Unpacking Shame In Our Movements

At its origin, the HIV movement was based in the spirit of grassroots organizing and activism. The movement had an expressed commitment to LGBTQ people, people of color, substance users, sex workers and, most importantly, folks from within these communities living with HIV and dying from AIDS. Throughout the 80s and 90s, activists and organizers affected by HIV protested and demanded treatment and protections for people living with HIV at a time when discrimination towards poz people was legal and acceptable to the general public. This history influenced my entree into HIV advocacy and direct service and continues to fuel my commitment to this work.

Today, the mainstream HIV movement appears somewhat ambivalent towards movements for social justice and liberation. HIV and AIDS is big money and billions of dollars are spent worldwide to address the pandemic. In the President’s budget for FY 2016, he has requested $25.3 billion for domestic funding on HIV/AIDS.

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Image from recent article from Kaiser Family Foundation.

My attempts at finding data on the amount of profit pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from HIV care and treatment were unsuccessful. But the recent scandal involving Turing Pharmaceuticals’ 5,000% increase of Daraprim, a medication used by people living with HIV/AIDS, is a glimpse into the motivation of some of these companies which Martin Shkreli (Turing’s CEO) clearly stated is profit. As capitalism drives this movement, there becomes a financial incentive for people to continue to become infected with HIV. I know this may sound harsh or like a conspiracy theory to some of you, but whether or not this is conscious or intentional, it is true. I have been disappointed at the lackluster attempts to speak to the root causes that increase black folks risk for HIV. The inability of these movements (HIV, racial justice, gender justice, etc.) to work at the intersections of these overlapping issues are having the greatest impact on queer, trans, and poor black folks, as well as black people living with HIV.

In my work outside of the field of HIV, I have had opportunities to work with leaders in LGBT Justice, Gender Justice, Racial Justice, and Reproductive Justice. This past year, I have attended multiple gatherings focused on boys and men of color, and have not heard HIV mentioned even once. LGBT, Gender, and Reproductive Justice organizations tend to have an analysis around HIV that is more sophisticated and often focused on criminalization and violence. Mainstream organizations from these movements tend to lack the same level of sophistication around anti-blackness in their work. None of us are perfect (myself included) and neither are our movements. We are constantly growing, developing, and learning from our mistakes and some of us have an expressed commitment to transform even when it hurts. However, given the level of urgency for black people affected by HIV and AIDS, we need to do much more to shift the differential impact HIV has on our community.

The fear of black sexuality surely contributes to the radio silence around HIV in our social justice movements and in black communities in this country. As a people, we have been hypersexualized as a way to justify repression and violence by those who uphold white supremacy. The stereotypes of “jezebel” and “mandingo” have led many black folks to project and encourage sexual piety and chastity to combat these messages as a way to re-assert our humanity. HIV – which has long been associated with sexual deviance and addiction – is an ever present reminder that indeed, some of us are actually having sex, outside of marriage, with people of all genders and with more than one partner (heaven forbid). Some of us (in fact many of us) are also having sex without using condoms, prophylactics or contraception. And what does this say about us as a people in the eyes of white supremacy? This is the often subconscious question that is at the root of our sexual repression and denial. This is why I can attend a conference for black sexologists and clinicians in 2015 and there is little to no conversation around HIV/AIDS, but there is a workshop on young black women becoming a born again virgins.

The need or desire to appear “respectable” to dominant society will never lead to our liberation. You or someone you care about can do “all the right things” and still contract HIV because it does not come from black people’s amoral behavior, but from the innumerable consequences of anti-black racism and poverty as well as the complicity of our silences. We need our movements for racial and gender justice to draw the connections between how issues such as police brutality, gender based violence, and lack of housing, jobs, education and healthcare all create the context for black people to continue to have the highest rates of HIV in the WORLD! We need to address the rampant homophobia and transphobia that exists behind our collective shame around HIV. We need the field of HIV to support the leadership and work of radical black HIV positive folks who are combatting anti-blackness in HIV organizations and services across the country.

Where do we go from here? The last part of this series will lift up practices, policies and frameworks to address the intersections of anti-black racism and HIV/AIDS in our movements, communities and organizations.

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.

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It Is Time to Combat Anti-Black Racism in Mainstream HIV Service Work

by Erica Woodland

I came into the social justice movement by way of harm reduction and work in the fields of HIV prevention and the prison industrial complex. After college, I returned home to Baltimore (one of the few remaining Chocolate cities) and began volunteering at Power Inside, an organization that works with women impacted by violence, the prison system, and HIV. I was guided to this work because of its explicit focus on healing for black women, poor women, lesbian, queer and trans women. Direct service work rooted in the core understanding that “risk” for HIV and incarceration are deeply tied to poverty, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

Mainstream HIV work continues to deny the ways that these systems of oppression are set up to feed black bodies into the HIV and prison industries. With coded language such as “racial disparities” and “disproportionate minority confinement”, we are allowed to distance ourselves from the real legacy of genocide and slavery that are the basis of this country and the so-called health care system. Baltimore continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the country and in 2010 was ranked number 3 for the rate of people living with HIV*. Having privilege and access to even a few basic resources in this city may mean the difference between going to college or jail; and most definitely influences how much you are affected by HIV and AIDS.

I only later learned how close to home HIV was to me and my family. Silence, stigma, and isolation surely contributed to this. Growing up, my mother had a very dear friend named Russell. At an early age he was one of a few consistent, nurturing and beautiful men in my life. What I remember most is his deep devotion to my mother and her children, the emotional and likely financial support he offered her, and visits to his house, which was reminiscent of Studio 54 – black and red velvet, mirrors, all gold everything and dim lighting. He would take my brother and I on outings probably to give my mother a much needed break. Recently I found a photo of him at my mother’s baby shower a testament to their long-term friendship.

In my early 20s, my mother and I were having a rare conversation about homophobia amongst black folks. She shared that Russell was gay and that after a long period of time of losing touch with him, she found out that he had passed away. His family did not inform her or likely any of his other friends but only told her that he had “cancer”. She knew that he had died from AIDS and regretted not being able to see him before he died or attend his funeral. As with most grief-laden topics, my mother only mentioned this to me once and we never spoke of it again.

Since then I have worked with many HIV positive people – primarily black folks who are also poor and LGBTQ. I have had dear friends get diagnosed and struggle to navigate accessing healthcare and healing resources while maintaining a sense of dignity. I have worked in social justice movements that rarely mention HIV or AIDS as an issue that impacts people of color and I have engaged in HIV prevention work that is disconnected from national and global movements for racial and gender justice.

This series is my attempt at bridging this gap. To honor and celebrate our black poz ancestors, as well as black people living with HIV who have pushed me to think about these intersections in my own work; to use my privilege and access to support movements for justice that will lead to substantive change and healing for black people most directly impacted by HIV. This series builds on the work of other black people transforming the field of HIV and the movements for gender and racial justice who know that until we bring intersectionality into this work we will never be free.

*Most recent data available: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/affiliated-programs/AIDS-linked-to-the-intravenous-experience/_documents/New_HIV_Rankings_for_Maryland.pdf

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.