Houston organizations combat growing HIV rates among young African-American MSMs while building community.
by Megan Smith
It’s tough being a teenager. You’re no longer a child, not yet an adult, and just starting to find your place in the world. Jason Black’s teenage years presented even more of a struggle. Newly out of the closet, he was just beginning to navigate his way through life as a young, gay, African-American man. With no close gay friends, ties to the larger gay community, or comprehensive sex education in his schooling, safe sex and knowing the risks of HIV were nowhere on Black’s radar. “So you’re trying to navigate and learn all of that alone,” he says. “I had been having sex for two or three years by the time I even learned that HIV was an issue or that it should be a concern to me as a man and as a black, gay man. And you really don’t have that option to be exploratory because when you look at a community of people where the infection rates are as high as they are, you really don’t have that flexibility, because the pool of people you’re going to be having sex with has a lot of [HIV] positives.”
Infection rates for young African-American MSMs (men who have sex with men) are in fact high—and increasing. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of young African-American MSM (age 13 to 24) diagnosed with HIV in Harris County increased by 189 percent. In 2011, young MSMs accounted for 16.8 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in Harris County and, of these diagnoses, 60.5 percent were African-American men, according to the 2013 Houston Area Integrated Epidemiologic Profile for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Services Planning. “The epidemic really has shifted to communities of color,” says Joe Fuentes, chief executive officer of Houston Area Community Services (HACS), a local full-service Federally Qualified Healthcare Center that originally formed in 1998 as an HIV/AIDS service organization to assist communities of color.
Health-care disparities, lower income and educational attainment, and higher rates of unemployment and incarceration are among the numerous factors that attribute to these high rates, Fuentes says. The increasing popularity of unprotected sex and the disconnect between the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the virus today also contribute to these numbers, adds Kevin Anderson, community outreach and education coordinator for AIDS Foundation Houston (AFH). “A lot of young MSM individuals don’t know about that side of HIV,” Anderson says. “So now, to know people who are HIV-positive and to see them living healthy, and to not hear of many complaints, I think what happens is that young MSMs just think ‘Oh, I’ll be fine. I’ll just take a pill. There are things that I can do.’”
One of the most prominent factors—lack of knowledge surrounding sex—starts at home, Black says. “In our culture and in our families as people of color, African American or Latino, we are very focused around religion and religious belief systems,” he says. “And this culture of stigma [comes out of those beliefs]. We have been taught culturally not to have conversations about sex openly. It’s a very secretive thing and it’s a very private thing. You don’t have open dialogue about that, and so I think that unconsciously transpires into our personal lives when we’re having conversations with our sex partners or even as a community. I think we all know each other is having sex, but we don’t have a conversation about what type of sex we’re having or what we’re doing when we’re having sex, and I think all of that contributes to the decisions we make around HIV. So surely if I can’t have a conversation with you about just having sex, I’m not going to talk about whether that is protected or unprotected sex. Oftentimes, I think that dialogue doesn’t happen, so we’re not able to learn from each other.”
As an adult, Black now works to combat that same lack of knowledge, stigma, and lack of community he experienced as a teenager through his work as manager of public health services and head of the mSociety at Legacy Community Health Services. A program of Legacy, the mSociety is an organization composed of African-American gay and bisexual men and transgender persons between the ages of 18 and 29 who are “dedicated to uplifting and empowering one another through personal and professional development, while also providing HIV/AIDS prevention, outreach, education, and awareness.” The mSociety seeks to create a safe space for members to have these traditionally taboo conversations around sex while building lasting community. And while the program focuses on HIV-negative men, a few positive men are members as well, Black says. “We work to empower them in a holistic approach, not only focusing on HIV stuff, but overall, empowering them as a community.”
This local society is part of the national mPowerment movement, formed nearly two decades ago at the University of California. Although the original intent of the movement was to build community among gay white men in rural areas, it was adapted around 10 years ago to meet the needs and cultural differences of African-American
gay and bisexual men, Black says.
Each month, the mSociety presents a full calendar of educational, social, and community-building events such as “Real, Relevant, Raw Conversations,” which feature facilitated dialogues about dating and sex. Previous outreach events have included movie nights, barbeques in the park, a crawfish boil, panel discussions, and “Be Like Bey,” confidence-building dance classes named after the queen bee herself, Beyoncé Knowles. “They’re all fun events, but we incorporate HIV testing or HIV messaging into them,” Black says. “They’re also spaces to have conversations that these community members have probably never had before, or wouldn’t be able to have otherwise. When we are able to have conversations and reconcile around our spirituality and our sexuality, I think that helps people to make better decisions sexually.”
The mSociety is about more than just the now—the organization also offers the Emerging Leaders Fellowship, a six-week program that helps shape the next generation of African-American LGBT community leaders. After a selective interview process, chosen participants are mentored and trained in leadership and public speaking. Toward the end of the program, the men also research and complete a project that, upon completion, is presented to prominent leaders within the community. By the time they graduate from this fellowship, participants have made a name for themselves within the movement, made lasting connections with other community figures, and proved they are trustworthy and reliable when it comes to future opportunities involving advocacy and employment.
A game room, computer lab, lounge area, and mini fitness center are available at the mSociety’s permanent space located at 1116 Jackson Blvd. The space is open Monday through Friday at various hours for community use, and anyone interested in joining the mSociety or volunteering is encouraged to drop by. Volunteers do not have to fall within mSociety’s age or racial demographic to be eligible.
Legacy is pleased with the impact the mSociety has made and continues to make on the community. The health center is also excited to announce that they will be working with the University of California over the next three years to create an additional adaptation of the mPowerment movement that will focus specifically on HIV-positive African-American gay and bisexual men, Black says.
The mSociety, HACS, and AFH all offer free HIV testing for folks who are unsure of their status. Testing isn’t just confined within the walls of these organizations, either—all three will meet clients in the space they feel safest, be it in their private homes, at a shopping center, or even outside of bars and clubs. “We’ll make it accessible to them because there’s still that fear of being seen or someone knowing,” Anderson says.
Legacy, HACS, and AFH also offer numerous services to newly and already diagnosed HIV-positive gay, bisexual, and MSM clients—from homeless youth to sex industry workers to professionals—so that they are able to receive proper care in the most comfortable setting possible. “We serve the whole gamut here at HACS,” Fuentes says. “We use a very generic name, so people don’t usually associate us as an LGBT organization or an HIV/AIDS organization. We do have a lot of people who don’t identify as [LGBT] even though they’re having MSM sex. We treat individuals who come in as they identify. Even though they may disclose some of this behavior, we never [label them] as A, B, C, or D.”
And although AFH does not provide in-house medical treatment, they do help navigate their clients to their first and second appointments, rather than simply referring them to other health centers and then cutting ties. The organization will even provide clients with transportation if necessary. “We do this work because we care,” Anderson says. “[We do this] so they know our hearts are just as invested in seeing that they walk through the steps [to get care], so we walk through those steps with them.”