as seen in the BAR:Black gay men seek community space in SF
Black gay men seek community space in SF
by Matthew S. Bajko
John Newsome speaks at Monday's summit, where he said a sense of isolation is felt by many black men who have sex with men. Newsome is one of several people who are studying the issue.
Isolated not only from the larger LGBT community, but also from each other, the city's black gay male population is seeking a place to call home. Unlike other ethnic groups, the approximately 4,500 gay black men who reside in San Francisco do not have a central gathering place to meet, socialize and create a sense of community.
The Castro is seen as a neighborhood for white gay men, and with the shuttering of the Pendulum bar several years ago, black gay men lost the last remaining gay space that catered to them. "There is no place to socialize. It is very limited for us," said Norman Tanner, an outreach worker with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Black Brothers Esteem program who has lived in the Tenderloin since the mid-1970s.
"The nightlife is not what it used to be."
Creating such a space is seen as key in not only addressing the spiritual and health needs of African American men who have sex with men, but also as a way to combat the disproportionately high prevalence of HIV infection within this subset of the city's gay male population.
Health officials estimate that 1,500 gay and bisexual black men in the city are HIV-positive. While preliminary data has shown a significant drop off of HIV infections among gay black men under the age of 30, infections among older gay black men have been rising.
Researchers estimate that in older gay black men, HIV prevalence rose from 18.2 percent in 2004 to 25.5 in 2008.
It is the only ethnic group to show a rise in HIV infections in gay men over 30 years old. Overall, the city's HIV infection rate has been steady, or endemic, for several years now.
But data local HIV researchers have found point to a continuing HIV epidemic among black men due to their higher chance of having black partners. Studies done by the health department's HIV epidemiology section have found that among gay men as a whole, black men are seen as the least desirable partners and are perceived as being the most risky for contracting HIV. "The one thing that cuts across neighborhoods and socioeconomic status is a sense of isolation," said John Newsome, an out gay black man tapped by the health department's HIV prevention section to lead a working group tasked with developing a plan to stop the spread of HIV among African American men who have sex with men.
"Black MSM are disconnected from one another and the larger gay community. They feel isolated."
The result is a closed sexual network, where HIV is more easily transmitted among gay black men, despite the fact they do not engage in riskier sexual practices than other gay men.
In order to break this logjam, HIV prevention director Dr. Grant Colfax made targeting efforts specifically geared toward black men a top priority and asked Newsome to form a working group.
The working group spent the last year talking to gay black men, as well as researchers and HIV experts from across the country.
They presented their plan at an all-day summit Monday, February 2 to more than 75 community leaders, health professionals, and employees of black HIV prevention agencies.
"HIV is sophisticated now. We need to be sophisticated about it," said Tony Bradford, a member of the working group who is the interim program director of the Black Brothers Esteem program.
One of the group's main suggestions is to target the city's efforts in the three neighborhoods where the majority of black men live: the Tenderloin, Bayview and Western Addition. The plan calls for HIV testing programs and prevention campaigns designed specifically for each neighborhood. By doing so, Newsome said, "We've tackled two-thirds of the epidemic." Though he cautioned there still needs to a "citywide lens as well." A top priority that emerged from the summit was locating a "one-stop shop" type of community space in the Tenderloin that could serve as a gathering space for black men to socialize and receive health care such as testing for HIV and STDs.
Such a centralized hub has the backing of Bradford, whose program meets at the foundation's 6th Street offices near the heart of the Tenderloin and can attract upwards of 50 black men, some of whom do not identify as gay or bi. "We are where we need to be. The success of the program is because we are in their neighborhood," said Bradford. "I am a big believer that the Tenderloin is where we need to be."
Bradford's program already has had success combining game nights with having STD and HIV testing.
He said he would like to see San Francisco duplicate Los Angeles' Jewel's Catch One.
According to the club's Web site, it was the country's first black gay and lesbian disco when it opened in 1972.
Since then it has evolved into both a dance club and community center that welcomes everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
It also runs an alternative nonprofit medical clinic, called the Village Health Foundation, which is next door to the club.
"A club like Jewel's Catch One might be the answer," said Bradford. "Maybe we do need a club to work with men who don't come out until night or 3 a.m. I can see that surrounded by services."
Club nights Gay black men have begun to launch their own club nights. East Bay club promoter Joe Hawkins has brought his Club Rimshot into the city for special parties at Club Eight.
Then there is the Some Brothas Gathering events, where gay black men rent out a venue to host their own party four times a year.
The problem is there is no central source for black gay men who may be new to the city or not connected to their peers to find out about such events, said Francis Broome, the interim HIV prevention director at the Black Coalition on AIDS.
"Because of the small number of black men in San Francisco there is not a visible community," said Broome, who is also a member of the working group. "There isn't a space in the Castro black men can call their own."
Some envision seeing a space modeled after Magnet, the gay men's health center in the Castro. Bradford referred to it as Magnet South or the Spot and envisions such a center as a location for outreach, workshops and social events.
Monthly potlucks for gay black men that had been held at the Castro space had an overwhelmingly positive response.
"We need that down here and I know the AIDS foundation is supporting that idea," he said.
"Let's do an Afro-centric Magnet." Kyriell Noon, an out black man who is executive director of the Stop AIDS Project, stressed any space geared toward black gay men needs to take a holistic approach and must answer the question of who is it for. "It should be a community center and not a service center," said Noon, who was not part of the working group.
"We need to answer those questions and make the hard decisions on the best places to put dwindling resources."
Colfax said he is supportive of helping get such a space off the ground, but cautioned it would need long-term funding sources in order to survive.
Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who will join the board's budget committee next month, also has offered to help enact the working group's recommendations. "There is no excuse not to do this, despite the budget travails we face right now," he said