was asked “What do you need as young Black gay man?” I sat silent for some time. What did I need? Emotionally? Mentally? Support systems? Was the facilitator talking about the collective “you,” as young Black gay men or me individually? I had never considered the question as I had gone about this work, and needless to say, I was stumped. I spoke from the heart.

I spoke about the internal division beating down a community that was already being beat down by everyone else. I told the attendees how I needed clarity – transparency from agencies, people, mentors, and anyone who called themselves an ally in this work. After I spoke, numerous people came up to me as if I had said something new and profound, yet simultaneously, painful. I didn’t know I sounded that hurt. The face I was wearing on the outside didn’t match what I was feeling on the inside. All I said was “As a young Black gay man doing this work I need to be guided. When being guided I want it to be transparent. There are so many secrets and hidden “do’s and don’ts” that will never be passed down. The mentorship has failed (me) time and time again, or else the number of HIV infections in young Black men who have sex with men (YBMSM) wouldn’t be rising.”

From this, the conversation took a clear shift – to truly focus on the needs of young Black gay men, from an intergenerational standpoint. We talk in circles about this “intergenerational conversation” that must be had and how it needs to be fluid. It seems that we have forgotten how to communicate. We have forgotten how to relate. With the advent of social media, and this quickly becoming one of our primary methods of communication with one another, the only fluid conversations I see happen in a vacuum internet dating applications, of profiles and prejudice. In an era of rising HIV infections for young Black gay men, I need my older brothers to guide me in decision making, watch out for me, and even when I don’t think I need it, to protect me. Why after eight years in the field of HIV prevention, care, and treatment, on my way out of the field, the only person who ever asked, “Young brother, what do you need,” was a Black woman? This conversation needs to be sparked by, fueled by and driven by Black gay men.

From a recent Gilead presentation, we are presented with three distinct generations who have lived through, and continue to live through the HIV epidemic. First, the Survivors, those who knew of a time before HIV and then suddenly felt the blunt of the first blow of the epidemic, were attending funerals weekly for “cancer” victims. Those still around harbor institutionalized knowledge, pain, joy, and most importantly, resiliency.  Next, The Bridge Builders – who have been some of the primary architects and driving forces behind many of our prominent CBOs, research protocols, and fight for equality. Lastly, are the Torch Bearers – the youth, a generation lighting the way to the end of this epidemic and poised to usher in the change that the epidemic needs to see. But we are splintered. We are all responsible for the fracturing experienced in these generational divides.  We must take responsibility in rebuilding our community and weld together the gaps that have eroded away over time. I have had mentors in the past that wanted the best from me and pushed me to excel. We as Black gay men aren’t pushing one another to greatness anymore. Mentorship is hidden away. We have become so preoccupied with the political agenda that the salient conversations for people on the ground are not being had and those voices are not being heard or guided.

As I think about of the role health departments as it relates to this conversation, there are three recommendations I could make:

  1. Health Departments have to figure out how to leverage the knowledge of those that have survived the epidemic and translate their knowledge into digestible material for the community.
  2. Health departments need to reassess the bridges that were built at the height of the epidemic and reinforce their infrastructure and update them for practical use today. As time progresses, structures get old, and we have operated within obsolete structures for too long hoping they will be “good enough.”
  3. Health departments must engage the community most impacted by the epidemic at present. This means, Black and Latino youth need to be represented on every Community Planning Group (CPG), gay men’s work group, research protocol, Community Advisory Board (CAB) etc. Furthermore, youth must be cultivated and groomed – their flame must be stoked, that they may lead when their time comes.

As we sit on the precipice of the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when I think about what I need, as a young Black gay man, the answer is simple. I need for the Survivors to teach me, teach us, how to survive. I have watched too many of my friends die and with the right guidance, I am sure this would not have had to be the case. This is the generation who’s shoulders we stand upon, and the generation with the most institutional knowledge and resiliency – stories that we as young people must hear and knowledge that we must be given. For my Bridge Builders, help me craft my way. Building upon the legacy of greatness that has come before us, hand me the brick and mortar, the slick tongue and sharp wit which I can use to craft my future. For my Torch Bearers, we are the light at the end of our own tunnels. We have to be receptive to the trials, tribulation, sadness, and success that come before us. Learn from what hasn’t worked and what’s been done before. Anything in this world is possible if we are working together. We have had what we needed to end HIV. So, as a young Black gay man all I need is the history to serve as the foundation of my plan, a hand to help execute, and torch to burn through the night while I work.

  • Daniel D Driffin

    Thanks Brandon! I remember the Dallas meeting. I had a few emotionally charged moments where it was really over bearing of HD talking about numbers and really not feeling like it not being numbers but lives. I had that same feel twice this week with my HIP Jurisdiction Planning Group not being able to show that what they are doing matter or making a difference especially when I listen to stories from other young Black gay men. I love your three asks from the health department above. I would add a 4 – Health Departments not to allow a Black gay man to leave without being helped… Thanks again brother for this!

    • Blake R

      Thanks Daniel. Your presence was truly felt and needed. We need more young Black gay men to be fully present and active in their health and Health Departments.

  • Frochic Martin

    Come on Brandon! Bravo sir. I too was there for the meeting in Dallas. Too often we are content with outdated standards, refusing to make necessary and meaningful changes to benefit the whole of us. More often than not the quote ‘a system cannot fail those out was never designed to protect’ rings true. We will continue to challenge the system.

    • Blake R

      True, we must challenge the systems, but we must also be mindful to come to the table in a solutions oriented manner. We need to be able to identify the problem, and provide health departments or whomever with steps that they can take that will maximize health outcomes for Black gay men.

      • Frochic Martin

        Absolutely agree. My comment was less about writing a passage about how to develop solutions and more about showing my support of this article. Systems change, though not a new concept, is certainly a paradigm shift for all involved….health departments, community based organizations and the community at large. Historically our approach to health disparity among any of the recurrent populations has been reactionary and tied almost exclusively to primary prevention (condoms, safer sex, etc.) Anecdotally we discuss the systemtic challenges of social and environmental factors that influence behavior and whether primary prevention has a lasting effect in our lives. Now more than thirty years after the first diagnosis of HIV, we must develop effective strategies to integrate both perspectives into the fight and to support the lives and health of Black gay men.

  • devin hursey

    I agree,
    although I have a responsibility to my own health as a “YBMSM”, I have to ask myself (after reading this post) “Does my involvement in HIV prevention come from a place of self preservation, or from a concern for my community?” Thank You