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How African-American gay activists in the rural south found community support.

Abstract: Brotha== William Robinson of Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church, a unique partnership was formed. Other collaborations with small black businesses evolved over time earning the organization visibility and support from the community. The history of the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in the white, gay male community in the U.S. has been well documented. In the early years of the epidemic (the 1980s), AIDS was considered a "gay disease"and was attributed to the lifestyle of gay men. Since many people in African-American communities have historically been in denial about the fact that there are black gays; AIDS came to be viewed by some as a disease "only white, gay, men got" and blacks "got it" when they associated too closely with white gays. This made it convenient for homophobic people, including homophobic people in African-American communities, to dismiss the disease and cite it as proof that God was somehow punishing gay people. In response to the new epidemic, the (mainly white) gay community began to mobilize. They challenged the government, the private sector, and the larger community to make the disease a health priority by taking to the streets in demonstrations and in acts of civil disobedience, by founding organizations to assist the sick, and by challenging the homophobic teachings of some religious institutions.

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Over a short period of time, AIDS showed it did not discriminate as cases among nonwhite and non-gay people began to emerge. However, many of the "new faces of AIDS" were from other marginalized groups such as injection drug users and Haitian immigrants. Again, it was convenient for many within African-American communities to ignore the epidemic and not view it as a threat to them. Silence about AIDS from African-American churches was most notable and difficult to comprehend because of the traditional role of black churches in identifying and speaking our against threats to the health and welfare of African American communities. In the past these churches have also helped to mobilize blacks to fight against injustice and have offered spiritual support, especially in times of crisis.

Today the faces of AIDS cases in the U.S. are approximately 50% African-American (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 1999). Among women diagnosed with AIDS, African-Americans comprise 64% of cases, African-American children account for nearly all of the pediatric cases of AIDS while African-Americans represent only 13% of the U.S. population (DHHS, 1999).

There have been countless stories from African-Americans living with AIDS, both gay and straight, of being turned away from their churches because they have AIDS. There have been numerous reports of African-American ministers using their pulpits to attack gay people. These actions on the part of some black churches and silence from others created a situation where many HIV-infected and gay persons have to carry a burden with them into what is supposed to be a space where their burdens can be lifted. In a published discussion about the African-American church and its view on AIDS and gays, clergypeople and gay Christians were interviewed (Balm and Gilead, 1997). The 51 clergypeople interviewed found many churches stigmatized both substance abusers and gays. Many of the gay men interviewed gave personal accounts of being asked to leave their church after disclosing their gay life or being permitted to remain on the condition they suppress public recognition of their homosexuality and not discuss it. Today, the African-American church is being challenged to respond to the AIDS epidemic. Faith-based HIV/AIDS organizations have been formed in recent years to involve the black church in HIV prevention. Examples of these are the New York-based Balm and Gilead and the Ark of Refuge in California. The Balm and Gilead is endorsed by over ten African-American church denominations and caucuses (Balm and Gilead, 1997).

In a few rare cases, African-American gays and the black church have been brought together by the AIDS epidemic, not in confrontation but in collaboration. Some black churches now view the epidemic as an opportunity to demonstrate unconditional love to the sick and dying based on the teachings of Jesus. In Arkansas, one such collaborative effort between a black church, Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church, and an African-American gay organization called Brotha's and Sista's, took root a decade ago. It was through this collaboration that the African-American gay community in Arkansas -- who prefer the inclusive acronym SGL/LGBT (Same Gender Loving/ Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) -- was able to build partnerships and find acceptance with organizations and businesses within the greater African-American community.

Arkansas is a mostly rural, southern state located in the so-called "Bible Belt" of the U.S. In 1998, 70% of the population of Arkansas lived outside of urban areas and 40% lived in communities with fewer than 2,500 (Arkansas Department of Health [AR DOH], 1998). The median annual income of $25,500 in Arkansas is below the national norm and African-Americans are overrepresented in poverty figures for the state (U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, 1998). Many young people leave Arkansas for places like Houston, Texas or Atlanta, Georgia where there are greater job opportunities. African-Americans are also overrepresented among AIDS cases in Arkansas, comprising 35% of all cases while only 16% of the population (AR DOH, 1998). Religious traditions and social conservatism run very strong in Arkansas, even in its SGL/ LGBT community. Since many of the communities are "small-town-like" and most families know one another and share conservative values, many SGL/LGBT people living in Arkansas cope with internalized homophobia and lead "closeted" lives to shield themselves from homophobic attitudes. It is believed by many members of Brotha's and Sista's, as well as some behaviorists, that internalized homophobia can contribute to depression, suicide, and substance abuse. These behaviors may indirectly put a person at risk of developing AIDS (Williamson, 2000).

Brotha's and Sista's, Inc., was founded in 1990 by a group of African-American lesbians who began meeting informally because they were concerned about a number of health and social issues the African-American community in general, and the SGL/LGBT community specifically, were being challenged with. Also of concern was the lack of meaningful cultural/social activities for African-American SGL/LGBT in Arkansas. The only social outlets that existed for years were the bars and homes of individual gay people. The founding women of Brotha's and Sista's identified a lack of information and gaps in services around domestic violence, substance abuse, STDs, cervical cancer, and internalized homophobia as some of the most pressing health challenges facing the community at that time. The organization's objectives from the beginning have been to bridge gaps in health and social services; promote a sense of cultural, political, and spiritual awareness and pride among African-American SGL/LGBT people; and enhance the development of the entire African-American community. Brotha's and Sista's defines itself as an HIV/AIDS prevention and community enhancement organization.

Realizing the challenges facing the African-American SGL/LGBT community and larger African-American community are similar but also too numerous and complex for one group to tackle alone, Brotha's and Sista's has sought to form a partnership with the African-American community in Arkansas to address these challenges. The organization recognizes that African-American SGL/ LGBT identify strongly with the larger African-American community and its traditions, and are just as likely to be discriminated against for being black as they are for being gay. For these reasons, Brotha's and Sista's believes the African-American community is a natural ally of SGL/ LGBT African-Americans, in spite of the homophobia that still exists today in the greater community. Also, the organization's members believe that by working together on common problems, barriers can be broken down.

CREATIVE PARTNERING

Brotha's and Sista's first developed ties with the Women's Project in Arkansas, since one of the founding women worked for the project. The Women's Project is an organization of progressive women who assist women of all races and socio-economic backgrounds in obtaining information and resources. It is perceived by many in the African-American community to be a white organization and is therefore unfamiliar to many of them. Brotha's and Sista's was able to obtain from The Women's Project educational materials on cervical cancer, STDs, and other health-related issues. The founding women of Brotha's and Sista's were also concerned about whether they were at risk for HIV, though at that time, transmission of the virus among women was not a health department priority. However, the "sistas" decided not to wait and let AIDS become an epidemic among them and decided to educate themselves about HIV. One of the founding women of the organization worked for the health department which made it possible to access public health information. With the new information the women of Brotha's and Sista's developed "playshops" that promoted safer sex for women and were very popular, educational, and portable to spaces where women gather. They designed "playshops" as opposed to "workshops" because they did not want their audience to interpret safer sex practices as work.

In just as few short years AIDS cases sharply increased in Arkansas and Brotha's and Sista's was affected in a personal way as friends began to die. The group then shifted its focus to AIDS prevention and control. Today 54% of Arkansas's AIDS cases are in homosexual or bisexual males (AR DOH, 1998). Reaching African-American SGL/LGBT males proved a challenge for Brotha's and Sista's for two reasons. One reason was the perception of the group as a gay, women's organization, and the other was the large numbers of men who had sex with other men but did not identify themselves as gay. After extensive discussions with many gay men it was decided that the best way to reach SGL/LGBT men was in the bars where they gather. This would require establishing a trusting relationship with the owners of gay bars. As it turned out, the local, black, gay bar was owned by an African-American lesbian who not only allowed Brotha's and Sista's to do HIV prevention work in her bar, but soon became an active member of the organization.

Hearing about the HIV prevention work of the organization, a local, African-American physician, Dr. Henry Masters, approached Brotha's and Sista's about working together to educate the community about AIDS. Dr. Masters provided all the resources and incentives for the work. However, gay men were slow to present themselves for HIV testing and counseling. Once again, the organization held a series of discussions with some of the men. The idea emerged to create a campaign to increase testing by offering a free T-shirt with a catchy phrase ("I do, do you practice safer sex?") as an incentive. This was a huge success as many men came forward for testing and, of course, a T-shirt.

After these two successes Brotha's and Sista's knew it was time to become more formally established within the community in order to expand its work. In 1994, the organization developed its Articles of Incorporation, and in March of 1995 received its 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt, non-profit status. The organization then brought its agenda to the larger African-American community; with the knowledge that almost every. African-American home has been touched by someone infected or affected by AIDS, they presented their issues as issues that have an impact on the entire community. To help make the voices of the SGL/ LGBT community heard and forge new partnerships with local agencies and other groups, Brotha's and Sista's staff also participated in the Community Planning Board and Minority AIDS Education Task Force. Through numerous discussions with the health department and by participating in community planning, it was decided that outreach at bars was critical to controlling the epidemic and funding should be sought. At that time the chairperson of the Minority AIDS Education Task Force was Rev. William Robinson, a progressive minister who played an instrumental role in helping Brotha's and Sista's apply for funding for HIV prevention and outreach activities.

Rev. William Robinson came into AIDS prevention work the way he came into Civil Rights activism in the 1960s. He sees it as God's work to minister to the disen-franchised and believes all humans deserve dignity and respect. Rev. Robinson asserts that AIDS is a human and health issue, and that the epidemic is not about homosexuality but a virus which infects individuals and 'affects the entire community. Rev. Robinson also maintains that it is the job of the church to love humans, and that the epidemic has given the church an opportunity to affirm they are in the business of love. He has been the pastor of Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church for decades, running a social activist ministry which includes a recovery program, a shelter for the homeless, a community daycare center, a youth activity center, and a program for young entrepreneurs.

Today, Rev. Robinson is one of two straight members who sit on the board of Brotha's and Sista's. He has given the organization space from which to run its operations and has been a spiritual support to its members. Rev. Robinson's philosophy regarding partnerships is that it makes good sense for people to work together on the things they agree on, and to agree to disagree when their opinions differ but not let that interfere with the work. He points out that collaboration should not be confused with manipulation (i.e., using underhanded methods to achieve one's goals), that collaboration means bringing all issues to the table so the merits and drawbacks of those issues can be discussed.

Another African-American minister, Rev C.W. Garrett formerly of Pineal Church, also broke the silence and exclusion policies of many black churches by welcoming members of Brotha's and Sista's to join his church. It was through community work of individual members of the organization that Brotha's and Sista's came to know Rev. Garrett.

Brotha's and Sista's decided as a matter of strategy that the best way to reach more SGL/LGBT African-American people would be to hold informal, social events since it was widely known that the community would come out in large numbers for fun. Once people were in attendance, AIDS prevention messages could be softly pushed. The first of the events was a picnic where the organization held a barbecue with music and provided AIDS educational materials and condoms. The picnic, now in its 9th year, was later named Suisse Mocha in memory of a transgender person who died alone of AIDS. In paying tribute to Suisse Mocha, the members of Brotha's and Sista's wanted to convey to SGL/LGBT people with AIDS that they do not have to die alone because the organization exists for them. In addition, the organization's members have made it possible for 150-200 people to be tested for HIV and referred hundreds of others for testing, and handed out more than 30,000 condoms, 2,000 safe sex kits for men, and 500 for women. Brotha's and Sista's was one of the first organizations to introduce the use of OraSure testing, a non-invasive HIV test. In 1998 the Bert Meyer Foundation awarded the organization funds to do voter registration which has now become a part of the organization's community outreach activities. Today, Brotha's and Sista's is the only African-American SGL/ LGBT organization in Arkansas.

As the annual picnic became a successful way of organizing and educating the community about AIDS, there was a need to find vendors to supply materials (e.g., food, T-shirts) for the picnic. Brotha's and Sista's made a conscious decision to support small, black businesses as part of its community enhancement objective and has been able to successfully partner with several of them over the years. Most of these businesses are owned by straight people who now welcome and look forward to the organization's patronage. One example of a collaborative effort between the local business community and Brotha's and Sista's occurred in 1995, when a black bookstore worked in cooperation with the organization to bring gay, writer E. Lynn Harris to Arkansas.

LESSONS LEARNED

Brotha's and Sista's has learned that African-American SGL/LGBT people do have allies in the greater African-American community and must be creative in finding those allies. Sometimes allies are in places people do not think to look or are individuals who are only waiting to be asked. The organization believes that SGL/LGBT must first view themselves as resources in their communities, contributing valuable work and creativity. It was because of the personal contacts through their jobs and community work that individual members of the organization were able to tap into resources within the African-American community. Today Brotha's and Sista's continues the work of bringing HIV prevention education to the African-American SGL/LGBT community by targeting men who have sex with other men and their sexual partners regardless of their sexual identification. Additionally, the organization, in cooperation with Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church, is in the process of becoming an HIV testing site. Brotha's and Sista's is also expanding by developing an interactive web-site.

There is still a great deal of homophobia and fear of AIDS in the African-American community and churches. However, the African-American gay and greater African-American community are inextricably linked and their best interests are served when they come together.

REFERENCES

Arkansas Department of Health (1998). Arkansas HIV/AIDS Epidemiologic Profile.

The Balm and Gilead, Inc. (1997). Though I stand at the door and knock: Discussions on the black church struggle with homosexuality and AIDS.

Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1999). On the front lines: Fighting HIV/AIDS in African-American communities.

U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. (1998).

Williamson IR. (2000). Internalized homophobia and health issues affecting lesbians and gay men. Health Education Research. 15(1) 97-107.

Darlene Hudson, B.S., is Founder and CEO of Brotha's and Sista's, Inc. The Rev. William Robinson is Pastor for Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church. Address all correspondence to Ms. Hudson at Brotha's and Sista's, Inc.; P.O. Box 165917; Little Rock, Arkansas 72216; Ph: 501.663.7223; Fax: 501.663.7228.
COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Alabama, Department of Health Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:AIDS activism
Author:Robinson, William
Publication:American Journal of Health Studies
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Mar 22, 2001
Words:2996
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