by Craig Shelburne

 

At 21, Brandon Dykes has already established himself as an advocate for HIV awareness in the African-American community. Dykes says he lacked the information he needed when he first came out to his parents at 14.

Today, through a concept known as My House, he is striving to create a “one-stop shop” for the community to learn more about HIV, from gathering tips on prevention to getting tested for the virus, all in the same place. It is a project of Nashville CARES, Streetworks and Neighborhood Health aimed at addressing the recent CDC projections that 1 in 2 African American MSM (men who have sex with men) will acquire HIV infection in their lifetime if infection trajectories continue uninterrupted.

Dykes is also the High Emperor of Nu Phi Zeta, a fraternity he co-founded that serves as a support group for men from all walks of life, through friendship, leadership development and personal growth. Although it is not part of a collegiate system, Nu Phi Zeta serves many of the same purposes while welcoming a man as a Brother regardless of age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture, social class, education or other bias.

Dykes also gives presentations to the African-American community to encourage their participation in biomedical HIV prevention research, such as the AMP Study. The need for clinical data from his demographic is more urgent than ever, especially with the recent CDC projections.

Leading up to HIV Vaccine Awareness Day on May 18, Dykes speaks about the reasons he’s drawn to helping his community, his own steps to staying HIV negative, and his own participation in clinical research, specifically as a volunteer for the AMP HIV Prevention study now enrolling in nineteen U.S. cities, including Nashville, Tennessee, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

 

What was it about the AMP study that made you want to get involved?

I guess a couple different angles made me want to get involved. One, because I am always looking for different ways to protect myself and looking for information. One of my biggest fears for a while was contracting HIV. I had a big fear of it because my parents, when I came out to them – it wasn’t that they were going to kick me out, like many others experience. The first thing my mom told me was that there was lot of other stuff that comes along with the lifestyle, and you have to protect your health.

So I had this big fear of HIV, and since then, I’ve been looking for any resources and tools that could help combat the whole issue. And often I tell people that my fear turned into a salary, which became my passion.

Another angle that I wanted to mention is that I know it’s never been an easy job trying to reach my particular demographic. Even doing phone conversations with researchers, [those in my community] tend not to be involved in those things, and I say, “The guy is only going to call you on the phone and ask you a few questions about your life, and give you $25 for doing it. What’s the worst that could happen?” So, knowing that [AMP} is a groundbreaking thing for the advancement of HIV prevention, I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to let people know in my community that [participating in a study] is not as bad as they think it is.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about HIV vaccine research you’ve encountered?

The common misconception is people thinking they’re injecting you with HIV. Or just the time commitment that it takes. … People might think it will take up too much of their time and they don’t really see the value. Another one would be that oftentimes some of the people that I work with think they’re just considered numbers, and that they’re just going to be another number out of a study.

So, why is participating in biomedical HIV prevention studies so important?

Because so many people in my community don’t get involved in things, it makes it hard for researchers to really find methods that will help us. If we’re left out of the equation – like we’re constantly talking about wanting to have a

 

seat at the table, and wanting research to be done on us, and information provided, but a lot of us won’t get involved in these studies to find the methods that will help.

I think it’s important for the community to see people they can relate to, who speak out and to tell them about these things. And that they’ll get someone to be with them if they need support along the way.

What are some of the steps you’re taking personally to keep yourself HIV negative?

I take PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis). That’s one of the main things I do right now. I try to definitely mention in the work that I do that I’m not perfect. Of course I’ve missed a couple of pills, and now I have some pills on my keychain, so if I forget, I don’t have to run all the way back home to get them. I try my best to use condoms as consistently as possible. I take my PrEP pills mostly every day, and I’ve been doing that over the last several months. Outside of that, I use the methods I teach my clients: Don’t brush your teeth before oral sex. Check your mouth and make sure you don’t have any cuts or lesions. Overall just making sure I have a diversified toolkit to protect myself.

For people who read this interview and consider signing up for the AMP study, what is the ultimate message you want to send out?

The main message that I would like to send out is be a part of this movement. There’s research and work being done to help combat this vital epidemic that’s strong in our community, and we need your help! The common misconception is that [researchers] are not doing anything, or they’re not looking for anything, or they have the answers and they don’t want to give them to us. I believe everything [researchers] know, they give out, and if we don’t participate in it, we’re not a part of it.

I really want people to step up and don’t be afraid to be different. A lot of people will help, and want to help, but the stigma surrounding the topic keeps them away, many believe people will assume they have HIV. If you won’t do it for the researchers, do it for our community.

You clearly have a passion for this. What is the satisfaction you receive for being so involved in the AMP project?

My drive is helping people, which is main reason Nu Phi Zeta Fraternity was founded to inspire men to realize their true potential. My reward out of all of this is touching someone or helping someone navigate through everyday issues because I feel I didn’t really have a lot of people or resources [to rely on]. I had support but I didn’t have the support that understood my lifestyle, that I felt comfortable telling my issues. So if I can be there to inspire, and help someone, then I feel better. It fuels the fire in me and motivates me to work harder.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the study?

I would like people to know that the process isn’t very hard. It’s very friendly, convenient, and the individuals who working with the study genuinely care about our community, we are more than just numbers. If at any point you don’t feel comfortable they will seek to identify ways at which they can better serve you. The whole process has truly been filled with a judgment free, genuine, and loving environment.

 

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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