By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Two weeks before Christmas, black, gay, controversial AIDS activist Steve Arrington finds himself running out of money and time. Broke and staving off repeated AIDS-related infections, he says he's been forgotten by the black community he has struggled to protect.
When Arrington arrived in Denver in 1981, a homosexual social worker from a small farm community in Bible-belt Ohio, he was pleasantly surprised by the openness of the gay community. But he was quickly disillusioned.
For one thing, the black community as a whole was even less accepting of gays than whites were. And among homosexuals, there remained a schism between blacks and whites. Black gays were often outcasts in both communities.
Arrington looks back and points to this isolation as a major reason that he says black gays were slow to respond when a mysterious new disease began killing gay men and intravenous drug users in the late Seventies.
By 1984 the Colorado AIDS Project had been launched by a white, gay former minister, Julian Rush, to provide education and services. But if CAP was regarded by the larger community as a gay agency, the black gay community viewed CAP as "the white, upper-middle-class gays, BMW crowd," says Arrington. "And there wasn't much outreach to blacks...especially poor blacks."
On the other hand, black gays also ignored the problem. "Sort of a `If I don't look, it will go away,'" Arrington says.
In 1988 the People of Color Consortium Against AIDS was formed to educate minorities about AIDS--a job minority AIDS activists contended that CAP was racially and culturally ill-prepared to perform. That same year, Arrington's lover, Douglas MacDowell, got sick; a doctor told the unbelieving couple that it was AIDS. A month later Arrington was tested and learned that he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Finally, Arrington and his friends were forced to believe. But, he says, the black community still didn't want to acknowledge the disease's existence. MacDowell's mother asked fellow churchgoers to pray to cure her son's "cancer," as though "God could be fooled," he says.
In 1989 the Urban League received some federal money for its Black AIDS Project At Large (B-A-PAL) program to provide AIDS education in the black community. Arrington got a part-time job as its coordinator.
It mostly entailed going to black churches to discuss the epidemic in the most general of terms. He recalls that he had to attempt to get his message across using scripture; he wasn't allowed to say the word "condom," much less hand out condoms to encourage safe sex.
"Talking about how people got AIDS and what they could do about it was a no-no," Arrington says.
More troubling, he says, is that he was not allowed as part of his job to take his message to the people who needed it most--blacks who frequented the gay bars.
So he quit. With several HIV-positive friends, he formed Care/Black Gays & Lesbians United Against AIDS. Although the group's specific purpose was to educate black gays about the epidemic, it soon began reaching out to all HIV-infected blacks.
It was a tough sell in the early days, he says. Gays who didn't have the virus shunned those who did. But Arrington and his friends kept talking.
At the same time, Arrington kept after the black churches, the center of the community, to address the problem. But now he approached them as a vocal gay activist.
Carlos Santistevan, executive director of the People of Color Consortium Against AIDS, recalls the difference in approach to the churches that distinguished his group and the Urban League's B-A-PAL program from Arrington's.
"The first thing we avoided was talking about sexuality," he says. "We wanted the churches to help people with AIDS, but we knew we weren't going to get anywhere by offending people. Steve, on the other hand, went in with the attitude of, `This is who I am. Accept it.'"
Arrington says it was his theory that the black community needed to be shocked in order to face the facts about AIDS--that it wasn't just a white problem.
"We also had to get past the community's idea," he says, "that if you got AIDS because you were an IV drug user, well that was okay, `We'll pray for you then.' But if you were gay...hell, it was, `There are no black gays, and we don't want to hear any different.' Even men who had sex with men were in denial. Some were saying, `I'm not gay. I only come down that way once a year.' Or they'd get married to women to show their families that they were okay. So, of course, women were being infected."
On March 10, 1990, MacDowell, Arrington's lover, died. MacDowell's mother and several other women broke from the hide-your-head-in-the-sand attitude and formed The Comforters to support black families whose members had died from AIDS. In league with such groups, Care tried to bridge the gulf with the straight community through such efforts as collecting hundreds of turkeys for poor families at Thanksgiving and holding toy drives at Christmas.
In the early Nineties, POCCAA, the Urban League and Care realized that they needed to do more than educate. Minorities with AIDS needed help getting services (medical, food, housing, transportation), and CAP was still perceived as a bastion of white, affluent gays, says Arrington, whose job with CARE had become a full-time paid position.