Here we go again.
It could be the cover of a magazine, an award show or an end of year list.
This time around its a social marketing campaign. A small one. Not even a campaign really. It’s the latest edition of FS magazine, GMFAs bi-monthly health magazine, that’s come under the scrutiny of the twitter-scope. To be specific, the annual Stripped Bare issue.
I switched on my socials this weekend to see them alive with comments about representation, exclusion and tokenism. Questions such as;
- ‘Is a light skinned man of mixed Asian heritage truly representative of our brown brothers?’
- ‘So what, no dark-skinned Black men have HIV? KMT (Angry face emoji)’.
Discussion boiled about who had been reached out to and how. Or has an organisation that has had a problematic history with queer men of colour messed up? Yet again?
I’m cautious about jumping feet first into a twitter-spat. I prefer to watch from the sidelines, sticking to facts and correcting misinformation when necessary. But we’ve been here before. We get upset that we have been excluded from the narrative, left out of the campaign, or never made the front cover. We shout at the (more often than not) white publishers/content managers/CEOs; we #### the hell out of it.
In response, the (more often than not) white publishers/content managers/CEO sends an apology – ranging from heartfelt to defensive to tone deaf to infuriating – and we all move on until the next outrage. Stuck in the classic rut of doing the same thing and expecting sh*t to change.
As someone who works closely with GMFA and who has helped develop some of their campaigns, including Me, Him, Us and the Undetectables, I can tell you that they did reach out to a wide range of men across many platforms for Stripped Bare 2018. I personally asked a number of HIV+ men of colour and men on PrEP to take part in this campaign; no one was willing to go public about their status or PrEP use. They gave a variety of reasons, but at root is the stigma they thought they would face as a result. So hats off to Ant and Sadiq who took part. As a man living with HIV I was asked to take part but chose not to this year.
This, however, is not a rant about our ‘call out culture’ or even really about these semi-naked pictures. (Nor is it an attempt to disentangle the common confusion between ‘increasing the melanin content’ and inclusion, or an analysis of whether thirst trap-nudity is a culturally competent or effective approach in engaging Black men in well-being interventions). I was moved to write because this mini twitter spat is a symptom of a larger problem. There’s a pattern here that is worth discussing.
I’ve worked in sexual health promotion for a number of years and the issue of under-representation is not a new thing. Visual under-representation is rarely as straightforward as wilful exclusion.
We’ve also got to show up. And yes, that means being public about who we are. If we want representation, then we have to represent. How many of us are willing to go ‘public’ about our sexuality, let alone our sex lives?
If we want representation, then we have to represent
Even though we may collectively want representation, there are challenges and barriers that prevent individuals from getting in front of cameras. I’ve wanted to be part of this important project for a long time. It aims to normalise HIV and challenge HIV stigma. Both of which I work hard to do. However, although I am open about my HIV status and have featured in short films where I talk openly about it, something has always held me back. There is something about being photographed (semi) naked and declaring my HIV status for a magazine that potentially has an online global reach that makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and that’s a step I still don’t feel brave enough to take.
Recently, I’ve tried to get Black men to write (openly or anonymously) about their PrEP use for Prepster, almost all want to remain private. Has anybody ever stopped to think why Phil Samba is everywhere and the only black gay man open about his PrEP use?
Evidence tells us that our peers are the most effective messengers when it comes to influencing our behaviours . So hearing each others’ voices and experiences is essential to our well-being. ‘Each one, teach one’ has been passed down through generations across the African diaspora for a reason. Our communities are built on shared learning and experience. In these days of social media enabled openness we can use these tools to reach each other and pass on those lessons.
Even here at BlackOut we have struggled to get men to write openly for us or to post their picture on articles they’ve submitted. Look around those Facebook groups that you’re in and see how many have created parallel profiles for ‘the gay stuff’. Many of us still feel safer in ‘the shadows’. No shade, but many seem to prefer the shade.
It’s understandable. The men who took part in Me, Him, Us faced a barrage of trolls, homophobia and racism for appearing in that campaign. So I can understand reluctance to be in a campaign where sexuality and HIV status are disclosed. HIV stigma is a huge reality in our community (and the wider world too, but it is those closest to you that can do the most damage). Many of us living with HIV may be out and proud to friends, families, dating-app hook-ups, even our barbers, but stigma, real or perceived, leaves our HIV status firmly in the closet.
those promoting sexual health to gay, bi, queer and same gender loving men have a responsibility to our communities and must do much better about representation and inclusion
When globally black gay men are 15 times more likely to be diagnosed HIV positive and we are impacted by a range of health inequalities, those promoting sexual health to gay, bi, queer and same gender loving men have a responsibility to our communities and must do much better about representation and inclusion. This needs to happen at multiple levels. From the trustees, staff and volunteers, right through to who decides on programmes of work and who designs, photographs and features in them. GMFA often do better than most in this arena; often better than those funded specifically to work with us.
HIV prevention goes beyond posters and pictures. Many of us have been volunteers but there is space for more and for others to return. How many of us have ever thought about becoming a trustee and changing what we don’t like from within? How many of us use our socials to promote PrEP and U=U, challenge HIV stigma on Grindr, or slut shaming of men who take PrEP on Jack’d? How many of us with HIV feel safe to discuss our status even in ‘safe’ spaces like closed Facebook or WhatsApp groups, or even with our friends? I understand the frustration at not seeing ourselves and about what we perceive as what’s ‘not being done’ for us, but that energy might be better used, or at least shared with actions to end HIV together.
We should not let health organisations off the hook; they are often using public and/or charitable money on our behalf and in our name. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and civil society organisations should want to be accountable to those they set out to serve. So let’s ask searching questions of all of those organisations funded to address the HIV and sexual health needs of our communities. ‘Searching’ means going beyond the PR faux pas or twitter flurry, sometimes it means asking why you haven’t seen or heard anything relevant to you from those specialist organisations that claim to ‘speak’ for your needs, or why the only time you see others is when they are shaking a bucket for donations. Sometimes scrutiny requires getting up close, getting involved, or staking a claim.
civil society organisations should want to be accountable to those they set out to serve
Representation matters, of course. But not at the cost of everything else; it is at best a means to an end. Representation to who? Representation for what? Have we not learnt through bitter experience that if they are not providing for us or representing us then we create our own? Is it still easier to gather media traction and attention about some sexy photos than it is to find ways to discuss what we need to do to on a daily, in the spaces we are in, to challenge HIV stigma and take control of our sex lives?
Is it time to stop asking for seats at a table (or at a photo shoot) that wasn’t built with us in mind and (like Me.Him.Us) build our own? Now that is a fight that sounds like it might be worth fighting.
#Build like BlackOut
Marc is one of the co-editors of BlackOut and a senior leader in sexual health