The Robertson Treatment
It's Time to Get Serious About HIV/AIDS
By Gil Robertson IV
Dear Black America,
My name is Gil Robertson IV, editor of the bestselling, landmark anthology “Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community.” Up until the release of the book, I spent over a decade as an A&E journalist reporting on popular trends, events and personalities that populate the entertainment industry. However, in the summer of 2005, I became committed to writing about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which by then had already gained a solid foothold within the African American community, including my own family with my brother living with the disease.
So I decided to write a book that would highlight my family’s story and that I hoped would offer a measure of support and comfort to other families living in the shadows of this disease. However, as my idea developed, it quickly evolved to include other stories -- resulting in 58 essays from a wide-cross section of people sharing how HIV/AIDS has influenced and reshaped their lives.
“Not in My Family” was released last year on World AIDS Day, and since its publication, I have toured America extensively connecting with members of the black community on a variety of different issues involved with this disease. Away from wearing red-ribbons, never-ending conferences and stagy speeches, my experience with this book created an opportunity for me to engage with black people – up close, personal and for real about how we begin as a community to effectively deal with this issue.
A year later, I have come away with a lot of confidence about how deeply African American's care for their brethren. The problem is that a vast majority in the black community are confused and unsure about what they can do. Faced with overwhelming challenges coming from all directions, has left our community beleaguered and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and numerous other social ills.
So what do we do about HIV/AIDS? Well for starters, African Americans need to get honest and real about the fact that as sexual animals, we’re all susceptible to the disease. The finger pointing must end. We also must do away with our fear, prejudice and denial over sex and sexuality, and accept the fact that this is not a gay disease, (homosexuals were the most visible and vocal community affected by this disease), but this disease has never been exclusive to any one group of people.
The African American community must drop all the falsehoods and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS. Many of us thought this disease would never touch our population in a significant way, but this disease is here and it’s not going anywhere until we change our behavior and attitudes about this disease.
African Americans must develop the will and confidence to demand a change from the US government, business community and medical institutions in terms of an aggressive response to this crisis. As citizens of a nation with the assets to land a man on the moon and finance wars on terror, African Americans should insist on nothing less than full engagement in the federal support to solving the HIV/AIDS in black communities.
African Americans must be mindful of their contributions to America and the rest of the world. We must also remember what we are the descendants of people who had the strength and resiliency to overcome Middle Passage, Slavery and Racial Discrimination. In other words, we’re not asking for anything, but simply demanding to get the best support and treatment that we deserve.
On our own, it’s time for African Americans to accept responsibility and become accountable for how HIV/AIDS has spread within our communities. We must move beyond having conversations about this problem and get busy with implementing the actual work for removing this disease out of our space. After connecting with some many of you during the past year I know that the black community has what it takes to get things done and that soon HIV/AIDS will be nothing but a bad, bad dream.
For more information on Not in My Family, please visit www.notinmyfamily.com
Copyright, 2007 Robertson Treatment, LLC
Disease Free at Last
By Randy Boyd
“It was 1985 and the known world went through a sexual reality shift. That strange new disease that kills fags killed a movie star and turned aids into AIDS. The media alone—so many shots of dying men, so few answers. I was just as shocked as the public, and just as ignorant. Before then, AIDS was a whisper in the dark.” So says the main character in my novel “Walt Loves the Bearcat,” and so went my life on July 25, 1985, the day the world was introduced to HIV/AIDS in the form of a closeted homosexual actor named Rock Hudson. A day that stunned America. For many, some silent, some vocal, it was a day of confirmation of God’s wrath on gays, literal condemnation and punishment for All Things Gay. Sure, eventually there were some “innocent victims,” like babies and Ryan White, but people feared AIDS like Americans feared Muslims on Sept. 12, 2001, a very threat to society’s fabric. Albeit, the gay/disease thing was thankfully in the process of being resolved. It’s about time we had a modern day miracle of Biblical proportions, eh?
That was the mood the day Rock Hudson made his announcement, and the day after that, and the weeks and the months, and years, more or less, in spurts and waves, but always laced with fear, a fearful mood that officially ended … When again?
Television told me I had AIDS the day Rock Hudson told television he had AIDS. Based on the coverage, I put together my own recent history and symptoms and sure enough, they matched what the expert doctors were telling the world on the world news nightly. Television also told me I was going to die in 12-18 months. There was no other credible reality. No other sense to make of any of this. I was 23 years old, having graduated from UCLA a month earlier, where I was a cheerleader from 83-85 (prior to that I was a yell leader for USC from 80-82).
I was one month into a freelance a job at ABC-TV as a promo writer-producer. Perfect job. Perfect opening. Sweet Lynette was going on six-month maternity leave. Perfect time to prove my worth. The talk of the office was the talk of America, but laced with alleged inside gossip about Rock, who had kissed Linda Evans on “Dynasty,” and other female actresses at the network who were suddenly more than curious about their male co-stars' private sexual behavior.
That was how I took off on the beginning of my AIDS Ride, and it was a solo flight. No one to ride beside me, no one I could tell, not a friend, not a doctor, not a family member, not a mentor, not a buddy, not a confidant, not a one. Only me. And I rode that way on the AIDS rollercoaster ride, in the cart all by myself, for a very long time. Meanwhile, at the same time, other twenty-somethings all over the world also received the Rock Hudson AIDS Wake Up Call and were wondering to themselves: what have I done? The answer: been sexual in some way that makes them wonder if AIDS was going to invade their lives like a worst nightmare come true. Multiply that by all ages in all worlds from 1975-1985, then imagine all the sexual experimentation and exploration during that time suddenly coming back to haunt you in the form of this strange new disease in 1985.
AIDS was a generation’s worst nightmare.
Imagine my utter astonishment at the mere fact that I’m here today, some 22 years later, my generation’s worst nightmare, alive. For many years, being alive in the 21st century was but a dream. Being alive until the Atlanta Olympics was but a dream. Being alive to see the beginning of the 90s was but a dream. Being something other than another closeted male homosexual to die in such a horrific way was but a dream.
Upon further reveal, I dreamed all those dreams, and many more. Some dreams have been quite lovely. I managed to stay alive this long, which to me is quite a feat, especially considering the hatred and fear I have encountered for what is now half my life.
You don’t forget the girl in the next booth in the restaurant saying with disgust, “Oh, my God, I just got gum from under the table on my hand, now I’ll probably get AIDS and die.”
You don’t forget the echoes of pundits and political and religious leaders who dreamed of this being their ultimate dream come true: fags dying of AIDS.
You don’t forget President Reagan not mentioning AIDS in public for a very long time, then his first comment being a derisive joke.
You don’t forget Lakers announcer Chick Hearn saying immediately about Magic Johnson: “Of all the ways he could have gotten it, don’t think the wrong way.”
It all stays with you, as does the wonderful support from people like my mom and my family, my health care workers, and the people who care about AIDS, then and now.
Before now, I never thought much about World AIDS Day. I suspect because my World AIDS Day was the day Rock Hudson shocked the world. I also never dreamed I would survive and find myself in a gay community that has come to use phrases like CLEAN and DISEASE FREE as badges of honor in the sexual mating game, often in ALL CAPS when used online to emphasize the words’ collective worth. To think what homosexuals have had to endure just to literally survive. To think that countless online profiles use terms such as NEG AS OF (A CERTAIN DATE). And of course, the original badge created by those who feel the need to distinguish themselves with such potentially insensitive and hurtful language, UB2, as in NEG, UB2. And of course, as anyone familiar with online profiles can attest, many of those same UB2’ers are having bareback sex with others whom they assume to be truthful about their NEG and CLEAN status. UB2.
Currently, I’m working on my next writing projects, the “Bearcat Boyz,” which will feature some version of the following:
First Day of Class, there it was, written on Professor Rochette’s chalkboard:
POZ, UNCLEAN, AND DISEASE-RIDDEN
The opposite of neg is poz.
The opposite of clean is unclean.
The opposite of disease-free is disease-ridden.
The opposite of neg, clean and disease-free is poz, unclean and disease-ridden.
The words you use create energy.
The energy you create creates opposite energy.
If you create a world where you define yourself and others as neg, clean and disease-free, you also create a world where you define others as poz, unclean, and disease-ridden.
What kind of world do you choose to create? A world full of judgmental, insensitive and potential harmful words? Or would you rather create a world without judgment, insensitivity and harm?
The medical terms are HIV Negative and HIV Positive.
The rest is all in your mind ...
... How did so many men in the gay community go from compassion and understanding (and interest in safer sex), to a world full of such harmful energy? Would you wear the words CLEAN and DISEASE-FREE on a T-shirt? Would you wear that T-shirt in front of the innocent babies who have survived and grown up? Would you say it to Ryan White, were he alive today? Would you wear a t-shirt that said CLEAN and LUNG-CANCER-FREE around your relative dealing with lung cancer? Around a friend who might have a relative dealing with it, and so on?
How we came to this point, I have no idea. Hopefully, I learn a thing or two as I work on my next novels. And hopefully, my words will inspire men who have sex with men to dream a better dream about who you are and who we are. In the meantime, because I believe in recycling all energy when possible, I’d like to introduce my newest dream, born today, World AIDS Day 2007: I never imagine having a tombstone (prefer cremation), but this new gay world has inspired me to imagine what my tombstone would say, even if only in my dreams … disease-free, at last.
Copyright © 2007 by Randy Boyd. All Rights Reserved.
A five-time Lambda Literary Award nominee, Randy Boyd is the author of Walt Loves the Bearcat, the epic sports novel featuring the first out superstar athlete.
A Change is Gonna Come
By Lee Carlson
World AIDS Day always inspires me to reflect on how I started doing HIV prevention work for black gay men, which began officially, exactly seven years ago today on December 1, 2000.
I, at that time was thoroughly excited about landing a job with an organization in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., that provided services for black men who have sex with men (MSM). I remember thinking, “Wow, how can an organization like this exist in a small city like Rochester?” But it did, and it still does, and it, like all of the organizations across the country serving black MSM have more work to do than ever, because in spite of our best efforts with the limited resources the government has given us, we have fallen short of saving the lives of black gay men from HIV/AIDS. A disease with a small name, but powerful punch, that has robbed our families and our communities of so many beautiful and talented black gay men. However, I believe a change is gonna come!
The title of this essay is inspired by the politically charged song by the late Sam Cook, who spoke prophetic words about the change that was going to occur as a result of the Civil Rights movement to combat racial injustice in the United States. Like Sam, I feel “a change is gonna come” in how we address the HIV epidemic among black gay men in the United States. Why do I think this? The answer is both simplistic and complex at the same time. It’s simplistic in that, we have no other choice but to attack this killer called AIDS “by any means necessary” to quote the late, great Malcolm X. Yes, attack it with the same fierceness in which it is attacking us, an eye for an eye! The complexity lies in how we employ an effective response to stop AIDS from its relentless attack on the lives of black gay men. Twenty-five plus years in the game and we are still coming up short! Maybe this is because we have viewed HIV prevention from a restrictive lens, focusing too much on education and giving out condoms vs. addressing the psychological, social, cultural and economic factors that contribute to the spread of HIV. Maybe it’s that HIV is a symptom of these structural issues and this is where we should shift our focus.
I get angry as hell and then sad when I think of the lives lost and how AIDS has extinguished some of our most important political leaders. I think back to the 80’s, when black gay organizing began to congeal into a movement.
I’m referring to folks like Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs. They put a face and gave life to black gay organizing with books like “Brother 2 Brother” and documentaries like “Tongues Untied.” Indeed, the tongues of black gay men had become untied and we no longer had to live through the voices of gay white men who had more privilege and power to live their lives openly. I often wonder what black gay organizing would look like today if AIDS hadn’t stolen their lives and the lives of countless other black gay men. Just as I often wonder what the state of black folks in this country would be if Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were still alive. I suppose every war has its martyrs and in either case, lives were taken before their time and we should not let their deaths be in vain.
We must achieve a cohesive national response to revive the value of black gay men in all of our diversity from the femme queen to the homo-thug, because when a person feels valued, they are more likely to protect their life and less likely to engage in behaviors that will put them at risk for HIV. But before we can rebuke larger society for how they treat us, we have some home cleaning to do. We have got to come back to a village mentality and stop allowing patriarchal, heterosexist and sexist notions to create hierarchies in our communities that leave some of us devalued, broken, depressed and suicidal. The hierarchy that has been created within many Black gay “communities,” which value masculinity and devalue femininity, is in part what fuels the alarming rate of HIV among black gay men. We need to own up to this and realize that in some cases we are playing a co-conspirator role in this epidemic, which is ravaging our brothers (and sisters). Sam Cook said it well: “…..then I go to my brother, and I say brother help me please. But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees." It's amazing that in 2007, we are dealing with this same divisiveness amongst ourselves as was the case over 40 years ago. But I believe a change is gonna come!
I don’t view the need to build cohesion among black gay men through rose-colored glasses, as I don’t expect us all to “just get along” a la Rodney King. This isn’t “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or “The Brady Bunch” and the lack of cohesion that has taken hold in black gay communities cannot and will not be solved in a 30 or 60 minute episode. We can only begin to address it through deep introspection, honesty and in some cases therapy. Yep, I said it, THERAPY. Some of us are damaged because of the things that have happened to us in our lives and going to a counselor isn’t a bad thing. Some of us are carrying the battle scars of sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, effemiphobia, emotional abuse, physical abuse, pain from damaged family relationships because of our same sex desire and religious homophobia to name a few. How can one carry these emotional scars with no outlet to heal and it not have a negative impact on ones self-esteem, well-being and self-worth? The answer is, it DOES impact us in ways that manifests itself through engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse and risky sexual activity. If we dig deep into our psyche to find out how the things that have happened to us in our lives impact how we feel about ourselves and how we treat others, I think then we will begin to find a way to build greater cohesion among black gay men, which in turn will help curb the HIV epidemic. We cannot heal, if we don’t allow ourselves to feel.
My challenge to my black gay brothers for 2008 who carry these emotional scars is to seek a means to heal. Heal in the way that feels best for you, but don’t allow your emotional scars to erode your ability to connect in a healthy way to other black gay men. Don’t allow the scars to erode your ability to protect yourself, your family and your community. It is up to us to get the help we need to feel better about ourselves so we don’t put ourselves at risk for HIV. It is up to us to stop wounding each other with our words and in some cases our actions. And it is up to us to resist those patriarchal, heterosexist and sexist hierarchies from continuing to devalue and wound members of our communities. While we face significant challenges as black gay men across the United States in relation to stopping the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I continue to believe in Sam Cook’s prophetic words that a change is gonna come!
Lee Carson resides in Philadelphia, PA ,where he works as an HIV prevention behavioral science researcher and as a mental health therapist with the LGBT population.
NNPA Commentary Series
By Bishop Noel Jones
When I was coming along, in Spanish Town, Jamaica, it was “If you get the girl pregnant….” Today, it is, “If you get a disease….”
So the whole thing has changed considerably. We have moved now from getting somebody pregnant to getting yourself killed.
Let's be serious. People are having sex. Black Americans have a responsibility to prevent anything that takes life. First, we need to talk about it. We need to deal with it. We need to shout it on the housetop.
How serious is the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the black community? I am telling you it is extraordinarily SERIOUS. Of the 38,584 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. three years ago, approximately half of them - 19,206 - were African-American, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is outlandish for a race whose population of America is only 12 percent.
It has become this serious because for some reason black folk do not want to use condoms. The sisters say they don't feel anything and the men, of course, do not want any kind of restriction. They just want to feel, and feel and feel. And the women want to feel and feel and feel.
Meanwhile, the disease is going rampant. There are people who are on the down low who are jumping between men and women with the homosexual thing, and now they are infecting the sisters just so drastically and crazily because nobody wants to be protected. The best thing is to be with one woman in a marriage and close the door on all of the promiscuous behavior.
If you are not going to do that, somebody at least needs to be protected. And I would say to a woman who does not know where her man is, and does not know what he is doing, protect yourself. If he insists on not using any protection, don't go with him. PERIOD! It is crazy what is going on here!
The church adamantly declares that to allow the use of condoms is to condone and even to promote illicit sexual activity. Come on. What about the woman who is married to a man, and is faithful to him and he is playing around? What about the man who is married to a woman who is playing around? Use a condom on suspicion, or would you rather die with the evidence? I would certainly give to my children different advice as a Pastor from the advice of a father.
We have to widen our scope and undo some of our traditional morals that have kept us bound. If you have a child who is running around, you have to change your attitude about whether or not to sanction the use of condoms.
It seems to me, the most earnest Christian would at least want their children to stay alive long enough to be saved. If you have a child who is promiscuous, it is not about whether or not you are condoning their behavior. You know what they are doing. In that case, your commitment not to use condoms, give condoms or talk about condoms has got to increase to another level.
Finally, testing is crucial. I would not marry anybody if I were not going to go with them to be tested. We both need to be tested. End of story. Why? It’s because I want some security if I am going into marriage.
Sexuality seems to overshadow our mindset and our thinking, making us irrational. As a result, people are dying everywhere. In Africa, men are raping young girls, thinking that if they go younger, it will heal the disease. It will never happen.
We need some control. Just to say NO. People are not saying NO to sex. People are going to bed. Therefore, we need to talk about abstinence. We need to raise our boys as well as our girls to say NO! NO! NO!
When we go to Africa with our teams and when we go into the inner-city in America where folk often don't have money, sex is recreation. It is pleasure. It is fun. It doesn’t cost anything … but your life.
Bishop Noel Jones is pastor of the City of Refuge Church in Gardena, Calif. near Los Angeles.