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Memphis, Tennessee, an entertainment hub, once home to Elvis Presley and site where the assassination of one of the world’s greatest leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., occurred. Memphis is also home to high rates of poverty and an increasing number of HIV infections, specifically among young Black gay men (BGM).
Recognizing this disparity, The Red Door Foundation, Inc. convene an annual weekend experience, Saving Ourselves Symposium, in Memphis, TN designed to address some of the social and structural determinants of HIV in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi for Black gay men. It was a vision of mine, to bring my community together, specifically young Black gay men, to better understand the importance of becoming active in their own quality of life. To help guide me in this effort, workshops were facilitated by local and national leaders across interdisciplinary fields.
What we found out:
Lack of Resources – The South carries the bulk of the epidemic but has the least amount of resources. Persons have reported that in some rural areas of these jurisdictions, Black gay men have to travel up to 2-3 hours to receive mental health services and treatment for STDs and HIV/AIDS.
Stigma – Memphis is known as “the Buckle of the Bible Belt,” which results in high rates of stigma for young Black gay men on many different levels. Black gay men experience extreme homophobia in this region and are highly stigmatized, particularly in church around the issue of homosexuality. Due to such high stigma, it is extremely difficult to provide adequate HIV/AIDS education in faith-based institutions, which serves as the cornerstone of community for many Black families.
Culturally Competent Spaces and Clinics – The way young Black gay men are treated in clinics plays a role in service acquisition, testing practices, and linkage and retention in care. Often times Black gay men feel as if they are not being valued in the healthcare system from the first point of contact, and thus avoid accessing healthcare altogether. Body language, demeanor, and culturally appropriate communication is highly important for clinicians and frontline staff alike.
The following are next steps in addressing HIV among Black gay men in Memphis which could possibly be used across the country in addressing the HIV epidemic in similar locations:
1. State funding for HIV programs should follow the epidemic, thus prioritizing the needs of young Black gay men between the ages of 16-30 in the South
2. Invite and involve young Black gay men from start to finish in research and policy changes that affect us
3. Provide culturally appropriate and responsive healthcare
4. Make available tools and resources that empower young Black gay men to seek health care and stay engaged in the system
5. Recognize the myriad healthcare needs for Black gay men and address Black gay men’s health holistically
National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day (NGMHAAD), a day launched in 2008 by the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) to recognize the disproportionate impact of the epidemic on gay men. While not new for some, new ways of testing individuals have recently been implemented in Memphis such as testing in jails, emergency hospital rooms, churches, and barbershops.
Today I reflect on getting my first HIV test. It was a blood test and I can remember the changes in my body. Subsequently, my first test in 2007 was the last test needed. I can recall requesting a HIV test from my Primary Care Physician and getting a call two weeks later from the nurse requesting that I come in. Like so many of my peers, I ignored that call and the many more that followed. I experienced many of the aforementioned barriers regarding linking into care. Knowing your status can save not only your life but the lives of many you come in contact with. As new infections occur across the country, we must be intentional about educating the community, ensuring linkage and retention in care, and achieving viral suppression.
Be responsible for someone today. Challenge a co-worker, friend, or family members to go get tested but remember to put your mask on first.
Will we ever see a decrease in HIV infections in Black gay men? I certainly believe so.
By: Marvell L. Terry, II
Marvell L. Terry, II is the founding Executive Director of The Red Door Foundation, Inc. a 501c3 non-profit organization purposed to build health equity for Black gay men in the Delta region. Marvell is also a member of the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative.