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In The Meantime is fighting against racism and homophobia by creating community.
By Karen Ocamb
February 7, 2016 :: 1:02 PM
On Friday, Feb. 5, Trayvon Martin would have celebrated his 21st birthday. Now he is locked forever in the nation’s collective memory as the unarmed, hoody-wearing black 17-year old shot dead in Sanford, Florida by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, shot because Zimmerman thought the teenager looked “suspicious.” Zimmerman was finally arrested after two months of police inaction. He was acquitted in 2013 after an inept prosecution allowed the defense to put Martin on trial for his own murder.
Alicia Garcia, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two black lesbians and a Nigerian immigration activist, respectively, were outraged by the acquittal and the dehumanization of Treyvon Martin. They created the social media hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which they quickly turned into the infrastructure for a movement that took to the streets. Black Lives Matter came to national attention in 2014 when the organizers helped lead the protest of yet another police shooting of an unarmed young black man, this time 18-year old Michael Brown Jr., shot at least six times by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s body was left on the street uncovered for hours, in front of family and friends stuck behind police tape. Wilson’s shooting was eventually found justified by the U.S. Justice Department, which did not accept controversial eyewitness accounts.
“#BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society,” the co-founders wrote on their website. “Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.”
It didn’t take long before there were attempts to co-opt the movement and render the three co-founders invisible. But longtime friends, such as Mark-Anthony Johnson, director of health and wellness at Dignity and Power Now who worked with Cullors for 15 years and has known Garza for a decade, kept reiterating the truth.
“I think they’re central” to bringing 600 different people together for that Ferguson protest, said Johnson who was with the movement when it was “Justice for Trayvon Martin, Los Angeles” and coordinated protesters traveling from California to Ferguson. “The character of the folks that we were bringing out, I think, was really important in terms of having a group that was significantly women, significantly queer, having Black transgender people in the space. And that’s possible because of them and the national team that they built up around them.”
On their website, Garcia writes about the significance of the movement for black liberation:
“When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black lives matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined…..[But] the legacy and prevalence of anti-Black racism and hetero-patriarchy is a lynch pin holding together this unsustainable economy. And that’s not an accidental analogy.”
The United Nations agrees. After an extensive fact-finding mission, the UN working group “Experts on People of African Descent” recently said that the U.S. government should publicly acknowledge that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was a crime against humanity and consider giving long overdue reparations to the descendants of those slaves. Their official report won’t be released until September to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, but at a recent news conference the experts said they are “extremely concerned about the human rights situation of African Americans.”
Chairperson Mireille Fanon Mendes-France compared the police brutality of today with the racial violence of the Jim Crow-era:
“The colonial history, the legacy of enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism, and racial inequality in the US remains a serious challenge as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent. Contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynchings in the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
LGBT African Americans in Los Angeles are not immune from police violence, selective incarceration, joblessness and poverty. Despite five terms as mayor—20 years from 1973-1993—former police officer, lawyer and African American coalition-builder Mayor Tom Bradley (who signed the city’s first gay rights bill in 1979) could not contain or fire civil servant LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who continued his predecessor’s unabashed racism and unleashed the LAPD upon the black population like an unfettered occupation force.
It took the LA riots of 1992 to bring an end to Gates with members of ACT UP and Queer Nation on the frontlines storming the glass front doors of Parker Center and pulling down the guard shack at the adjacent parking lot the night the verdicts were read vindicating the four white cops who repeatedly beat black motorist Rodney King.
Thanks to Lambda Legal’s Jon Davidson, the Christopher Commission appointed by Bradley to investigate the cause and outcome of the riots also heard testimony about anti-LGBT bias within the LAPD. It was discovered that when police were called out to an incident involving gays, the code they inputted into Mobile Digital Terminal (MDT) transmissions was “NHI”—which meant “No Human Involved.”
The two African American LAPD chiefs who immediately followed Gates instituted community-based policing and specifically reached out to the LGBT community. And while racism has not been as overt in recent years (other than the white supremacy lauded by supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump), racism exists whether it is observed or not. John Metta explains in his extraordinary Huffington Post piece, “I, Racist,” last July:
“Racism is not slavery. As President Obama said, it’s not avoiding the use of the word Nigger. Racism is not white water fountains and the back of the bus. Martin Luther King did not end racism. Racism is a cop severing the spine of an innocent man. It is a 12 year old child being shot for playing with a toy gun in a state where it is legal to openly carry firearms.
But racism is even more subtle than that. It’s more nuanced. Racism is the fact that “White” means “normal” and that anything else is different. Racism is our acceptance of an all white Lord of the Rings cast because of historical accuracy, ignoring the fact that this is a world with an entirely fictionalized history.
Even when we make shit up, we want it to be white.”
Racism and internalized homophobia have left indelible deep marks on the psyche of LGBT African Americans for whom the church has historically been the central community gathering place in a sprawling, divided city. But during the AIDS crisis, black gay men paid a high price for being gay as the very churches where they served as the beloved choir leader refused to allow their friends and family to hold a funeral service for the AIDS-outted soul. In one instance reported in the gay press, church leaders turned back the casket as it was being rolled own the aisle, with family hoping that the homophobic ministers wouldn’t find out their beloved’s cause of death.
Two prominent black churches—First AME and Holman United Methodist in South Central– did talk openly about HIV/AIDS during the crisis. First AME’s Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray made sure there were condoms and information packets at the back of the church after services and Holman’s pastor, civil rights legend Rev. James Lawson, had openly gay, openly HIV positive Kevin Spears to run their H.O.P.E. outreach program, which also included education for straight women.
“Incarcerated men who are HIV-positive are getting out and coming back to their girlfriends and wives and having unprotected sex,” Spears told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “That’s not a good thing. So once again, the black church could be a model to help young people [modify] those behaviors.”
“With a few notable exceptions, the black church has been missing in action on this issue,” said longtime HIV-positive Phill Wilson, former policy director at APLA, AIDS Coordinator for the City of Los Angeles and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. “As one of the epicenters of the epidemic, L.A. has not been very progressive….Quite frankly, [many] churches are very ambivalent because there are a lot of gay and lesbian folks that are active in their congregations.”
“For me to say there’s this major push in the black church to take on the issue of AIDS is not the truth,” Unity Fellowship Church’s out Bishop Carl Bean told The Times. “Everybody knows who’s gay in the church, but it’s not talked about. They know who’s playing the organ and singing in the choir. You can be gay, but don’t say it. As long as that’s there, there’s a problem.”
And the problem continues today—quietly with deaths not so frequent as in the intense crisis-days of the 1980s and 1990s. But 15 gay black men died last year and early this year, says In The Meantime Executive Director Jeffrey King—most from AIDS-related complications, including loneliness. (Below Lamont Bradley writes the name of his late friend Keye Westbrook on a parchment of names.)
Last Thursday, in advance of today’s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new report noting that African Americans continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and are less likely than white or Latino Americans to receive consistent, ongoing medical care. African Americans make up only 12% of the total U.S. population but account for almost half (44 percent) of all HIV diagnoses in 2014, more than one-third of people living with HIV.
Key CDC findings include:
> Only 38% of African Americans got consistent HIV care from 2011 – 2014, compared to about half of white and Latino Americans
> African American men were less likely to receive consistent medical care than African American women (35% and 44%, respectively)
> Consistent retention was highest among African Americans whose HIV infections were attributable to heterosexual contact.
“People living with HIV who receive ongoing care and treatment not only remain healthier than those who do not, they also dramatically reduce their risk of transmitting the virus to others., the CDC says. According to a separate CDC report published last year and recently updated, it is likely that at least 90 percent of HIV transmission currently comes from people with diagnosed infection who are not retained in care (69 percent) and people whose infection has not been diagnosed (23 percent).”
“Consistent care matters. It enables people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives, and it prevents new infections,” said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. “And closing this gap in care will be essential if we are to see the narrowing racial divide in HIV diagnoses close completely.”
Considering all race/ethnicity, sex, and age categories, P&S syphilis rates were highest among black men aged 20–24 years and 25–29 years in 2014. Black men aged 20–24 years had a P&S syphilis rate of 106.3 cases per 100,000 men. This rate was 8.5 times the rate among white men in the same age group (12.5 per 100,000). Black men aged 25–29 years had a P&S syphilis rate of 121.3 cases per 100,000 men, which was 7.9 times the rate among white men in the same age group (15.4 per 100,000).
For Jeffrey King—who was mentored by the late Kevin Spears (who died of AIDS in 2002)—in whose arms many 20-something young gay black men have fallen after testing HIV-positive, the job of In The Meantime is to address the whole black gay man—and often, transgender woman—not just look at the person as if their entire being was defined by disease. In fight against HIV/AIDS, it is also imperative to fight for a deeper sense of community well-being—in fact, to fight to create a community.
On Wednesday, Feb. 3, In The Meantime kicked off Black History Month with community discussion focused on the Black and Black LGBTQ Community (See the Gay, Straight Alliance Network for teaching resources ). Jayce Baron, 28, of Kiss and Tell who benefited from In The Meantime’s mentoring program, moderated a discussion between King and AIDS and black LGBT “Living Legend” Jewel Thais Williams, founder of the Catch One Disco, the Village Health Foundation, and co-founder with Bean of the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Unidos food pantry at Faith United Methodist.
The In The Meantime space on West Adams Blvd. was intimate and packed. First there was a reception, followed by a screening of a video report featuring candid, powerful interviews with King and Williams.
“I am black first,” said King. “But it was a major sacrifice putting ‘gay’ aside.”
Once out, King found there is an ongoing separation within the LGBTQ community in which blacks are “disproportionally impact” as the community “still grapples with racism.” Even as the leader of a black gay organization, he found that he was “invited to the table after the table’s been set….We’re still having to deal with institutionalized racism.”
Williams said she created Catch One to give the black LGBT community a place to go after bars in West Hollywood and elsewhere demanded three pieces of identification to get in. Their message was obvious, she said: “We don’t want you here.”
Williams didn’t mince words. “The root is slavery and everything else is a by-product of that,” she said. “We are the most resilient people on earth because we are in a constant state of survival.”
“There’s a need for universal healing of our people,” said King. But right now, “there is a window of opportunity to avail ourselves of those who’ve been around for a while” and for younger people to “grab us” and asked to be mentored to avoid the pitfalls the elders and adults have already experienced.
King also called for older black LGBT people to step forward and take the responsibility to “be a bridge” to disconnected youth, to mentor them and help “pave the way” for their future success.
“When you don’t have pride instilled in you when you are young, you become willing to become a second or third class people,” Williams said. “We need to carve out a space for some central community,” which calls for leadership and funding. “We might be wishing for the time when we knew who we were. But we can’t go back and undo things. So what can we do to change things now?”
“Racism is so undercover, so covert right now,” King said. “We need to make a bold commitment. We need to ask: where are we as a community right now?”
After the event, King (pictured above with De Juan VaLentine and Victor Barillias) said:
Our experience is one of continued struggle to overcome racism and do more than to merely survive. Our experience is one of isolation and exclusion, our challenge is to remain vigilant and committed to sharing our history while remaining visible and vocal relative to our issues and our remedies that are rooted in our historical struggle for liberation.
Convening community in 2016 is what we did at that gathering. Living in the spread-out diverse city of Los Angeles only adds to the isolation that many Black LGBTQ people experience. We have to create spaces and platforms for ourselves that engage and help to bridge the economic and intergenerational divide that contributes to the already physical factors associated with isolation.
We are finally at a place in our community where we know how desperately critical it is that we share the uncut his-story her-story of our Black LGBTQ movement and to reach out to young people and provide support in the form of advocacy, scholarship a listening ear and heart while honestly sharing our truths and wisdom as parents and elders in the Black LGBTQ movement. It may not look like the efforts of other LGBTQ movements but it does exist and it will thrive along as we continue to convene community through social media, as well as physically showing up in the few spaces that we have left to define for ourselves, speak for ourselves and support each other.
One of those spaces and times is tonight, Sunday, Feb. 7 as In The Meantime hosts the ALL RED PARTY at 8911 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, 90069.
This Sunday is NATIONAL BLACK HIV/AIDS AWARENESS DAY & @TheBASHLA has teamed up with In The Meantime’s BRev BoiRevolution to bring you “CODE RED” a campaign that makes sure you are #SexReady with a free #SexReady Bag.
$200 CASH PRIZE – SEX SIREN (#SexReady w/ a Red Mask)
There’s black gay history to be made.