Ty Martin is a Harlem resident, activist and a Community Liaison at SAGE Harlem.
I am black.
I am gay.
I am an older adult.
I am resilient. And so is my community.
I grew up during the civil rights movement, seeing powerful black activists around me fight for our civil rights as a people. I also grew up during the Stonewall Riots, feeling the hostility society harbored toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. And I grew up during a time when I lost many loved ones due to HIV/AIDS, a disease that was viewed by the world as a critical epidemic.
Now it’s 2013. Today as a black gay man, I enjoy more freedoms and rights (as a New Yorker, I have the right to marry my long-term partner Stanton). Yet, for older black gay men who are living with HIV/AIDs, it’s still a difficult journey.
How do I know? Well, I run a support group called New Beginnings for older gay black men who have HIV/AIDS. We decided on the name New Beginnings, because being diagnosed with this disease is not a death sentence, but rather an opportunity to recommit to your health and well-being.
Since running the group, I’ve seen the battles my brothers face as they navigate this disease and society’s view of people with HIV/AIDS. These are some of the lessons and themes I’ve learned.
One of the biggest topics that always comes up in group is social stigma. It’s 30 years later, and many of the older men I work with still feel uncomfortable or scared to talk about the disease, yet the estimated rate (per 100,000 people) of new HIV infections in adults ages 50 and older in the United States is much higher among men.
Because of this, it’s important we talk about this disease. But what is stopping older gay black men from having open dialogue? Some say it’s the church. There have been a number of LGBT-affirming churches popping up that welcome our community, but some historically black churches still hold homophobic attitudes. Church is an important part of African American history and many of us have been raised around it. Instead of finding an affirming church, many of the men I work with tolerate the homophobic preachings because they don’t want to be rejected. They fear rejection, because they have faced it so often. We have to remember that many older gay black men have been historically rejected by society for being black; by family, friends or outsiders for being attracted to other men; and by potential lovers for being positive. So when they enter an institution that is supposed to accept them and it doesn’t, it stings. It hurts. But they stay quiet out of fear of rejection. Experiences like these discourage folks from opening up about their sexuality and sexual experiences. This silence contributes to the rise of HIV/AIDS infections.
Another fear often discussed in the group is the acceleration of the aging process because of the virus. A growing body of evidence suggests that HIV positive people may experience faster than normal aging, characterized by premature progressive organ disease and frailty. While scary, this fear does not always lead to negative consequences. The majority of the older men in the group are more conscious about life because they have to deal with this long-term illness. They have the attitude of “don’t take life for granted” and try to make positive changes in their lives such as eating better, joining a sports club or even becoming an activist in the community. In fact, one of the men in my group runs his own HIV+ group for older gay men outside of New Beginnings.
Talking about older gay black men who live with HIV/AIDS is a larger discussion than what can fit in this blog post. These are just some of my observations as the group leader of New Beginnings. Whether we identify as gay, same gender loving or choose not to identify, HIV/AIDS is still an epidemic in the black community (and many communities).
I wrote this to bring visibility to HIV/AIDS as an older gay black man; because, despite the rejection we have faced, or the discomfort of talking about the disease, it is a conversation we need to have.
I am black.
I am gay.
I am an older adult.
I am opening up conversation around HIV/AIDS. And I am asking my community: Let’s talk.
This was originally a SAGE Blog post. Read it online here.