As many of you know, YBGLI is a part of Doing It – CDC’s new national HIV testing campaign. There was a lot more that went into creating the campaign than you might think, like finding real people (like us!) who are passionate about testing and want to share their story as part of a national campaign, to finding places willing to let 20+ people take over their place of business at the last minute so we could get the perfect shot. YBGLI is made up of some of the most passionate and talented Black/bi/SGL men doing the hard work of eliminating the HIV/AIDS epidemic among their peers, so our partnership with the Doing It campaign is a natural – and significant – fit. In addition to supporting the cause, the photo shoot provided an opportunity for the members to connect. Karra French, one of the coordinators on set, sent me a few questions to answer about my experience, and why Doing It means so much to YBGLI.
Karra French: You co-founded YBGLI in 2011. How did that come about?
Venton: It was right after the release of the 2011 CDC data that indicated new HIV cases among young Black men who have sex with men increased 48% from 2006-2009. At that time I was working for the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition (NBGMAC) and also a young, Black, gay man living with HIV. During a staff meeting several days after the release of the CDC data, I was talking to my boss at the time, Cornelius Baker, looking to him for guidance on what our next steps as an organization should be. He simply looked at me and said, “These are your peers. What are YOU going to do?” From that meeting, I reached out to contact Jamaal Clue, Daniel Driffin, Christopher Chauncey Watson and Mathew Rose to convene a group of young, Black, gay men to get organized and discuss strategies to address new HIV infections among our population. During that time, we developed the name Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative (YBGLI), mission, and leadership structure for the group to operate under. It’s good to see that the initiative is living on and a new cadre of young Black men are working on the frontlines of eliminating the epidemic.
KF: Were you comfortable being in front of the camera?
Venton: When we come together, it is like family. They are like brothers to me. So it’s pretty easy to have a conversation with those guys, with or without a camera around!”
KF: What was the most memorable part of the day?
Venton: The entire day was pretty memorable. Even though we were there doing the shoot, we were laughing and joking with each other the entire day. The moment I was asked to wear a hairpiece for the photos was pretty hilarious, too. It was definitely outside my everyday look, which is exactly the reason I did it. I love trying new things, and having hair glued to my head was a new experience indeed.
KF: Tell the truth. Do ever wear the weave around the house?
Venton: It was so hot that day! All I could do was whip it a few times after the shoot and then immediately ask to have my low, cool, cut back please.
How does YBGLI’s participation in the campaign help others?
Venton: I think that it is important for Black, gay men to see images of other Black, gay men in the campaign. Also, it is important for people on the ground to see young, Black, gay men taking action against the HIV/AIDS epidemic – debunking the myth that Black gay men don’t care about their health.
KF: What does the campaign theme, “I’m/We’re Doing It,” mean to you?
Venton: It is about making an HIV test just as common as going to see your doctor for a flu shot. It is about being your brother’s keeper to make sure they have the support they need to make the decision to stay informed about their HIV status – and if they are positive, making sure are getting treatment to keep the virus under control.
KF: What can people learn from the brotherhood relationship of YBGLI that they can apply to their own lives?
Venton: No matter who you are or where you are from, having a group that supports each other is so critical. Some days you feel you are alone in this fight. YBGLI was a support network of my peers joining together to make to make a difference in our community. This work is not easy. Having people you can trust and lean on makes all the difference when it comes to being motivated to continue day after day.
KF: What would you tell someone that is fearful or reluctant to get an HIV test?
Venton: Put your health first and face your fears head on. I know that is easier said than done, but it is so important that a person does not let fear prevent them from taking charge of their health. Many people who are battling with the decision to test are not just dealing with walking through the door. They are dealing with the very real reality of what does life become if they are positive. Will they lose their family? Will people start to treat them different if they found out they are positive? Will they die?
We have to make this process easier to deal with by addressing HIV stigma; increasing education around the current state of the epidemic; and equipping individuals with the tools they need to be informed about their options for managing their heath from lens of wellness that includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.