Do the Wright thing

by Ethan Jacobs .
Sunday Dec 7, 2008

Journalist Kai Wright has spent much of his career writing about the impact of HIV/AIDS on young gay men of color, but when he set out to tell the stories of young black and Latino gay men living in New York in his book, "Drifting Towards Love", he intentionally avoided an overt discussion of HIV. The men he profiles in his book are certainly at risk for infection: some of them live on the streets and engage in sex work and drug abuse. Wright left out discussions of HIV/AIDS because he believes that discussion tends to overshadow most stories about the lives of young gay men of color. The goal of his book, he said, was to present fully realized portraits of these men and to place their decisions about sex and drugs into the context of their daily lives.

"I deliberately left out an explicit conversation about how HIV impacts their individual lives, because it's the subtext, but I think so much of our conversations about HIV are too narrow to be relevant. ... [The men I profile in the book] walk around making all kinds of day-to-day decisions that have larger consequences, including HIV infection," said Wright. "So HIV is one of a number of subtexts, but one of the things it tries to illustrate is we need to lead with actual lives and the context in which people are making decisions in order to understand them and really do something about them."

Wright will be discussing his book and the impact of HIV/AIDS among young men of color at a Dec. 9 community forum hosted by Cambridge Cares About AIDS, to be held at the Boston headquarters of City Year.

Wright began his career as a journalist in the late '90s at the Washington Blade. His first assignment was a story looking at the disproportionate risk of HIV infection among people of color, and particularly young gay men of color. Since moving to New York several years ago Wright has revisited the subject in his work as a freelance journalist, and as publications editor for the Black AIDS Institute he has authored a series monographs on the impact of the AIDS epidemic on African Americans. But he said he felt that the format of newspaper and magazine articles often led to a narrow image of young gay men of color, focusing on risk factors but paying little attention to other issues in their lives. He penned "Drifting Towards Love" in an attempt to expand that image.

The book follows the stories of three young men and their friends in New York. One, Manny, grows up in the city and faces hostility both within his family and at school. He falls in love with a boy named Jason, but both of them get sucked into a life of drug abuse and hustling. Manny later becomes an activist, fighting for the rights of LGBT youth of color in the city. Another subject, Julius, flees his rural home to live in the city. Finding few support systems, he becomes homeless and addicted to drugs; like Manny, Julius turns to sex work to make money. The third subject, Carlos, struggles to find balance between living independently as a gay man and helping to support his large Puerto Rican family.

While Wright consciously avoided writing directly about HIV in his book, he said the three young men he followed were all very much aware that they were at risk for infection. He said they understood the dangers of unsafe sex; one of the young men even worked for a time as a volunteer peer educator on HIV issues.

Yet that knowledge did not stop them from putting themselves at risk. Wright said fear of HIV was not the most pressing factor when they were making decisions about sex; often they were more afraid of being alone. For those involved in sex work, financial concerns frequently trumped concerns about HIV.

"They were overwhelmed with a whole lot of day-to-day challenges that made conversations about an infectious disease less pressing than conversations about, 'What do I do now about this sex I'm about to have, about the fact that people think I'm attractive and I can make a lot of money selling this sex?'" said Wright. "HIV itself is not a thing. It's a distraction from the larger point. But it's easier to focus on HIV than on the things that lead to HIV."

"I deliberately left out an explicit conversation about how HIV impacts . . . individual lives, because it’s the subtext,"

Wright said all three of the men struggled to find LGBT-friendly spaces where they could find support and community, but most of those spaces were inaccessible to LGBT youth of color, particularly those who were poor and homeless. He said one emblematic example of the barriers LGBT youth of color face has been the efforts of West Village residents, many of them white and gay, to prevent young people from gathering on the West Village Piers, a central meeting place for LGBT youth of color.

"Through the course of the events [of the Stonewall riots] and the subsequent movement the West Village at large became gay space. ... What remains are a bunch of homeless queer youth, many of them of color, who still rely on that little space and are losing it. And sadly most of the local gay community are not aware about it, could care less about it," said Wright. "And that is a symbol for the larger question, that these young people are folks we don't care about in the community."

There are, however, organizations that are making an effort to serve LGBT youth of color, Wright pointed out. In New York an LGBT-run shelter program, the Ali Forney Center, has been successful at helping LGBT youth get off the streets and move away from risky behaviors like sex work and drug abuse. The center has a mentoring program that pairs groups of LGBT youth with adult mentors to show them that it is possible to live a successful and productive life as an adult LGBT person of color.

"The problem, of course, that they run into is they don't have enough gay adults of color involved in the program, and while there's a message for the larger gay community, there's also a message for gay people of color about our responsibility to ourselves and our need to represent ourselves in communities of color at large," said Wright.

Wright has spent the past year touring the country promoting his book. At most of his stops he has held discussion events similar to the upcoming Cambridge Cares About AIDS event. He said in some cities adult gay people are working to improve outreach to LGBT youth of color, though many are struggling to do so effectively. For instance Wright said a church in Chicago where he spoke attempted to create an LGBT youth support program, but according to Wright, the LGBT adult volunteers were ill-equipped to respond to the needs of the LGBT adolescents, many of whom were in crisis, who came to the program. Church members told Wright they had learned from the mistakes of their first attempt and were planning to launch a new and improved program.

Wright said the success of programs like the Ali Forney Center has convinced him that the LGBT community can do effective outreach to LGBT youth of color if they are willing to invest the resources in the effort.

"I look at that program and see success, and that tells me that it's doable. ... While there are significant barriers for how to bring adults and young people together, how to create spaces for young people, particularly young people of color, that doesn't make them insurmountable," said Wright.

Kai Wright will be speaking about his book and leading a community dialogue on HIV/AIDS and LGBT youth of color Dec. 9. The event, sponsored by Cambridge Cares About AIDS, will be held at the City Year Civic Forum Room, 287 Columbus Ave., Boston, starting at 7 p.m. For more information contact Tom Bardwell at 617.599.0252 or [email protected].

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