HIV continues to strike black gay men in disproportionate numbers in Texas’ urban centers, according to recent data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Nearly 10 percent of all people with HIV in Texas are black gay men, according to the health department data. A Dallas study indicates that 32 percent of the black gay men who were tested in Dallas are HIV positive, while a similar study in Houston showed that 27 percent of black gay men tested there were positive.
The problem, according to Steve Walker of the National Alliance for Black Gay Health, is a glaring lack of AIDS service and educational organizations rooted in the black gay male community. The Texas Black Gay Network, launched by the alliance last month, hopes the planning and information meeting the network is holding Friday night in Dallas will be a first step in filling that gap.
“There is not a single organization in the state of Texas funded by state and local health departments that has a black gay executive director, a primarily black gay board of directors and a primarily black gay staff,” Walker said.
In the early days of the epidemic, AIDS was seen primarily as a gay male disease. Today, the demographics of the disease have changed and the virus is seen as predominantly affecting ethnic minorities. In both cases, Walker said, black gay men were seen only as part of the larger HIV-positive population.
That approach doesn’t take into account the differences in culture or the different needs, Walker said.
“Programs targeting white gay men did not reach black gay men. And now, most of the programs are targeting African American heterosexual women. But you can’t use the same strategies to reach heterosexual African-American women that you need to reach black gay men,” Walker said. “It’s like a doughnut hole. We keep going around and around the issue and we keep on missing this group that should be targeted.”
In early December, the alliance announced the launch of the Texas Black Gay Network, a new coalition of black gay community leaders, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, service providers and social groups from around the state.
The network is intended to be a statewide advisory board to the alliance’s current programs addressing HIV and other critical health issues affecting black gay men in disproportionate numbers, including cancers, cardiovascular disease and hypertension as well as AIDS.
Later on in December, the alliance and the network joined together to sponsor a meeting between leaders of AIDS service organizations based in the African-American community and officials with the state health services department. Walker said although the alliance was happy to have been a part of the two-day meeting, organizers were disappointed and frustrated by the lack of participation by organizational leaders. Only three of the 14 such organizations in Texas had representatives at the meeting, he said.
“It was an historic meeting. It was the first the state had participated in this kind of meeting with the black gay male community,” Walker said. “But we were very disappointed, too. It gave us a wonderful opportunity for some important discussion, but it could have been at a whole different level if more people had participated.”
Kirk Myers, the Dallas coordinator for the Texas Black Gay Network, said those who did not attend missed out on an opportunity to discuss new and innovative strategies for reaching black gay men with members of the community their organizations are intended to serve.
“These same organizations always manage to attend meetings to discuss funding availability,” Myers said. “I find it unacceptable that they failed to attend a meeting to hear directly from black gay men on what new strategies we should try.”
Despite the poor attendance, the meeting in Austin gave black gay activists the beginnings of a plan, Walker said.
“The consensus was that we have to look at building the capacity of the black gay community to respond to HIV and other crises. Black gay men have to be leading the charge in helping their community stay alive and healthy. We have to begin creating the infrastructure necessary to support organizations indigenous to the black gay male community. We want some of these other, older organizations to realize that black gay men are not trying to be separatist. They just want to be the leaders in the organizations targeting their community.”
The African American Resource Center of Dallas, formerly Renaissance III, was one of the few indigenous organizations ever formed in Texas to serve the black gay male community. It folded late last year following allegations of financial improprieties.
One of the problems, Walker said, was that Renaissance III never had the resources it needed to do the job. Still, he said, the infection rate in the city’s black gay male population would likely have been much higher without Renaissance III’s efforts.
Myers said the black gay community now needs to look past the failure of Renaissance III and focus instead on finding ways to build better, more stable agencies to meet the growing need.
One way to do that, the men said, is to create organizations like the National Alliance for Black Gay Health and the Texas Black Gay Network whose foundation’s are built to go beyond the boundaries of HIV.
“The National Alliance for Black Gay Health is not an AIDS organization. We are looking to shore up the health care infrastructure overall in black gay communities across the nation,” Walker said. “Funding comes and goes, and because of that, organizations come and go. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. We want to roll AIDS prevention and service programs in with a more comprehensive program addressing a much broader array of health issues.”
To work toward that goal, Friday’s meeting in Dallas will not focus specifically on HIV, Myers said.
“We don’t have any infrastructure in place that gives us the capacity to communicate effectively the way our white counterparts do,” Myers said. “That’s the foundation of what we want to do. We will talk about HIV issues and other health issues. We’ll talk about political awareness and getting black gay men engaged in the political process. We’ll talk about general social issues, about financial issues. We’ll talk about providing safe places where people feel they can be both black and gay at the same time.”
Myers added, “There’s never been an organization here like we’re talking about now, one that deals with the totality of being black and gay in Dallas. This is an opportunity for people to get involved at every level of our community, instead of standing on the sidelines.”
The Texas Black Gay Network’s regional planning and informational meeting begins at 7 p.m. Friday at the offices of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, 3500 Oak Lawn, Suite 500. The meeting is open to all interested black gay men. For information e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to www.nafbgh.org/tbgn-INDEX.html.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of January 13, 2006.