Black Pride Amidst Crisis

Summit, Weekend Events Geared to Ending HIV Menace, Anti-Gay Brutality

In 2001, a group of black gay men met in New York City to discuss what they saw as the shortcomings in science and studies about the lives in their community. There was not enough research on the lives of African-American gay and bisexual men and what little there was tended to focus on HIV and AIDS.

The men, now part of an organization with 20 members titled the Black Gay Research Group, will hold their second summit meeting August 4 and 5 that will draw 200 academics, health care and social service providers, researchers and others to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Brooklyn.

“I think what is really phenomenal about this experience is that the black gay men who sit at the table are volunteers,” said Evelyn G. Williams, the conference planner and a consultant at People of Color in Crisis, a Brooklyn AIDS service provider and a summit sponsor. “This is clearly representative of black gay men who are in service to an ideal.”

The two-day conference, titled “Untying Tongues: Black Gay Men in Research, Service and Scholarship,” will feature tracks on sexuality and health, best practices in HIV prevention, emerging identities among black men, cultural studies, and the results of a large study on the House Ball community that for generations has served as a vehicle for black gay and transgendered social, fashion and dance expression. The results from a number of other studies will also be presented.

“Through every one of the tracks we have at least two completed studies that are presented,” Williams said.

Some of the studies will include empirical research on child abuse, adolescence and sexual initiation, “the civil rights movement and the role of the black church and how that impacts on gay marriage,” Williams said.

The emerging identities and cultural studies tracks aim to expand the understanding of back gay men’s lives and to broaden the further research efforts on that issue.

“They look at the social sciences, the various theoretical frameworks coming out of the social sciences and how they have been shortsighted in dealing with black gay men,” Williams said.

The conference’s title is a reference to “Tongues Untied,” the 1989 documentary by the late Marlon Riggs that explored black gay men’s sexuality. The fact that this documentary, which provided a frank discussion of sex, was funded with public dollars drew condemnations from the American right-wing at the time.

“The use of ‘Untying Tongues’ in this context is that it is time for black gay men to be visible and articulate in addressing issues in research on black gay men’s lifestyles as well as in how they serve themselves and others,” Williams said. “‘Untying Tongues’ is like a call to black gay men to speak up, express themselves, express their research and be of service to themselves and the larger community.”

The first summit, held in Brooklyn in 2003, drew 150 academics, students, service providers and “people who are just in the gay community, who are interested in hearing about the issues in the black gay community, and the research on black gay men,” according to Williams.

Some of the HIV prevention strategies that were discussed at the 2003 summit have since been put into practice.

“From those discussions, it actually served as an impetus for research,” Williams said. “Some of those interventions that were discussed actually started showing up.”

This year’s conference will also see the launch of a think tank dedicated to research on black gay men that looks at more than HIV and AIDS in the lives of these men.

“One of the things that the research group has continually expressed is that black gay men’s lives are larger than HIV,” Williams said. “The think tank will enlarge the conversation on black gay men.”

The two keynote speakers this year are author Keith Boykin, whose most recent book, “Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America,” made it onto to The New York Times bestseller list, and Dr. David J. Malebranche, an assistant professor at the Division of General Medicine at Emory University’s School of Medicine in Atlanta who has authored a number of studies on black gay men, HIV and how those men view doctors.

Boykin said he will talk about recent violence directed against gay and lesbian African-Americans including Sakia Gunn, Arthur Warren, Wanda Alston, Dwan Prince and Rashawn Brazell.

“In light of recent events, including violence against black gays and lesbians and homophobic remarks by black ministers, I’m going to use the speech to black gays and lesbians to call on them to stand up and be counted in this debate and not participate in our own oppression,” Boykin said.

The “homophobic remarks by black ministers” refers to Willie Wilson, a Washington, D.C. minister, who made bizarre, anti-lesbian comments in a recent sermon, Boykin explained.

“Now more than ever we really need black gay and lesbian leaders to stand up and do something,” said Boykin, who also attended the 2003 summit and serves as board president for the National Black Justice Coalition, which works for equality by battling racism and homophobia.

“It was a good event,” Boykin said of the 2003 summit “It was a good opportunity to bring people together who were researchers and thinkers and talk about strategies that are not just academic. I think academia sometimes is disconnected from the real world.”

Malebranche said he expected to make two major points. While the summit and the research are valuable, the attendees must keep their audience in mind.

“We have to remember we are part of the community,” he said. This is not an anthropological expedition. These are our friends, these are us.”

Malebranche said that researchers must avoid the errors of earlier research on black gay men of focusing largely on HIV and reporting data that leads to inflammatory press coverage.

“It seems like every few months or so the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] sounds the alarm about bad things are among black gay men,” he said. “We know that, we’ve known that for five years or so… We have to make sure we’re responsible. It’s our duty to make sure that people realize that black gay men are more than HIV.”

Malebranche noted that a lot of the research at the summit was on HIV and AIDS.

“That’s great, but that shouldn’t always be the topic,” he said. “We shouldn’t be relegated to sexual beings who get HIV.”

Other summit sponsors are the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive Project at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York State Black Gay Network, Us Helping Us People Into Living, the San Francisco Bay Positives, the Donald R. Watkins Memorial Foundation/MSM Drop In Center, the New York State AIDS Institute, the California State Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.