Although the face of AIDS in America is diverse, it cannot be denied that African Americans bear the brunt of the epidemic, in particular black men who have sex with men (MSM). This past June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed startling statistics: The rate of newly diagnosed HIV cases among black MSM, ages 13 to 24, is 10 times higher than that of the general MSM population. But, while the usual suspects—systematic racism, homophobia, disproportionate poverty and genetics—play a role in the epidemic, we can still make a difference in the fight against HIV. We can accomplish much by advocating for research and education and fighting against stigma and political apathy. But work still needs to be done. Here, RH highlights three brothas, each from a different field, who are making a difference in hopes to reduce HIV rates in their community.

Greg Millet: The Researcher

Growing up, Greg Millet hoped to become a civil rights attorney. But when the AIDS epidemic hit New York City in the ’80s, his priorities shifted. “One year in college, I lost 15 friends,” Millet recalls. “There was just a blanket of death in New York, and I was scared.” Rather than wait for the government to respond, Millet quickly became involved in organizations such as ACT UP, and he volunteered at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), where he led workshops on HIV prevention for Black and Latino men who have sex with men (MSM).

Millet now serves as a senior behavioral scientist at the CDC, where he researches black and Latino MSM sexual behavior and conducts behavioral intervention work. In 2007, he and three other researchers published the groundbreaking study, “Explaining Disparities in HIV Infection Among Black and White men Who Have Sex With Men.” They found that behavioral risk factors such as unprotected sex, drug use and multiple sexual partners did not explain the disproportionate rates among black MSM. His recommendations: Only focusing on behaviors won’t make the impact that is needed to reduce infections. Researchers and prevention experts need to be looking elsewhere.
 
Millet also stresses that homophobia in the black community, supported by the church and the mainstream media, has made it difficult to fight the disease. “In order to defeat the epidemic against gay black men, we can’t just do it among ourselves. We need support from our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters. We need help from both the gay and straight communities.”

Millet’s current research explores the why some black MSM decide to engage in unprotected sex.  It looks at a host of issues, such as culture, stigma, poverty, racism, homophobia and sexual abuse. He is also researching bisexual men and HIV rates. And while the individual work Millet accomplishes is crucial, he stresses that advances in the research and science fields aren’t enough win the battle against HIV/AIDS. “We also need the support of the wider community. Americans [must] take the epidemic among black folks seriously. It’s not something we can effectively address on our own.” 

Kenyon Farrow: The Activist and Journalist

“I don’t feel like we’re operating as a community right now,” says Kenyon Farrow. “HIV work also goes to a place deeper than just sex, and building community through organizing is one thing that is missing.” Farrow, unquestionably one of the most vocal voices in the black MSM community, is currently the national public education director for Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) in New York City. Farrow’s clientele is largely affected by poverty and a slew of economic issues that researchers believe have contributed to the rise of HIV. Before joining QEJ, Farrow worked as the communications director at Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP).

Being the son of a politically active mother and performing years of AIDS work in his hometown of Cleveland prepared Farrow for the task of rebuilding the community. In 2006, he helped organize a successful effort to bar performances by homophobic reggae artists Beenie Man and T.O.K. at LIFEbeat’s Reggae Gold concert. He also helped launch the We Are Part of You campaign, an HIV/AIDS project that challenges homophobia as it relates to the lives of black MSM.

Farrow also uses writing as a way to discuss HIV/AIDS. He is the co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books 2005), and his work has appeared in publications such as Utne Reader, Black Commentator, Left Turn, POZ, The Indypendent, AIDSmeds.com, City Limits and in the anthology Spirited: Affirming the Soul of Black Lesbian and Gay Identity (Red Bone Press 2006). His blog, kenyonfarrow.com, also serves as a platform to discuss the disease.

“I can name three recent deaths of gay black men from AIDS, and people still say it was pneumonia or a lifelong illness—anything but AIDS,” Farrow says. “Everything I do as a writer and organizer is [done] to fight.”



Tim’m West: The Artist and Educator

In 1999, author and hip-hop artist Tim’m West disclosed his HIV status while moderating a discussion about HIV for a group of young African- American MSM in Oakland, California. West thought it was time to break the code of silence. “A lot of people aren’t open about their status because they don’t have role models,” he says. “When I came out as having HIV, I was very disappointed that there weren’t more role models giving the statistics.”

Since then, West has made it a priority to create spaces where black MSM can feel safe and be open about their sexuality. Alongside Erik Chambers and Monte Wolfe, he co-founded the Brave Soul Collective (BSC) to carry out that mission. BSC works with gay, bisexual and transgender folks—both HIV positive and negative—who use art as a platform to tell the stories of black MSM. “The creation of Brave Soul Collective sprang from Monte’s enthusiasm to take things to another level,” West explains, “to expand the vast possibilities of what it meant to publicize the toxicity of our silence and to create communities of brothas—positive and negative—willing to speak honestly and openly about the impact of HIV/AIDS on our personal and collective experiences.” 

Tapping into his creative ability, West uses his music as a means to break down stereotypes. While hip-hop is saturated with macho men and rhymes about sex, drugs and hustling, West uses the genre to show a more positive and proactive side of the music. “Not all of my songs are about being HIV positive, but, over the past six albums, I’ve personalized my experiences and talked about making unwise decisions about sex, feeling isolated and overarching political change.”

On the academic front, West is also a force in the classroom. Currently, he is a visiting lecturer at Humboldt State University in California and teaches a class on hip-hop. Learn more about West and his music at reddirt.biz.