For Black History Month, we asked GMHC’s community relations director, Krishna Stone, how the agency serves Black communities, which experience a disproportionate and debilitating impact from the HIV/AIDS and, now, COVID-19 pandemics.
Addressing racism and other inequities that create barriers to care “is in the air we breathe,” she said. “HIV and AIDS work is a social justice movement. We were born out of fighting prejudice and stigma—and fighting for medications, health care, and funding for those affected by HIV and AIDS.”
“A black person experiencing racism—it’s a trauma. That trauma affects our clients—and keeps them from accessing care services,” said Stone, who joined GMHC almost 30 years ago, and last year was named one of POZ Magazine’s 100 Black Advocates.
Combating racism is critical to “recognizing the realities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” she said, because it’s an additional barrier for GMHC’s Black clients in accessing health care and other services, on top of stigma around HIV, homophobia, and transphobia. Despite progress in reducing HIV transmission since the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, AIDS is still a leading cause of death in the Black community.
For New Yorkers, new HIV diagnoses for Black people were over eight times higher than for whites from 2011 to 2020, despite a 51% decrease in the overall number of new cases. Nationally, Black people make up only 13% of the population, but account for 44% of new HIV diagnoses, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re talking about Black youth, people over age 50 living with HIV, gay and bisexual men, cisgender and transgender women,” Stone said. “For Black History Month, I want to recognize that people who identify as Black may also be biracial, identify as Black and Latinx, or be Caribbean Black people or African immigrants. We want to broaden our definition.”
“It’s so important to recognize Black folks’ contributions, their potential, and focus on healing,” she added. “We’re trying to communicate that, with all the historic trauma Black people have gone through and continue to go through, there is promise and possibility.”
“It can be hard, when we see Black people, particularly Black men, being brutalized by the police, and the number of Black transgender women who’ve been murdered,” Stone said. “That can make it difficult to embrace that Black lives matter—that Black trans lives matter, that Black gay men’s lives matter. I want to believe that this is so.”
It’s a myth that GMHC is solely an organization for white, gay men, Stone said, despite the sometimes-lingering perception. Most of GMHC’s clients are people of color, of whom 36% identify as Black. And Black clients identifying as women make up over half, or 53%, of the women GMHC serves. In fact, only 43% of the agency’s clients are white.
When Black people come to GMHC for assistance, “they see themselves,” Stone said, because they’re supported by Black staff who serve as peer navigators, run support groups, and manage programs—including Olivia Gaillard, GMHC’s director of client advocacy, and Armstrong Tingwane, the vice president of prevention programs.
“Black clients may feel safer and more welcome, because the person they are talking to is also Black,” Stone said.
GMHC also provides programs tailored to the experiences and needs of Black communities, such as Project Vogue, led by Luna Ortiz, which is an HIV support and prevention program for gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of color in the House and Ball community. Thriving @ 50 and Beyond supports Black and Latinx people over 50 living with HIV, and women of color can share their experience in Together We Can, an HIV support and prevention group.
“This is about building community and creating a chosen family. It fosters a sense of empowerment for participants, who are supporting each other and supported by staff of color,” Stone said.
Reducing stigma also means addressing myths that persist around Black experience. For instance, Stone said, “I am repeatedly asked if there is more homophobia in the Black community.”
There isn’t, she said. “It just may look different because of the historical reality of Black people.” Identifying as LGBTQ can add another layer of stigma for people already grappling with prejudice from racism, she explained. “If you’ve been brutalized and oppressed for decades, you may not want to talk about being a Black gay man.”
Black celebrities speaking out helps enormously in combating stigma, Stone said. “It was very powerful last year when Billy Porter, a Black gay man, shared that he has been living with HIV. It lets other Black people know they have a right to access care and support—and that they have a voice. That’s what GMHC’s job is.”
GMHC also works with the media, she said, “to share our stories and our experience about the needs of Black and Brown people affected by HIV and AIDS.” Through its public policy work, “we are advocating for better training and treatment by medical providers and raising awareness of how racism creates barriers for people to access services and medical care.”
That means working with elected officials and coalitions to change discriminatory policies and Black faith communities to reduce stigma. “You can’t do this work in isolation,” Stone said.
There’s been progress, she said, but in some areas, “we’re moving slower than I like to see.” For instance, she’d like to see more Black faith communities addressing HIV prevention and programming, including testing and discussions on sexual health.
“We have good moments, like when a Black client and their family are doing well,” Stone said. “We can pause and acknowledge that, but we still have to keep working. There isn’t an end point to addressing racism.”