Guest Blogger

Creating Change Plenary Speech on HIV/AIDS

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 03, 2009 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Creating Change conference, HIV/AIDS, Kenyon Farrow, People of Color

Editor's Note: Kenyon Farrow is an organizer, communications strategist and writer working on issues at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, prisons and homophobia. A current Policy Institute fellow with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Farrow is working on a report about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Black gay and bisexual men in the U.S. This is a copy if his speech from the 2009 Creating Change Conference. Video after the jump.

kenyonfarrow.jpgIn 1991, nearly 18 years ago, I was 15 years old when my mother, who was working 13 hour days, 6 days a week in Cleveland, OH, sat me and my two sisters down in front of the television to watch history.

It was not unusual for her to do such a thing. For, we had been made to watch the Civil Rights Documentary "Eyes on The Prize" in its entirety. We also watched "How the West Was Lost," the documentary about White American expansion into the "Americas" and the genocide of First Nation peoples--to understand what we perhaps weren't learning in one of the worst school districts in the country.

But that night, in 1991, my mother--after right-wing Senators Jesse Helms and Arlen Spector tried to protect "American Families" from being able to view it public television--sat us in front of the television to watch Marlon Riggs' breakthrough film on black gay men, Tongues Untied.

The film, and the poetry of the men in the film, particularly Essex Hemphill, was for me the example of the possibility of a Black gay life, of an aesthetic, and of a radical, sex-positive, pro-feminist politic. They were, quite literally, the men of my own dreams.

Though they would both make more films, more books, they would both be dead of HIV-related causes by 1995, within one year of each other. And just short of the first anti-retrovirals to hit the market. And half of the people in this room don't even know of the two names that I speak.

Despite their examples as two of many who spent the late 80s and early 1990s literally writing us into the history of the planet while they were being dragged from the face of it, we have largely lost the layered, nuanced, and multi-issue nature of their brilliant work, which very clearly demonstrates the social conditions of Black working class queer life in the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Theirs was not a politics of inclusion--but a politics of sexual liberation in a decidedly Black gay context.

These men, and many others who died from HIV or from violence, were not only cultural workers but were in fact movement-minded folk--starting and running organizations, writing and creating, and making political alliances with Black lesbian organizations, other radical third-world people of color artists and organizers.

Their work that gave the public health world, and the mainstream LGBT movement a body of work with which to fashion ideas around the context of HIV/AIDS among Black "men who have sex with men." But instead of looking to that work as insight and inspiration, we have built a public health, Black, and/or LGBT movement response to HIV/AIDS among Black MSM with the decidedly ignorant assumption that we don't know what's going on with Black "men who have sex with men" and that there is no Black queer leadership that currently exists or could not be further nurtured and developed.


Despite major advances in treating the virus, the HIV/AIDS epidemic seems to be getting worse for people in our community. At the International AIDS Conference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stunned the international AIDS community by announcing that the richest nation on earth had over 56,000 new infections in 2006. This revision also included a back-calculation revealing that, for the 15 years from 1991-2006, infection rates were approximately 25-50 percent higher than the long-held 40,000 annual estimate.

Not only have we been undercounting the growth of the epidemic, men who have sex with men (MSM -- that public health category that includes gay and bisexual men, and transgender women) continue to bear the greatest increases in new infections. In 2006, 53 percent of all new infections were among MSM.

More stunning, it found the number of new infections of black MSM ages 13-29 to be the highest of all MSM groups. Even though CDC officials are typically conservative in its public statements, CDC scientists are stating publicly that black MSM are the only group in the U.S. with HIV rates similar to Sub-Saharan African nations, despite similar or lower rates of risky sex or substance abuse than white MSM.

Though transwomen are counted in the "MSM" category, some data has shown Black MTF transwomen have an HIV prevalence rate of 56%.

While black MSM certainly bear the brunt of the virus, gay and bisexual the virus disproportionately impacts men and transgender women of all races.


There are many policy changes that we'd like to see, many of which are encompassed in the National AIDS Strategy, and those are likely to happen. So I am going to focus on what we in this room, as activists and organizers in the LGBT movement, need to do.


First and foremost, the time where we can pretend that there is no viable, credible or visible Black (or other POC) queer leadership is over. While we certainly need to be developing leaders, leadership per se, is not the problem. We have lost of leaders, but leaders with no base that they're accountable to. Because what little Black LGBT infrastructure that exists, is largely due to HIV/AIDS service delivery, we are able to reach lots of people in our organizations as "clients", but are rarely engaged as potential leaders, organizers or members of our organizations. We need the investment of both progressive philanthropy and LGBT funders to help build the capacity and infrastructure of organizations to move from strict service delivery to doing community organizing, leadership development, and base-building.

Lastly, as long as the White-led mainstream LGBT movement is invested in seeing itself as the only credible leadership or it's organizations the only ones doing "the real work" or having "real impact" we will continue to invisibilize the work that Black and other POC organizations are doing on the ground, in spite of real material obstacles. So every time the gay news media and organizations promote ideas of the gay community vs. the Black community, Black queers will continue to remain invisible, and assumes that Black queer people are not engaging in a battle against homophobia and transphobia in the Black community.

Phrases like the Advocate's recent "Gay is the New Black" which has surfaced in stickers and T-shirts in gayborhoods as well, is racist, dangerous, and ignores the reality despite having a Black president, Black people in America continue to suffer a vast array of health, and socio-economic disparities, even when you control for all other factors. Not only that, it also, once again, presumes that to be LGB or T is to be white and usually male.

Just yesterday at this conference, a major figure in the same-sex marriage movement told a young queer person of color that "there are some people in our community who are fit to lobby, and some who are fit to sing and dance."

These kinds of comments are simply disgusting, particularly since many people of color and transgender people in white gay male spaces are only allowed in to do as much. The sad thing is, for too many people of color in this movement, the line between being asked by white-led organizations to lobby, or to sing & dance, is far too thin.

I think a lot about Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde and many others, as artists and organizers and activists who have led the way for me to be able to stand here on this stage, and it seems sad to me that in my work as a writer and here with the Task Force & Queers for Economic Justice, with my comrades in the room and in various movements around the country-- having to make the arguments, they'd been making for decades.

And we can have all of our policy wish lists items and services around HIV met--but without movement building from the grassroots of people most vulnerable to serve as the place where real change happens. And so long as no cure is found we will not see an end to the epidemic and the disproportionate impact it has on people of African descent globally.

I would hope, that after the decades of efforts to make visible the work that Black LGBTQ people are engaged in directly or indirectly related to HIV/AIDS, not another person has to stand here, decades from now, having to justify or make visible that work, ever again. We are beyond the point of benign ignorance. The bodies in this room, and the graveyards many of us are carrying on our backs, tell a different story.

And so now, should we.

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steve tabarez | February 3, 2009 1:31 PM

I find this posting telling, gripping and and the kind of voices that need to be heard. In this new age of activism, many times history, and the significance is lost. As a fellow person of color,and a person who by econmics, and social norms had to live and breathe, and play with many african-americans, we were forced to combine efforts, energy and time and money to further are sometimes, differnt, sometimes same causes. But what is lost sadly sometimes, that sometimes the race question is relegated toa black/white discussion. The AIDS/HIV rates are extremely high as well, due to my mexican culture equivalent of bein' on the DOWN LOW. It's called, not what you are used to with this term, being a MACHO. A A macho is a real man, one who seeks favors from men and women, the men hiiden of course. And as a true MACHO, a stud if you will, they penetrate at will, with no regard to safe sex, as that would be an admission of sexual dalliances with men. A real man does not use protection. So, yes, the parallels are there. And, yes, the predominantly white establishment needs address the issues of our commnities. Because in many ways, our organizations began other pursuits when the son of white guys stopped dying en masse. Fact, or fiction, myth or not, many in our respective communities see it that way. A very enlightening piece, Waymon.

steve tabarez | February 3, 2009 2:43 PM

Sorry guest blogger. Was reading email from Waymon as I was responding to this post. My BIG MISTAKE.

Anthony in Nashville | February 3, 2009 6:01 PM

The first place I saw "Gay Is The New Black" was on some shirts worn by some of the Noah's Arc cast back in 2005 or 2006.

People need to stop saying The Advocate created that term.

And so long as no cure is found we will not see an end to the epidemic and the disproportionate impact it has on people of African descent globally.
Damn, that's a deeply depressing perspective.

Is it justified by what is noted?

Do people really feel that the "real work" on HIV prevention is being rendered invisible?

To go with the theme, let me trade a depressing perspective:

There _may_ be no national _prevention_ strategy, mainly because the virus doesn't give a shit where it goes and the epidemic looks different, depending on region. What's working/prioritized in Baltimore is not maybe the same as say, Albuquerque.

Bold, reachable, accountable prevention goals raise the prospect of bold solutions, including one-time, blanket mandatory testing, for high-risk areas or populations. Or, maybe not 'one-time'. As soon as you start in with 'one-time', people will argue for 'sustained'. Are people ready to cross that Rubicon?

Trying to drive infection rates to zero, using 'traditional' models for modifying behavior (like advertising, information, education, suasion, etc.) probably requires a hard-hitting, clinical assessment - possibly invasive/non-voluntary assessment - of behavior, environment, and more. Those assessments _may_ be very impolitic.

2 gay men infected every hour in the U.S., still. ... hummm... the fierce urgency of now.

There are no OUT black appointees by President Obama yet many qualify. Do you think this is because of the homophobia existing in the black faith based communities who view gay as a priviledged white movement and deny that blacks are gay? Although Bayard Rustin was one of the most important leaders of the American civil rights movement from the advent of its modern period in the 1950s until well into the 1980s, his name is seldom mentioned by straight civil rights leaders.

steve tabarez | February 4, 2009 10:27 AM

Yes, amicus, the chaning of behavior that is self-destructive, and a sign of willful disreagrd for self, or community would require intensive, invasive treatment that many in our gay community would definitely have a problem. I've been attacked here, and other places for espousing how on it's face, hyper-sexuality, and the search for self through carnal pursuits, actually traps the individual in a juvenile developmental stage. Changing behavior is amatter of enlightment, of a willingness to actually look at onesself. Something I do not see very often. Brazenly, unabashedly, worn as a flag of freedom of self-expression, and sexual liberation, it is nothing more than the lack of self-responsibility. More, that destructive sense of entitlement. Entitled to what? With that comes, of course, with localized strategies, of what works, cause as you point out, what works in one place, with one strain, does not work in all places. That makes it difficult. That said, that is why it is important to keep the pressure on for AIDS/HIV funding for research, and prevention. And, the pressure on our own to at least think about what sexual liberation, witha sense of self-responsibilty might do. As we can liberate ourselves from the repression of staright society, we can liberate us from ourselves. We are more than sexual beings i think.


Prevention funding? I hope you didn't see the headlines this morning ... *sigh*

I'm honestly not close to what really is the best research about what's required to mitigate risk-factors, so any reply has to be general - way general.

If one must tie zero-infection rates to putting an end to all self-destructive behavior, that's probably an unrealistic goal.

Still, there is _arguably_ no incompatibility between "sexual liberation" and prevention (non-transmission).

You can dance the night away, party your fucking head off, and still remain negative. All one has to do is (a) get tested and (b) wear a condom. Is that against 'liberation', sexual or otherwise?

Using that insight, one has to look for the cross-risk components of high-risk behaviors in other psychologies (group OR individual), I'd bet.

steve tabarez | February 4, 2009 3:55 PM

Yes I read the headlines. Thus my line of keeping up the pressure. As for the rest, what it boils down to is that people are dying, and people are are still infecting others. And what is clear, is that prevention alone will not work without self-responsibility, whatever the reasons. What also is clear, is that the infection rates for people of color is signicantly higher than for whites. And that funding and our communities leadersship are falling short.

steve tabarez | February 4, 2009 3:56 PM

Yes I read the headlines. Thus my line of keeping up the pressure. As for the rest, what it boils down to is that people are dying, and people are are still infecting others. And what is clear, is that prevention alone will not work without self-responsibility, whatever the reasons. What also is clear, is that the infection rates for people of color is signicantly higher than for whites. And that funding and our communities leadersship are falling short.

You get the final word. I'm cool with that.

Just to be clear, though, because I don't want to leave mis-perceptions: my hopefully scientific approach was just to describe a logical condition and then look for insights into why those conditions weren't satisfied. (People aren't 'logical' allatime ... or even maybe most of the time).

There is a big difference between that and launching into a giant, quasi-moralizing 'individual responsibility' campaign, which some _others_ have done in the past...