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.
Arrington learned the game of grant-writing and, a few thousand dollars at a time, Care became a force as an AIDS services provider. But he was also getting a sometimes unfavorable reputation with other AIDS agencies, which he wasn't above accusing of racism when he perceived inequity in services and funding.
"On the positive side, Steve cares deeply," says Donna Good, director of the Mayor's HIV Resource Council. "But if Steve couldn't get something quietly, he'd get loud, then louder and louder and louder. Sometimes the effect was to frighten and anger people when he pushed their faces into things. Like many people living with AIDS, it became a passion for Steve as he saw it affect people he loved, as well as his own life."
Santistevan says Arrington's activism pushed AIDS to the forefront in the black community, even if the community still does not want to deal with the problem. "He helped a lot of people get services," he says. However, he, too, suggests that Arrington might have gotten farther with a carrot than with a club.
"He'd say things that others of us didn't want to say," Santistevan acknowledges. "The problem was, he'd chastise people who often determined where allocations went, and they'd get even."
Debora Judish, the director of client services at CAP, says Arrington's pluses and minuses have had a tendency to cancel each other out. "Steve's heart was generally in the right place," she says, but she declines to comment on what was at times a contentious relationship.
Judish concedes that CAP's early reputation was as a white-gay organization. Today, she points out, 30 percent of CAP's clients are racial minorities, which is higher than what state statistics show about the percentage of AIDS victims who are minorities.
For that and other gains, Arrington takes at least some of the credit for insisting that CAP, the largest AIDS services agency in the state, review the way it treats minorities. Also among his accomplishments was securing federal funds for the purchase and renovation of a small apartment complex in Capitol Hill to house blacks with AIDS who would otherwise be homeless.
In 1993 the Care and B-A-PAL programs merged, in part to allow Care to use the Urban League's tax-exempt status; in exchange, the league took about 13 percent off the top for administrative fees. The merger also gave the black agencies a united front at the Governor's AIDS Council and the Mayor's HIV Resource Council for the allocation of federal funding.
"They used to see two groups of blacks at the table," Arrington says, "and throw in a bone and say, `Fight over it.' Now there's only one black group." As proof of the merger's success, he points out that the funding rose from $15,000 split between the two before the merger to the next year's award of $25,000.
But saint or sinner, Arrington's work is nearly finished. Now he's looking at AIDS from the other side.
In June, Arrington, who had already survived several bouts with AIDS-related infections, got sick again. This time, on the advice of his doctor, he had to quit his job with B-A-PAL/ Care. Unable to keep up with house payments, he lost his home and reluctantly had to move into one of the tiny Capitol Hill apartments purchased through his efforts. To pay medical expenses, he recently had to sell his television and the computer he used to continue his advocacy.
Although worried about the future of the programs he helped establish now that he and other pioneer activists are leaving the arena (the other founding members of Care are all dead), a recent telephone call with his successor at the Urban League, the Reverend Barbara G. Franklin, eased some of his concerns. She, too, says that the black community remains in denial about the dangers of AIDS--even though statistics show that racial minorities, particularly women, now proportionately have the most new cases of HIV infection.
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Arrington has put down the torch of his advocacy with some bitterness. Over the years he has received a number of commendations for his work. But they were all from white-run agencies or white leaders such as Governor Roy Romer. He says he has never received so much as a "thanks" from the black community.
Still, he tries to keep his spirits up for people who come to him with their problems. It isn't easy when two weeks before Christmas he has $16 left from his Social Security check on which to live for the rest of the month.
"I know what it's like to be on the outside looking in now," he says. "It's depressing, and some days I don't even want to get out of bed. But Christmas is important to me. It's the day my savior was born, so I'm going to find a way to celebrate.