Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brooklyn HIV/AIDS Conference Addresses Healthcare Disparities, LGBT Leadership


Prevention, Funding Cuts Highlighted

By Nathan James

This weekend, National AIDS Services and Education for Minorities (NAESM) is hosting a Leadership Conference in Brooklyn to address the issues of HIV/AIDS and disparities in healthcare for gay men of color. The conference, which began on Thursday, runs until tomorrow at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott Hotel. It comprises workshops, seminars, and plenary meetings of advocates, service providers, people living with HIV/AIDS, and the executives and staff of NAESM. NAESM founder and CEO Rudolph Carn, speaking at yesterday’s breakfast plenary, cited cuts in government funding as a major concern of NAESM and the LGBT community, particularly reductions in social-service programs for HIV/AIDS patients and HIV prevention education. Carn called for a town hall meeting to discuss “what the [federal government] has done for black gay men lately.” He decried multibillion-dollar cuts in HIV/AIDS funding as a “serious issue” for the future of NAESM, men who have sex with men (MSM), and the LGBT community as a whole. Support from the American public and its elected leadership will be “critical” to ongoing efforts to provide education, testing, and other services to gays and lesbians, according to Carn and other NAESM executives.

A prominent member of the African-American community, Rev. Al Sharpton, was scheduled to speak at a NAESM press conference on Friday, to discuss ways to “fight against prejudice and bias of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, and more specifically, the African-American MSM community”, according to a NAESM press release. When Rev. Sharpton failed to appear, Carn stated “we do not know where Rev. Sharpton is, so we will move on with our program.” Calls to Rev. Sharpton’s National Action Network by GBM News were met with “no comment” on Sharpton’s whereabouts or why he did not appear at the press conference. Carn then introduced the next scheduled speaker, Kevin ‘Kaoz’ Moore, an out Minneapolis hip-hop artist and HIV/AIDS education program manager. Moore discussed the value of using hip-hop prose and music “as a tool for reaching black gay men”, and stressed the importance of hip-hop’s ability, as a genre, to reach across generations and “communicate social-justice issues” such as HIV/AIDS prevention, education, and treatment. Moore pointed out in a conversation with GBM News, that LGBT youth of color often have “unrealistic expectations” about LGBT life, and artists, as positive role models, were extremely important for gay youth. The “international presence” of hip-hop, says Moore, “shows it has cross-cultural appeal”, and can be used as an “icebreaker” to convey critical messages about issues facing the LGBT community. Moore’s work in the Minneapolis area and as a hip-hop artist has won him accolades, including NAESM’s 2007 Award of excellence in Youth Leadership. Moore feels the “lack of support” from “mainstream hip-hop artists” for the LGBT community is an obstacle that must be overcome in order to better combat homophobia within the music industry and in society as a whole.

Echoing the sentiment that more support for the LGBT community is needed from the general public, is Acting NAESM Executive Director Craig Cobb, who manages NAESM’s Brooklyn office. Cobb notes there are many statements of support from local officials for NAESM, but little actual funding. “Brooklyn Deputy Borough President [Yvonne] Graham came to our reception last night,” says Cobb, “and made a commitment without a checkbook.” Without new funding, Cobb stated, “The Brooklyn office of NAESM will close its doors on April 1.” In spite of this bleak prospect, Cobb noted that NAESM’s Brooklyn office now has a new medical director, and “for every social crisis, there is a solution.” He pointed to the recent closure of major HIV/AIDS healthcare providers St. Vincent’s and North General Hospitals, and cited the work the remaining hospitals in NYC have done to serve gay men of color. Hospitals such as “Brooklyn and SUNY Downstate have developed programs targeting black MSM”, Cobb says, “and these are examples of community solutions to the problems we face.”

Cobb conceded this was an uphill battle, recalling efforts by the Bush Administration to suppress HIV/AIDS education and today’s conflict between HIV/AIDS education and big pharmaceutical corporations. “Big business—pharmaceutical companies—are interested in keeping people sick and making money off of illness,” Cobb said, and deplored the attempts by these corporations to stymie public HIV-prevention education. These same companies, in conjunction with the religious right, have also hindered the legalization of stem-cell research in the US, an area of science that could offer a cure for HIV, as was done recently in Berlin, Cobb notes. Stem-cell research, in which stem cells are cultured from people with natural immunities and introduced into HIV-positive patients, was outlawed in 22 states during the George W. Bush administration, and President Obama is currently working to get these laws repealed.


Support from legislators for organizations like NAESM is also critical. Although City Councilmember Letitia James (WFP-Fort Greene) has stated her support for NAESM, she, like Sharpton, was a no-show at the Conference. “It’s a shame,” Cobb reflects, “Sharpton could have been a bridge between the black church and the black gay community.” NAESM staff interviewed by GBM News all agreed that public support, through legislation, anti-homophobia campaigns, and education are critical for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts today, along with funding. The conference, seeking to develop new ways to gain such support and keep the work of NAESM going, continues today with an appearance by legendary vocalist Melba Moore, and workshops for interested attendees. You can visit their website at www.naesm.org .

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