*NOTE: Most of the images included in the body of this blog are from a campaign entitled "I Love My Boo" from Gay Men's Health Crisis, a New York-based nonprofit AIDS service organization. "The 'I Love My Boo' campaign features real young men of color loving each other passionately. Rather than sexualizing gay relationships, this campaign models caring, and highlights the importance of us taking care of each other." (GMHC.org) For more information on this campaign and ways to get involved in the fight against homophobia and the AIDS virus, visit that site or the other mentioned in this article.
Flint Pride came out of Wellness AIDS Services’ desire to target a marginalized section of the gay population- black men. What sprung out of a desire to lessen the disparity in the African American culture has broadened this year to include people from many walks of life. It started as a small event spread by word-of-mouth last year with surprising results, and this year it promises to be an epic experience for all involved. I sat down with Stevi Atkins, who is the Chief Executive Officer at Flint’s own Wellness AIDS Services, and discussed the initial impetus of the event, what it’s shaping up to be this year, and goals for the future.
In recent history, the incidence of HIV and AIDS in the gay community has been huge. That is widely known and it has been addressed by many nonprofit and government groups. What is lesser known is the overwhelming majority of that statistic being comprised of black men. In fact, CDC.org states “In 2009, African Americans comprised 14% of the US population but accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections.” Out of the knowledge of these statistics, there has been a shift in the way national campaigns have targeted the gay community. The commitment to focus on reducing the disparities in the African American community has increased, and Wellness AIDS Services has added to that commitment. Flint Pride is a response to the challenge of getting involved in the black MSM community at large.
Something needs to be cleared up before we go any further. MSM is a term I had never heard before Stevi used it in the interview to describe a part of the community that Wellness AIDS Services works with, which means men who have sex with men. Since I had never heard it used before, and I consider myself to be on the inside of many conversations surrounding that concept, I thought I would pause to describe it to the readers who may not have heard it used either. CDC.gov states that the term MSM “indicates the behaviors that transmit HIV infection, rather than how individuals self-identify in terms of their sexuality”. Basically this is a term that is used to encompass both gay men and men who have sex with men but do not necessarily consider themselves to be gay or bisexual. It is an instrumental way to serve the community more effectively, by classifying based on behavior rather than title, allowing the focus to be on safety rather than how someone may see themselves. CDC.gov states that although white MSM comprised 39% of infections in 2009, “Among all MSM, black/African American MSM accounted for 10,800 (37%) new HIV infections in 2009. Whereas new HIV infections were relatively stable among MSM overall from 2006–2009, they increased 34% among young MSM—an increase largely due to a 48% increase among young black/African American MSM aged 13–29.”
Clearly the time has come in recent years to focus a lot of effort on getting the African American MSM community involved in the discussion of safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention. But how to start? Home parties are a good place to start. “Home parties are informational sessions that happen at house parties that are already happening.” Says Atkins. “We bring food and information as well as a $50 stipend to the host at the house. After the presentation, one-on-one HIV testing is offered. The whole thing lasts about 2 hours, and normally out of 25 people, about 10-15 will test.” This has been a really great way to meet face-to-face with communities of black MSM in particular, who often stay within their own communities and safe places and rarely feel safe going out in public to celebrate and be represented.
From Home parties, the people at Wellness became familiar with concepts of the underground LGBTQ culture such as House Communities and Ball Culture. These are a side note in this post but are more than worth mentioning. "Houses," also called "drag houses" or "drag families," are banded together under a respected "house mother" (sometimes a drag queen or a transgender person, but not always) and/or a "house father” which serve to show the younger LGBTQ members the ropes of the lifestyle they choose to enter. The reason, other than important lessons on how to be fabulous and own your identity, that these house communities are imperative especially to the MTF or FTM transgendered youth is that otherwise this group of individuals would be disowned by their blood families and cast out on the streets, to starve and engage in activities that would most certainly infect them with the HIV virus. House Communities employ many effective techniques on how to avoid infection, many of which can be used by organizations when working closely with said communities. House Communities are closely linked to Ball Culture, wherein participants “walk”, or compete by strutting down a runway in various categories in order to win prizes and prove how much pride they take in their identity. Categories are many and include “Realness”, “Bizarre”, and “Best Dressed”. Also included in these competitions are many forms of vogueing and dance-based displays. Are you excited? Because I am!
After a period of time working the Home party circuit, Atkins reflects “We thought, ‘There has to be another outlet and way to engage.’” Thus, Flint Pride was born. The aim is to educate and engage in the community in order to help in preventative measures against HIV infection. However, after years of trial and error, it was discovered that passing out fliers and condoms at clubs will result in a floor littered with long-planned out and well-edited pamphlets and a parking lot full of condom balloons. There is a more effective way to get the MSM community in particular to come, get comfortable, and become educated enough to test and take preventative measures. And that is a huge, fabulous, glitter-filled Gay Pride Event.
The first pride event, spread by word-of-mouth, saw 150 attendees; far more than anticipated. There were 3 vendors including a DJ who volunteered their time. People came out to dance and have fun at the Kearsley Park Pavilion and to eat, all day. One thing that happened at the first pride event was a gay history workshop, but that had low attendance and so it will not be repeated this year. Following last year’s pride event, there were some comments from the gay community that the targeted demographic was the only one represented. That means the goal focus was successful, but broadening that horizon was a necessary and joyous task for this year’s pride event.
This year there will be far more venders, performers, and events- including a small presentation before the mini-ball (yes there will be a mini-ball!!!!!) about what House culture is. DJ Envi will be spinning, there will be a photo booth with Sarah Reed, and the Fischer Bodies will even perform in the afternoon of the 23rd. There is a suggested donation of $5 for this event, which helps pay the entertainment and cover other expenses.
This year’s Pride event is a point of much excitement for me, and if you are like me and want to know how to get involved with this event or other events planned by Wellness AIDS Services, you’ll want to contact Stevi Atkins at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure you “like” Flint Gay Pride Society on facebook to keep updated as well. And of course, come on out for a weekend of fun, fierce, sexy realness served up to you as only Wellness AIDS Services can.
I would like to close by sharing this video entitled “Coming Out Stories”, sponsored by Wellness AIDS Services. You can view it by going to this link: Vimeo.com/34969247
For more information about House Culture and Ball Culture, a good place to start is “Paris is Burning”, a movie about these cultures in the ‘90’s.
Get educated. Get involved. We are a community. Together we can make a difference.