By Michael Lamb
The day the universe decided it wanted to see sugar, spice and everything nice, it was June 10, 1991 – the day I was born. Even as a child, I was always talkative and quite the jokester. Winning “Loudest,” “Class Clown,” and “Most Likely to Work for The New York Times” my senior year of high school proved not only that I could make anyone laugh, but that my banter always led to greater conversation.
Taboo topics have always been my favorite conversation-starters. Whenever the topic of HIV/AIDS came up, I was the smartest man alive. “Only crackheads, hookers and people who shoot up get HIV,” and “You can tell who got that shit because they look sick,” were two sentences I remember proudly stating. That wasn’t the same energy I had when I was diagnosed with HIV on Dec. 19, 2012.
I was the average 21-year-old white gay man. Living it up, partying every weekend, experimenting with drugs, and of course having plenty of sex. Man, I knew the pathway to my walk of shame backwards and with my eyes closed, strutting every step of the way while my hips said, “Yes ma’am,” with every sway.
I became an advocate for HIV awareness after living with the virus for two years. Stigma led me to my reactive test, and stigma caused me to bury a friend who died due to complications from AIDS in 2014. “I could’ve sworn my doctor said the medicine nowadays keeps people living longer! Why is my friend dead?” I thought to myself as the casket closed.
When I first heard of my friend’s passing, I was shocked. Growing up in Fort Myers, Florida, I’ve lost many friends to gun and gang violence. I knew for a fact my friend wasn’t a gangbanger. After I reached out to his sister, she was basically shocked at my emotional outcry for answers, responding, “Boy, you didn’t know he had AIDS?” I was in shock. How could we have both been diagnosed with the virus, but he’s dead and I’m alive? Oh yeah, he was black.
I’m not trying to sound curt or insensitive, but that was the only difference between us. Both gay men living in Florida, under 25 at the time, we had the same “risk behaviors.” Our skin tones separated us like water fountains in the 1960s separated our parents. Yes, the civil rights movement wasn’t that long ago. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that there are racial and systemic barriers surrounding black gay men diagnosed with HIV – at least not until I had to bury two more black gay men in white caskets, in 2016 and 2017. Black gay men are dying in the “better days of the epidemic.” This is news to some, but a reality to many.
Where I’m from, I was often the only white person, or one of five white people, in black-dominated spaces. My mother owned a daycare on Evans Avenue. She and another gentleman were the only white people who owned businesses in that area. All her employees and students were black. As the years went on, those employees became family. I have so many aunties because of that place. My mother was finishing school, going through a terrible divorce, and running a business, so naturally her time was spread thin. She trusted black women to look after her white children. My mother didn’t raise us on “don’t see color” – she raised us on, “Treat good people better than the world does, because the world will turn good people bad.”
When I entered the world of HIV advocacy, I jumped in headfirst, wanting everyone to know their status, but I wasn’t yet hip to the fact that knowing your status and navigating the health care system once HIV positive is not the same. From inner community stigma, culture differences, racism, lack of health literacy or cultural competency, and the “one size fits all” messaging at play in the HIV nonprofit world, it’s no wonder black and brown bodies fall through the cracks of what is supposed to be the glory days.
You would think after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics showing that black gay and bisexual men have a one in two chance of contracting HIV in their lifetime before age 40 that there would be plenty of space, education, marketing materials and representation for black leadership roles to open up to spread awareness of testing, access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), sexual health and navigation to care if diagnosed. Nope. Not at all.
I remember working for an organization that whenever they had any need for anything to do with black people, I was their go-to man. Why? Because I had black friends. I remember my boss even saying, “I need a gay, black, HIV-positive man to hire as a prevention specialist. Can you think of any of your friends that would want a job?” He wanted to hire my gay, black, HIV-positive friends, but when I wore a Black Lives Matter shirt to work, I was asked to change, because “my politics aren’t the same as everyone else’s.” He wanted a gay, black, HIV-positive man to work for him, but the only time we ever went to a neighborhood that was predominantly black was for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I took this kind of tokenizing as a spit in the face, and a piss on the graves of my three friends.
It’s at moments like this that the voice of South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu rings in my ears: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t live with myself allowing my black friends to become nothing but a quota to fill for a snowcap organization to gain funding. As a gay white man, I don’t know oppression like a gay black man, nor will I ever know. Many times, I have challenged my white peers, colleagues and fellow advocates to first have a conversation surrounding the experience of their black counterparts living with HIV and to see the role they themselves have played that contributed to the oppression of their friends, colleagues, clients and employees. White folks with badges aren’t the only ones helping kill black folks – it’s the white folks in lab coats too.
White people who claim to “get it” and wave their allyship to black folks are the worst. Trust me, I was one of them. Always trying to prove myself to black people, explain racism to black people, and basically telling black people how to be black. Yep, I was your typical white gay. Not only was I singing to the wrong choir, I was totally singing off key.
If it weren’t for black leaders, including Maxx Boykin, Larry Scott-Walker, David Malebranche and Phill Wilson – who taught me to check my privilege at the door and told me certain spaces were for black folks only, black folks are a priority to black people, and my presence or my voice wasn’t needed at the time – I’d still be stuck in my old ways. I can’t thank them enough. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the lesson was a hard one to learn, sometimes with tears emanating from my own white fragility. But it helped me be a better person, a better white person.
“Nothing about us without us,” said Larry Scott-Walker at the 2018 United States Conference on AIDS, as his beautiful locs hung like wind chimes down his broad back. Usually, in the HIV community, this expression is used to speak to the need to keep people living with HIV at the center of all decision-making about prevention, treatment programs and policymaking. But in that moment in Orlando this past September, I interpreted Larry’s call as, “No discussions about the betterment of black people are to be had at the table without black people at the table.” Period.