In continued conversations about inequities in healthcare for Black and Brown, queer and trans people living with HIV, the organizers of Black and Latinx Community Control (BLCC) will hold their fourth annual symposium on Feb. 11, just a few days after National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This year the series of conversations will be held in person at UPenn’s LGBT Center and will honor BLCC co-founder Michael Hinson, who passed away in the summer of 2022. Hinson was an advocate and activist for Black and Brown, queer and trans people in Philadelphia and beyond.
Topics of this year’s symposium include the systemic racism that Black and Brown LGBTQ people face on a regular basis; how failures in the social and economic systems worsen overlapping pandemics that disproportionately impact Black and Brown communities; the epidemic of violence against trans women of color and other pertinent issues affecting the health of LGBTQ people of color.
“Not only do people of color deal with systemic racism every day of their lives, but when you add on being queer and you throw in HIV, it’s hard to deal with,” said BLCC co-founder José de Marco. “This is white supremacy – where poor Black and Brown people are still kept under the thumb of this government. I really believe white people who are in control have to share the power, because this system is not working. We want to talk through some of these things to see how we as a community can come together to select what the community deems is most urgent that they want to work on.”
Instead of having several individuals present on topics and lead sessions, community conversation will be the basis of this year’s event.
“We don’t want to be just a bunch of people at the front of the room telling the community what they need to do,” said BLCC member and ACT UP activist Jazmyn Henderson. “We want to engage with the community and have the community give their input. At the end of the day, if we’re not focused on getting the community the material change that it needs, then are we doing our job as a group?”
As for the issues to be discussed in the upcoming symposium, Henderson prioritizes community and accountability.
“As a community, Black and Brown folks don’t get as much say in our healthcare as other individuals,” Henderson said. “For instance, when the opioid epidemic started up, the first people to be kicked off of pain management were Black and Brown folks. I know, I was one of them. It took me almost six years to find a doctor who would take my pain seriously enough in order for me to get even the slightest bit of pain management [medication].”
Henderson brought up a long-standing problem for Black and Brown LGBTQ folks when it comes to accessing healthcare: few healthcare establishments provide care to queer and trans people of color with competence, kindness and equity.
“These are conversations that we need to have so we can figure out what we can do to hold these organizations that are getting paid to [provide care] accountable to the community that they’re supposed to be serving,” Henderson said.
Henderson asserted that all aspects of Black and Brown LGBTQ health come back to HIV care and prevention. For example, treatment and harm reduction for opioid use lowers HIV transmission rates. She linked elevated HIV infection rates among Latinx people in Philadelphia to City staffers’ efforts to clear people experiencing homelessness out of encampments in Kensington and other parts of the city.”
“Since they started this war on encampments and breaking those up, HIV infections amongst Latinx people have gone up an average of [roughly] 15-18% in the last couple of years,” Henderson said. “HIV infection rates among Black folk, especially men who have sex with men, have been steady for the whole time of this pandemic. Neither one of those are acceptable. While we watch HIV rates in the queer white community go down, that’s not equitable to the rest of us.”
According to the 2021 HIV Surveillance Report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, non-Hispanic Black people were diagnosed with HIV at a rate of 36.2 per 100,000 and Hispanic/Latinx people were diagnosed at a rate of 28.2 per 100,000, compared to 13.6 per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white people. Two-thirds of the men who have sex with men diagnosed with HIV are non-Hispanic Black men.
Homelessness is another factor that perpetuates new HIV infections, Henderson said, as well as a dearth of local organizations that provide harm reduction services 24/7.
After the symposium’s attendees pinpoint the most pressing issues to address, members of BLCC and ACT UP plan to run a day-long advocacy and activism training session “to help keep Mike Hinson’s legacy going with this,” de Marco said. Attendees of the training session will be compensated for their time.
As part of their work improving health outcomes for Black and Brown LGBTQ folks, the members of BLCC gave recommendations to Philly’s Division of HIV Health. In the last year or two, de Marco said they’ve seen incremental changes. They believe that relatively few queer men of color are engaging in PrEP programs in Philly.
“For some reason it’s not working with gay Black men,” de Marco said. “I think it’s a myriad of things. Guys don’t like their doctors or don’t like the way they talk to you. Sometimes you go to these doctors and they have no idea what PrEP is. If there was a PrEP around when I was in my younger years, I’d be screaming it up and down the street.”
BLCC members hope to boost community involvement in BLCC, specifically engagement from Black and Brown LGBTQ people. In addition to community members, BLCC invited individuals who work for health orgs that provide HIV services, including Bebashi Executive Director Sebrina Tate, Prevention Point Philadelphia Lead Executive Officer José Benitez, Mazzoni Center President and Executive Officer Sultan Shakir and a staff member from Philadelphia’s Division of HIV Health (formerly the AIDS Activities Coordinating Office).
More symposia from BLCC are in store in 2023. The next one, “Allies, Activists and Accomplices,” will be just for white people in the community to learn how to turn their support into action and leverage their privilege to effect change.
To sign up for this year’s symposium, visit bit.ly/4thannualblcc/.
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