Hunted by the State: HIV, Black Folk & How Advocacy Fails Us

by Timothy DuWhite

“The Negro death rate and sickness are largely matters of condition and not due to racial traits  and tendencies.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois

I think I am suppose to start with a story, right? I mean, that is how this goes, correct? I was closeted. I didn’t think anyone loved me. My family is black, therefore homophobic, therefore incapable of offering me safety. He was five years older than me. I was eighteen and lonely. I loved him. He humored me. I didn’t wear a condom because I felt little reason to protect myself. If only I had someone to confide in. If only I loved myself more. I know better now. I would never want anyone to follow my same path. I am living through my mistakes. I am not my HIV. We can live long lives too. I won’t let this stop me. I will not let this stop me. This will not stop me.

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Above I have positioned myself as the protagonist in some teenage redemption series and you (my audience) are left wet waiting to hear what happens next. Do I find love again? Does my family ever become a site of comfort? Did my partner know he was HIV positive and give it to me maliciously? These are some of the questions that landed lily white, former Who’s The Boss character turned P.F Chang’s manager, Danny Pintauro an interview on The View. These are the questions that make Charlie Sheen’s HIV “outing” national news. These are the very questions that currently has Michael “Mandingo” Johnson sitting in a cage serving a 60 year prison term. But most importantly, it is these questions that systemically distract us from the “matters of condition” that W.E.B. Du Bois so graciously warned us about.

You want to hear a story? The moment after the nurse told me my results were positive, instinctively, in a way only black folk would understand—a warm current flushed throughout my entire body chanting, “They got me.” And in that moment I did not need a book to teach me who the “they” were I was referring to. I did not have any groundbreaking analysis to unearth the significance of the word “got” in that sentence. No, all I had was “me,” and what I know to be true after living twenty-one years in this country and in this skin—I am being hunted. This fact was made ever more present in that room as I looked up, past the nurse, to a poster behind her head that read, “1 in 3 black men will contract HIV in their lifetime.”

In the book, “Anti-Black Racism and the AIDS Epidemic: State Intimacies” author Adam M. Geary highlights the two prominent modes of analysis implemented within HIV/AIDS discourse: Biomedical Analysis vs. Materialist Analysis. Currently the analysis framing all of our conversations around disease is that of the Biomedical. What the Biomedical Analysis does is center “risk” around individuals. Biomedical Analysis asks us how many sex partners have we had. It asks us when was the last time we were tested. It asks us if we took our pills this morning—or rather, have we considered PrEP? Largely, the Biomedical approach wants to know what YOU did, what YOU didn’t do, what YOU are doing, and how YOU plan on fixing things.

The Materialist Analysis (contemporarily known as: the political economy of health or social medicine or social epidemiology) on the other hand asks an entirely different set of questions. Instead of asking what you did, the Materialist Analysis asks, “Where do you live?” It asks, “How much income does your family bring in each year?” It asks, “How far is the nearest grocery store from your house?” The Materialist Analysis understands “risk” begins within the structure and not within the individual.

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“In this way, the socially produced conditions of urban despair fulfilled their historical function in being the incubators of epidemic, with the HIV epidemic being only the more recent example rather than something exceptional.”

– Adam M. Geary

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The best, and most telling example of how Biomedical Analysis perpetuates a victim blaming, anti-black ideology can be cited in the remarks of our very own Center of Disease Control (CDC). Though on the CDC’s website they make a point to implicate poverty as one of the deterrents for black people in the fight against HIV—in a recent reporting the CDC doesn’t fail to herald their Biomedical, white-supremacist, racist fuckery. This reporting begins by stating,

“While the overall number of HIV cases has dropped in the U.S., two groups are seeing a sharp increase.” The report then proceeds to explain that HIV cases have increased by 87 percent among gay and bisexual black and latino men. The most telling aspect of this entire report is the CDC’s take on the reason for such an occurrence, “part of the problem is many in that community do not use condoms.”

To say that the reason black people account for only 12% of the U.S. population yet nearly half of all newly infected HIV cases each year, is because of something black people are doing—is anti-black. However, this isn’t the first time “black behavior” is blamed for black suffering. If only he wasn’t wearing a hoodie. If only she listened and didn’t keep running her mouth. If only he didn’t take his hands out his pocket so fast. If only he didn’t shoot himself—while handcuffed in the back of a police car. It is also important to note that this sort of rationale isn’t only particular to “them” but we, black people, also tend to cite such anti-black logic ourselves. When we say statements such as, “HIV/AIDS is God’s reckoning for the deviance of the gay community,” we actively participate in a white supremacist agenda, that in turn kills us and resurrects a bolder, whiter, more resilient Jesus.

Epidemic is defined as “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.” The word I wish for us to pay most attention to in this definition is “community.” The greatest advances in population health, especially in the twentieth century, were predicated on raising the general health of populations through social investments in drinking water, nutrition, safe housing, sanitation, and environmental safety, among other social investments. With this in mind, we can not properly have a conversation about HIV within the black community without also having a conversation about gentrification, or minimum wage, or food justice, or gender justice, or climate change, or poverty, or most importantly prison.  

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“The effect of mass incarceration on black-white health disparities is greater than the effect of access to healthcare and may even be greater than standard measures of socioeconomic status associated with health, including employment.”

– Health Sociologists Michael Massoglia

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Soon after I became more and more comfortable telling people about my status, I began to feel a shift. I found myself being called upon to speak on panels, at schools, and other HIV/AIDS related events. All of this before I really began to do my own research and discovery. The only thing I had to offer to these different spaces was my “story.” If it is true that 1 in 3 black men will contract HIV in their lifetime, what then happens to the other two when we are only invested in the story of the one who got “it”? What then happens to our black women, or our trans and gender non-conforming siblings still at risk? Before I was captured—I was the one hunted. Which is to say, no matter which one of the three a black person represents in that statistic—we are still all implicated.

When we base how we organize around HIV off the leadership of only those with a positive status we once again play into the Biomedical agenda to individualize this disease. HIV is a form of state sanctioned violence, similar to how police brutality is as well. Rarely do we question why police brutality affects us all as black folk, whether a cop shot us personally or not. It is largely understood that whether or not you, or your brother, or your sister, or any other relative was the one brutalized—it is still an issue that implicates us all. This is how we must begin to think when we talk about HIV or more importantly the greater black health crisis.

In the words of Geary, “HIV isn’t anything exceptional”—other than the fact that it garnered visibility to the black queer community as well as funds. However, visibility in correlation with capitalism once again fulfills its primary function of distracting us from the bigger picture. Moving forward in our advocacy we must center black health in all HIV/AIDS discourse and not just positive folks—that is if we’re truly interested in raising the health and well-being of all black people facing health disparities and not just the one’s wearing a red ribbon.

All of the most effective organizing and advocacy work around social change begins by centering the community most affected. In this case, the community most affected when we talk about HIV disparities is that of the impoverished who have the closest proximity to experiencing life in prison. Recently the World Health Organization, who analyzes data from 15 countries, found that black transgender women are nearly 49 times more likely than the general population to contract HIV. This is no surprise given that trans-people are nearly four times more likely to earn less than $10,000 a year.

However, where the World Health Organization, as well as all of these data collection groups, fail in their research—and in turn fails black people—is that it doesn’t account for our gender non-conforming community. The reason that perceived trans women are 26% more likely to lose a job due to bias, or 50% more likely to be harassed on the job, or 20% more likely to be denied housing, is because their very gender is being read as illegitimate—in that it doesn’t conform neatly into the standard of white femininity. It is this “non-conformity” which is the root of transphobia and transmisogyny.  It is this “non-conformity” that we must allow to empower our liberation/resistance movements given that much like religion, language, and disease were enforced upon black people during colonization—so was the gender-binary as well. In this case, the act of me still only being able to perceive my body as “male” or “man” contributes as much to the strengthening of this prison that is HIV, as does poverty. Which is why for the sake of my life, the future of my people, and the credibility of my work—I can no longer continue to do so.

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“The tragedy of illness at present is that it delivers you helplessly into the hands of a profession which you deeply mistrust.”

-George Bernard Shaw

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Iatrophobia is defined as an abnormal or irrational fear of doctors or going to the doctor. However, this commonly used definition doesn’t accurately account for the fact that this word was first birthed from the interactions of the black community and the medical industry. This definition also fails when it chooses to use a word such as “irrational.” Such a fear cannot justifiably be deemed irrational when historically this country’s medical industry have used black people as test subjects (often times to their determent) for the advancements of western medicine. Which brings me to my final question—What are we talking about when we’re talking about the “state’?

It has become all too common practice in “social justice” spaces to replace critical analysis and critical thought with popularly used and easily digestible “buzzwords.” A few examples of such terms are: intersectionality, transformative justice, and respectability politics, just to name a few. I bring this up to say, I see a common trend arising around the use of the term “the state” as always an abstract with very little effort to unpack what one actually means. In an effort to undermine this trend I wish to clarify what I am saying when I say “the state” in reference to HIV/Black Health advocacy.

When I say the state, I am referring to the cultural pathology that positions black people as disposable, therefore worthwhile specimens for experimentation, yet unworthy of proper care and sustainability. When I say the state, I am referring to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in the 1970s to the 1996 jailing of poor black mothers who were unwitting research subjects in South Carolina, to the 1998 infusion of poor black New York City boys with the cardiotoxic drug fenfluramine. When I say the state, I am referring to a history of bigotry and patriarchy shrouded in anti-blackness. However, more supremely, when I say the state, I am referring to a prison I rededicate myself each and every single day to abolishing!

 

7b81a64b-c67b-4f1f-86e1-ad99ec6bcedbTimothy DuWhite identifies as a writer, poet, playwright, performer, freelance journalist, advocate, thinker, believer, lover, friend, son, brother, and brown boi. Their work focuses specifically on love, racial & gender justice and the state of black health. Currently DuWhite is obsessed with teaching their community about the connections of the state and the violence inflected on the black body through their writing workshop “HIV & The State: Coalition Building Beyond The Condom.”

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Thinking Outside the Box

by Zami Tinashe

On November 5, 2015, I did something I never wanted to do: check male on a legal document. It may seem odd that someone like me, a Transmasculine, “cis-male passing”, Transgender person would state that they never wanted to check male on a legal document, but it’s true.

I began my physical transition from being “female” passing/ presenting in March 2010, and although I preferred masculine pronouns and wore clothing that would generally be prescribed to someone who identified as male, this does not mean that I no longer identified as female, but more that I was embracing another side of my femaleness/gender: my Transmasculinity. My transition was not a result of no longer identifying as female, nor did it stem from the narrative that I felt uncomfortable in my body. In fact, I actually loved the body I was in, but knew that it was supposed to look differently than it did. Testosterone was the most accessible method for me to create that. I recognize that some who know me and my history may find it strange that I state that I loved my body and still felt the need to go through several forms of physical transition. But the changes I have made physically are not a result of hating my body, but creating one that feels like it honors and supports the Transmasculine female, encompassing who I am.

If I had to put a label on my gender, I would say that I feel more like a Third Gender, that embraces both femininity and masculinity. So why did I check male when that is not how I identify, and throughout my transition process, I have maintained completing all of my legal documents under female? Because for the first time since my transition process and name change, I will be traveling out of the country. I was recently accepted into a fellowship program and part of my program requires that I travel outside of the United States, which means getting a passport with my legal name and gender identity. But for someone like me, simply getting a passport that reflects my gender identity is more complicated. My gender identity is Transgender or a Transmasculine Female, or Third Gender, none of which are choices on the passport documentation. I don’t identify solely as male or female, but because others perceive me to be a “cisgender man,” that is how I navigate the world and what my passport documentation must say in order for me to safely travel abroad.

To travel as a Transgender person, whose paperwork and documentation does not reflect their physical appearance, can lead to harassment, a delay in returning to the United States, violence, and for far too many of us, death. Although I did not want to change my documentation, I know that in order for me to have a higher chance of not experiencing these things, I needed my passport, and soon my drivers license, to say male. Although I know that checking a box on a piece of paper doesn’t take away  who I am, I seem to feel as though I am grieving another piece of my identity.

Since my transition process, I have been struggling with people’s need to put me in their binary box of male or female. When I say that I prefer masculine pronouns but identify as female, Third Gender, or Transmasculine, I am told that I am a man and should stop trying to escape my privilege, or people automatically use feminine pronouns regardless of my preference. The more I pass as “male,” the more my female identity is ignored, and I am told that I can’t “claim” the female identity because of my use of masculine pronouns and the fact that people only perceive my male presence. My female identity is ignored and the female who I still identify and connect with, has become invisible. My preference of masculine pronouns, for many people, translates to me identifying as a man.

The notion that someone who would go through hormone therapy and have surgery, but not identify as the opposite gender, seems to be one that many people do not grasp or they feel extremely challenged by it. I identify with men and maleness, but not as a man or a male. I identify as transmasculine and masculine of center and also as a female, who prefers masculine pronouns. I identify with and embrace both my femininity and masculinity, and just because one seems to be more visible in my current gender journey, it doesn’t mean that it is valued more than the other. The idea that masculinity is not synonymous with maleness seems to create a level of confusion (and at times anger) for people, because it does not fit within the binary rhetoric which keeps things such as misogyny, patriarchy, and misandry intact. Rhetoric that says that femininity and masculinity are oppositional to one another, as opposed to different sides of the same coin, upholds the oppressiveness of gender roles, stereotypes, and injustices that lead to the senseless violence and murders of so many of our Transgender Women of Color, as well as the rape and brutalization of Transmasculine bodies.

As I continue to prepare for my quickly approaching trip outside of this country, I can’t help but continue my grieving process around a piece of my identity that is silenced and invisible due to how society has taught us to see people’s physical appearance and categorize us into one of two categories. I look forward to a day that allows people to identify with the gender that truly reflects who they are, and for us not to have to compromise or hide pieces of ourselves due to safety or others inability to think outside of the box.

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Zami Tinashe Hyemingway is a Transmasculine poet, teacher, healer and lover. He received his MSW at Arizona State University, has worked with LGBTQ youth and people living with HIV/AIDS throughout his social services career. Zami is dedicated to changing the ways in which we discuss gender justice, to reflect the fluidity in gender, and encourage people to create gender justice and equality spaces, that honor the fluidity of gender, gender expression and identities that challenge the binary. He has a spoken word album called Self Made Man/A Lovers Journey. Zami currently resides in Berkley, California with his supportive and amazing partner and their dog, and is attending the Pacific School of Religion as part of the Changemakers Fellowship. You can follow Zami on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ZTHyemingway and read his other work on Lovetransmutes.com

A Way Forward: Integrating Disability & Healing Justice Into the HIV/AIDS Movement

To truly address anti-black racism in HIV work and the disconnect between the HIV/AIDS and the racial justice movement, we have much to learn from emerging fields that are rooted in intersectionality – Disability Justice and Healing Justice. On a movement level, they offer us essential frameworks to support the complexity of HIV/AIDS and its impact on black people. Disability justice (DJ), developed in 2005 initially by disabled queer women of color, articulates the intricate connections between white supremacy, capitalism and ableism. The way that black folks, women, queer and trans people, as well as people with disabilities, are constructed as abnormal, deviant, dangerous, subhuman, and undesirable in our society, provides dominant groups with the ability to create profit and status through the exploitations of oppressed people.1

Patty Berne, one of the originators of Disability Justice and the Director of Sins Invalid, shares, [this] “framework understands that all bodies are unique and essential, that all bodies have strengths and needs that must be met. We know that we are powerful not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them. We are in a global system that is incompatible with life. There is no way stop a single gear in motion — we must dismantle this machine.” The field of HIV prevention, care and treatment has much to gain from no longer pathologizing bodies seen as deviant or diseased and allowing people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS full self-determination in their healthcare and wellbeing.

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Similar to Disability Justice, Healing Justice has also emerged as an intersectional framework developed by queer women of color. It is a way to “holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence and to bring collective practices that can impact and transform the consequences of oppression on our bodies, hearts and minds.”2 Healing Justice seeks to reclaim our well-being from within and outside of the medical industrial complex; sees alignment of mind, body and spirit as essential to well-being; and restores as well as legitimizes the role of our indigenous traditions as people of color. Instead of viewing HIV/AIDS as something to be prevented, fixed or cured, what if we were truly concerned with discovering what healing really means for poz people? For some, this may not involve the medical system at all and that choice has to be respected. What if each of us had access to the resources necessary for our well-being based on our own desires? These are not questions that are asked of black folks who are HIV positive.

What would our policies around HIV/AIDS look like if we integrated Disability and Healing Justice? For starters, HIV transmission would no longer be considered a crime, in addition to sex work and substance use. Black sex workers and drug user communities often bear the brunt of criminalization and police harassment due to fear of HIV. Universal healthcare that includes access to people of color’s traditional healing modalities, lifting the federal ban on syringe exchange, and providing treatment and support for poz people in prisons and immigration detention centers would send a clear message about the dignity of people living with and affected by HIV. Comprehensive sex education that centers sexual pleasure, body positivity and tools around consent would give black folks the resources to make solid decisions about their sexual health and safety free from shame and judgment.

Ultimately, to truly support black poz communities, we must invest in the leadership of black people living with HIV/AIDS. This means challenging the complete absence of black folks or tokenization in leadership on a movement level, in policy, and in our organizations. We must confront the very real and insidious ways that anti-black racism and misogyny show up in our work every day – even when we have organizations run by black folks. In order to do this we need to change structures and institutions that can be transformed and be willing to let go of those that cannot. Until black folks -in particular poz, queer, trans, poor and disabled black folks – are calling the shots and given the resources behind it, we will never reach any substantive solutions in regards to HIV in this country.

The biggest lesson I have learned from black people living with HIV in my community is that there is power in being seen, held and deeply listened to by other black people. We are all on a healing journey and need the space to reflect, get support and have the authority to make decisions for ourselves. With this, we can transform our communities and the structures that bind us. Our liberation as black people is deeply connected to our ability to love ourselves enough to survive when we can, heal, tell the truth, fight for each other and no longer be complicit in the destruction happening in our community.

Much gratitude to all the freedom-loving black people and PoC allies who have inspired and informed this series. The wisdom we need for liberation is within us, and our communities.

  1. Disability Justice – a working draft by Patty Berne

  2. Reflections from Detroit: Transforming Wellness & Wholeness – Cara Page

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

 

“They are killing us” – Race, Disease and the Medical Industrial Complex

by Erica Woodland

There is no way to start but at the beginning which requires a clear and discerning look at the foundation and history of the medical (or so called health care) system/industry itself. The inherent mistrust that exists between black folks and healthcare providers and institutions is often used to place blame on black people themselves for their sickness and death. However, the reality of the violence, abuse and torture that black people have endured in the name of “medicine” is unspeakable, ignored and at best seen as something of the very distant past.

In Medical Apartheid, Harriet A. Washington, chronicles the history of medical experimentation on African-Americans, and argues that this so called history is actually the basis, culture and framework from which modern medicine operates. Beyond the popular example of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, there are countless other known and well documented abuses of the physical, emotional and spiritual integrity of black people dating back to colonial times. In fact, it is almost common knowledge that the “forefather” of gynecology, J. Marion Sims, who enjoys continued praise and iconic status, developed gynecological techniques by practicing unnecessary procedures on enslaved African women without anesthesia in order to offer treatments to white women that minimized their pain and exposure to unsafe conditions. In Medical Apartheid, Washington argues that black folks carry the burden of medical research but rarely get access to any of the benefits.

This is the context in which HIV positive people navigate their health and wellness. The impact of this unacknowledged trauma that has been passed down over generations and recreated over and over in the healthcare system has rendered the structures that perpetuate oppression invisible. For many of the black people I have met who are living with HIV, their diagnosis was something they felt was predetermined by virtue of being black, queer, gay, bi, poor, struggling with substance abuse, and engaging in survival sex. The message they have gotten from healthcare providers has been, “You will get HIV at some point so just accept it.”

The irony of this is that when many folks finally get diagnosed, it often opens up access to resources that were not available to them before. Resources that many folks have struggled to access to improve their well-being and stability such as housing, food, transportation assistance, health care, medications, mental health services, and community. These much needed basic resources are known to decrease an individual’s “risk” of contracting HIV in the first place. The initial shock and confusion of receiving an HIV diagnosis is difficult enough, but then there are all the very real fears of the system that surface – Will I be tracked on a list by the health department?

Will these medications really help me and if so what about the side effects? Are these meds even safe or is this another Tuskegee moment? From there, folks are then lectured about how dangerous it is to engage in sex and that they must use condoms or start pRep so they don’t go and infect the whole wide world. Seen as “vectors of disease”, many of the HIV positive black folks I have worked with describe intense feelings of shame and sadness about the fact that they may have or will in the future infect someone else. This narrative completely places blame and responsibility on the individual instead of supporting people in the larger context which has in many ways set them up to be in the very situation they are being held responsible for. Instead of addressing the real health impacts of racism, misogyny, homophobia and poverty, to lack to access to housing, healthcare, self-care or education, we get medication adherence, condom usage, partner disclosure and testing; which reinforces focus on individual behavior while completely absolving the structures that ensure that risk for HIV will continue to impact the most marginalized in our society.

This history was not yet known when I entered Brown University in 1998 for my undergraduate studies with the dream of becoming a doctor. A science nerd since early childhood, I had a strong faith in doctor’s ability to help people. I recall a biology class I attended around 2000-2001, where the professor was discussing the HIV epidemic and where it comes from. The theory that HIV originated in Africa likely due to African people engaging in sexual acts with monkeys was not new to me, but I was shocked that this racist theory was being taught in an ivy league institution as a viable explanation for the origin of HIV. This unfortunately was one of many examples of the ways anti-blackness was woven throughout my experience as a science major at Brown, which ultimately led to me abandoning my last semester of organic chemistry for a course on the Black Panther Party.

Returning to Baltimore after college, where the impact of anti-black racism and poverty are obvious and highly visible, and medical research institutions like John Hopkins boast about cutting edge treatments and technologies, I began working with black poz people who would never have access to basic health care or adequate treatment for HIV.

Much has changed in the field of HIV prevention since I began working in HIV prevention back in 2003, but still too often I hear stories of providers who do not seem to care about people of color (especially black folks) living with HIV and systems of care that take a team of case managers to navigate. And yet, access to quality health care is a basic human right that we require and deserve. How do we hold this complexity when we work to support black people living with HIV and AIDS? Despite the history and continued neglect and marginalization that we experience, many of us still want to seek treatment and preventative care from this system. It is way more complicated than expecting black folks to get over some outdated mistrust of the system or holding up the “compliant” patient as the example when good care goes right. The next part of this series will explore how the intersection of anti-black racism and HIV is navigated in social justice movement spaces specifically racial and gender justice.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

In the Company of Sons and Brothers

by Cole

This summer I attended  a summer camp, at age 37. I joined almost 100 high school youth in the foothills of the Tahoe National Forest for the annual California Sons & Brothers Camp. Being grown, it was pretty funny to jam myself into a sleeping bag on a bunk bed but being faculty at the camp was inspiring. It was also surprisingly nostalgic. As a kid I grew up at Camp Adventure on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, where my mom was the nurse and my dad was the cook. Despite some difficult lessons on race and racism as the only Black kid at camp, I developed a lifelong fascination with survival skills that I’m sure will be my winning ticket in the apocalypse. So it was powerful to spend the week at a camp designed to offer cultural lessons, community building and mentors for so many young people of color. Being immersed in culture is healing for the soul.

The camp is part of a growing movement in this country to support boys of color. It’s exciting and incredibly important work but I believe the single most transformative thing this movement could do is put girls of color, which includes transgender girls, at its center. In doing so we will give boys of color in this country the best chance to thrive.

We can put girls of color at the center and save boys with the same solution—build new models of masculinity. The ones we have are antiquated at best, but more accurately, broken. They pressure us not to be honest about our feelings, to deny that our emotions even exist. They encourage us to put wealth and power above community and family. To see women and girls as objects and encourage homo and transphobia.

Our best option is still an old school gentility model of chivalry. What we need is masculinity that takes an honest and self-reflective look inward recognizing that the only reason most of us are even here is because of the love, generosity, and wisdom of women of color. Our job is not to take care of women and girls of color but to support them, partner with them, invest in their leadership and dreams. To join their fights as quickly as they join ours. To speak up when we see someone we respect contribute to a culture that belittles femininity in others and ourselves.

Time and time again over the course of the camp the boys challenged each other to grow, be vulnerable, laugh and learn. Most importantly they gave each other permission to be their full an authentic selves. Being together, without their guards up, climbing ropes courses or sharing late night conversations, they are building a new model of masculinity for others to follow.

We can give each other the freedom to decide which parts of masculinity we want to keep and which parts to discard because they no longer serve us. But we must act quickly. The pressure of gender norms, the box of masculinity, is killing youth of color. It drives boys of color to violence as a means of securing power and manhood, pushing them further from the classroom and into prisons across this country. But it also fosters a culture in which femininity and those who embody it are seen as weak which has disastrous effects for girls and LGBTQ youth of color.

For the youth at camp the larger question loomed ahead of them all week. What happens when I go home? How do they carry their new found love of self and connection to their emotions in a world that ridicules them for it? If we build a movement for boys of color that teaches them the single most valuable gift they can give to the world is to embrace all of who they are and fiercely support for girls of color—we will be one step closer to making Sons & Brothers Camp the world. It is a radical notion. That our salvation comes only through the love and investment of women and girls in our community. But I believe it is closer to the truth than anyone will admit. Women of color have put us at the center of their lives for generations so that we might thrive. Who knew that by following in their footsteps and lifting them up we might discover a masculinity worth fighting for.

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Cole holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator and strategist for more than 15 years. Drawing on her experience as a consultant, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project in 2010. As an activist, Cole introduced the term “masculine of center”, which is now being used to forward understanding of the incredible breadth of masculinity within the queer community. A Black Male Achievement Echoing Green Fellow, Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar, and recipient of the Spirit of Delores Huerta Award, Cole has worked across the U.S. and internationally on issues of leadership development and building social capital for young people of color. Follow her @bespokebutch.

A Hairstory: Navigating Hair, Identity, Masculinity and Just Being

Four years ago this month, I woke up in the morning, walked to a mirror, and stared at myself. While looking at my reflection, I told myself this is not who I am. I grabbed my car keys, drove to the nearest hair salon and told one of the stylists to cut my long brown hair. With every strand of falling hair, a weight borne from assuming a heteronormative life seemed to be lifted. Twenty-nine years of my life were disappearing while strands of my hair were falling to the floor, including years of indoctrination. When she finished cutting my hair, I stared at myself in the mirror and for the first time EVER I finally felt liberated, sexy, and beautiful.  

At the time, I was attending UC Santa Cruz and experiencing a culture shock, feeling homesick and yearning for my life back in L.A. One night, a few weeks after I had cut my hair, my homie invited me to go clubbing in Mountain View, CA.  She knew of a spot where most of the folks that attended were brown and the club played Latino music. Of course, I thought going would be a great way for me to feel like I was back in L.A.

When we got there the music was popping!  My homie grabbed my hand and pulled me to the dance floor. The DJ was playing some good rolas and being in a space with people of color felt so good to my heart and soul.  I was so in the moment that I had forgotten about the huge transformation I had made to my physical appearance by cutting my hair.  But that night, in the midst of my happiness and joy, I was forced to confront the reality of what that meant in a violent way.

The majority of the folks dancing were women. One of them bumped into me and I leaned to say sorry.  Her friend pulled her away from me immediately.  Women on the dance floor kept their distance from me as if I was a creeper trying to hit on them.  They were all protecting themselves from me.  I didn’t know how to feel.  I had never experienced anything like this.  I was confused as to why they would have to protect themselves from me if I wasn’t doing anything wrong.  I was feeling very vulnerable and confused.  

My friend and I stepped off of the dance floor so she could use the restroom. I waited for her near the dance floor. A handsome young man approached me and asked if he could buy me a drink.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it but I decided to say, “Yes”.  Why would a dude want to buy me a drink?  Did he want to be my friend?  Is he hitting on me?  My first reaction was to act flirty in exchange for the drink as I had been socialized to do.  

When we got to the bar he asked what I wanted and I said, “a beer.”  

He asked, “Why a beer? Don’t you want something else like a mixed drink?  Beer is for men.”  

“Women like beer too,” I said. This whole time I’m not even thinking about my image or how he might be perceiving me.

After a few minutes of telling me about his life he unexpectedly grabs me by the collar of my shirt and starts to pull me back and forth asking me aggressively: “Why do you want to be a man? You want to be a man, then stop acting like a little bitch!”  I had no idea what he meant by that.  

I was in shock! I’m a woman, I thought to myself. He let go of me and then I saw his fist tighten up, ready to punch me. My friend returned just then and pulled me away, and back onto the dance floor.  She hadn’t realized what had just happened.  

For the first time in my life, I felt unsafe as a woman with short hair.  I knew how to ask for help as a feminine presenting woman but now I didn’t have that.  I looked different.  In that moment, I realized that people perceive me as a woman with male attributes.  I no longer fit into one box and was forced into another. I was no longer part of the feminine world that I was once loved.

Many more similar experiences came after that, not physically violent, but spiritually and emotionally violent.   Through the process I grieved the death of the old Carla.  I had to let go of the beautiful feminine attributes that I loved about myself.  I was pushed away from things that made me who I was. I was confused and lost, not knowing how to perform this new masculinity that was pushed upon me and how to let go of what defined me before.

Who was I?  Was I to perform all these stereotypes of what it meant to be a “man”: aggressive, womanizing, tough, insensitive? These experiences forced me to perform negative stereotypes of masculinity that hurt others. It led me to not love myself for who I was and not allow myself just to be me. I hated myself and hated the way I was, even though deep inside it felt right to look masculine.

Every time I stared in the mirror, I was hoping to feel the same way I felt when I had just cut my hair.  It felt right but the rest of me didn’t.  I wasn’t feeling complete and doubted many times if what I had done was the right thing to do. I was making people suffer and I was suffering as well.

That’s when Brown Boi Project came into my life. I interviewed for a job at BBP and got the position.  One of the requirements of the job was to go through the leadership retreat and it completely changed my life!

I became part of a community that had similar experiences. I no longer felt alone.  It taught me how to break the traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity. I learned to be myself and that I didn’t have to be stuck in one gender-conforming box. Gender expression is not fixed and I learned how to break the stereotypes of femininity as being something negative and to accept femininity as part of myself. I learned how to value and honor my femininity while simultaneously embracing my new masculinity and recognizing my privilege as masculine of center.

I was no longer in a box. I was able to regain what made the old Carla and learn how to embrace the new me. It wasn’t about me being either masculine or feminine, it was about just being myself. I no longer let society dictate how I’m supposed to perform my identity. I realized that by letting society define me it was hard for me to be free and authentic. In order to be your authentic self you have to break traditional beliefs of what it means to be feminine and masculine.  

The community that I built at BBP taught me how to be and love my authentic self. It taught me how to view a whole new form of masculinity played out as well as a whole new way of loving myself by embracing both my masculinity and femininity. Regardless of what I went through, the “simple” act of cutting my hair gave me a whole new life, that at the time I didn’t know what to make of.  BBP gave me the tools to be able to make sense of myself and the world around me.  

Carla Zamarripa was born and raised in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles by her Mexican, single mother. After high school, she got a job in a clothing factory where she worked for ten years. After a serious back injury at work, she realized how unhappy she had been and how important it was for her to get an education. She motivated herself to attend community college—eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz where she double majored in Sociology and Feminist Studies. Her upbringing, based in Los Angeles and in Mexican culture, motivated her to write her thesis and do a field study based on paisa identified, masculine Latin@s. This study aimed to highlight Latin@ masculine identity in relation to Mexican paisa cultural ties and its importance in identifying masculinity through this specific cultural expression. She currently works as the Communication and Development Manager at The Brown Boi Project.

Carla Zamarripa was born and raised in the Pico-Union area of Los Angeles by her Mexican, single mother. After high school, she got a job in a clothing factory where she worked for ten years. After a serious back injury at work, she realized how unhappy she had been and how important it was for her to get an education. She motivated herself to attend community college—eventually transferring to UC Santa Cruz where she double majored in Sociology and Feminist Studies. Her upbringing, based in Los Angeles and in Mexican culture, motivated her to write her thesis and do a field study based on paisa identified, masculine Latin@s. This study aimed to highlight Latin@ masculine identity in relation to Mexican paisa cultural ties and its importance in identifying masculinity through this specific cultural expression. She currently works as the Communication and Development Manager at The Brown Boi Project.

Masculinity, My Son, and I

After several minutes of looking through my son’s passport paperwork, the clerk felt it important to mention that I was listed as the “father” on my son’s birth certificate. I quickly pointed out that father/parent was my only option. It was the only box I could check off and there was no distinction between the two options. “I am his parent,” I said firmly.

She knew that his mother was already listed on the birth certificate, so in her mind, I could only be his father. She looked deeply into my eyes with such a lack of caring. I couldn’t look back at her. I found myself catapulted into a sea of emotion that I drowned in that day. There are not enough words to explain that moment in time.

As a parent who is queer, brown, and a masculine of center ladyboi, the complexity is real. My need for validation is necessary, and often at the cost of my truth. I negotiate what is real for others when they see me, at the cost of my spirit. And I answer all the questions, at the cost of my dignity.

This is survival for me. This is survival for so many queer parents that are redefining masculinity, for those queer parents that are propelled by the masculine power and beauty of wearing your baby closest to your heart in the face of ignorance, for those of us who will model what love looks like, feels like, and sounds like to our children in the face of contention.

I dig deep. I dig so deep that I find myself moving through an out of body experience that reminds me to return to my tribe. I return to the masculinity that centers and grounds me and makes me feel proud.

When I look in the mirror, I can understand what I see but I don’t look too long; I fear that the internalized pressure of  the gendered box I live in may cloud what I see, and it does. I begin to imagine the hair on my face disappearing, fueled by my desire to validated as a parent to this beautiful son of mine. By looking away from my reflection, I can return to the masculinity that resonates in my breath as I sing to my son. I return to my lead role in the dance we shared together. I return to the moments where I share my full self with him.

More importantly, I remember that these are the moments that will surround my son for the rest of his life. When I look into his eyes, I see love that grounds me in my truth, my spirit, and my dignity. I see love. I see love that is worth surviving for. Our stories must be shared. They must live beyond me and the mail clerk. They must evolve as we embrace masculine of center identified parents. Our survival depends on it.

Bio: Patty Barahona is a ladyboi who lives in West Oakland. An educator, creative thinker, and passionate trainer who works in the non-profit, youth development field. She is a the proud parent of a 2 year old names Myles.

Bio:
Patty Barahona is a ladyboi who lives in West Oakland. An educator, creative thinker, and passionate trainer who works in the non-profit, youth development field. She is a the proud parent of a 2 year old named Myles.