Improving The Health of Black Queer Men in Kansas City

D. Rashaan Gilmore speaking at BlaqOut Conference. Photo: J. Robert Schraeder Photography

Members and allies of Kansas City’s Black LGBTQ community gathered at the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center in August to hear about the results of the BlaqOut 2020 Vision Survey. This comprehensive health and wellness needs assessment for Black queer/same-gender-loving men in the Kansas City area was the first of its kind here and perhaps the first anywhere.

Attendees at the Aug. 10 Empowerment Summit luncheon received program booklets that contained what amounted to an executive summary of the study report.

Here is a selection from the findings

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they had heard of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) but only 12 percent said they were on it.

A number of respondents reported not having a stable residence. One-third reported not having had enough to eat at some point during the week. (When couch-surfing, a person has a temporary place to stay but not necessarily food to eat.)

Less than 50 percent reported seeing a health-care provider within the last year.

A high incidence of depression was reported. Frequent use of marijuana and alcohol by respondents might be a coping mechanism for this depression.

Respondents ranked the places where they felt discrimination: First was with police for being Black. Second was at church for being gay. Third was in public for being gay.

At the summit, Jannette Berkley-Patton, an associate professor at UMKC, discussed the methodology used in the survey and Natasha Aduloju-Ajijola, a UMKC post-doctoral fellow, presented some of its key findings. Both women are part of the Community Health Research Group at UMKC. Berkley-Patton is the director of the group, and Aduloju-Ajijola was the lead researcher for the 2020 Vision Survey.

Working in partnership with UMKC researchers, BlaqOut’s community action board defined its survey demographic as Black men between the ages of 18 and 34 who identified as gay or bisexual or have had sex with a man in the last year.

The study had a target sample size of 200 Black queer/same gender-loving men (100 high-risk HIV-negative, 50 HIV-negative and 50 HIV-positive). HIV/AIDS does not define the Black queer male community, but it is such an impactful part of its reality that it must be at the forefront of any health assessment. HIV education, awareness and testing go hand-in-hand with meaningful community engagement.

The final sample size was 227 men. An even larger number were surveyed, but some participants were found not to meet the sexual activity requirement.

The community action board identified seven primary focus areas and ranked them according to their urgency/importance:

● Violence and criminality

● HIV and sexual health

● Mental health

● Health care access

● Social determinants of health (housing, education, employment, etc.)

● Substance use

● Fitness, diet and nutrition.

The survey included well over 200 questions; some were multi-faceted and more complex than others. The average amount of time that respondents took to complete the survey was 30-45 minutes.

Survey participants were enlisted by various means: referrals, hook-up apps, word of mouth, social media, third-party events, etc. Participants were paid $30 to take the survey, which could be taken online, at Good Samaritan Project, or at an event. Online survey-takers were required to follow up in person.

The study was funded by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City. Other organizations and individuals helped with sponsorships and partnering.

The full study report was broken into two major sections: 1) personal health care and social/demographic information and 2) strategies for addressing the seven primary focus areas.

BlaqOut’s history and future

First announced to the public in late 2016, the plan to assess the needs of Kansas City’s Black queer/same-gender loving men made it necessary to create BlaqOut as a corporate entity to craft and administer the 2020 Vision Survey.

The term “BlaqOut” had been used before for Project I Am balls, but this time around, it became a full-fledged 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation in Missouri. BlaqOut has both a statutorily mandated corporate board and a community action board.

Rather than have its work diluted within a larger White-led organization’s set of projects, BlaqOut established itself independently. It drew its membership from Black queer-identified men in the greater Kansas City area.

This indigenous recruitment approach can help in the effort to make the target population a better-engaged and healthier part of society.

The extraordinary effort that it took to find participants highlighted the continued absence of a dedicated space for Black LGBTQ folks in Kansas City. There’s no bar, coffee shop or other space out there right now for social gathering.

This dearth of place is yet another reason that BlaqOut will persist as an organization. Empowerment and community-building are perennial needs here.

Because the study gathered an enormous amount of raw data, many more research findings could be generated in the future. Besides research, this data also could be used in pursuing partners in advocacy and in creating new programming modules.

Good Samaritan Project has been a key partner in BlaqOut’s work, and Caroline Huffman, its CEO, addressed the audience at the Empowerment Summit with an inclusive message.

Summit organizers also remembered a beloved member of the community, Ta’Ron “Rio” Carson, who was killed in March 2018, by playing a touching tribute featuring his parents, Monique Carson and Tarik Hopkins.

Several members of BlaqOut’s corporate and community action boards spoke as well.

Community action board member Zendrix Berndt performed his powerful spoken word poem “I Am Not HIV” that he had originally composed for Visual Aids, a 2014 Project I Am exhibition.

Publisher, motivational speaker and entrepreneur David Bridgeforth Jr. delivered the keynote address.

BlaqOut founder and president D. Rashaan Gilmore gave his closing remarks for the main room audience. A panel discussion with the research team and community members then followed in an adjacent space.

Summit speakers

David Bridgeforth Jr., Entrepreneur and Speaker

David Bridgeforth Jr., who has been a motivational speaker from a young age, delivered the keynote address at the BlaqOut Empowerment Summit and Report Release at the Kauffman Foundation. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief of DBQ Magazine (dbqmag.com), which comes out quarterly.

During Bridgeforth’s childhood in Indianapolis, his mother was diagnosed with HIV. The way she handled her diagnosis inspired him to motivate others. “Get in touch with the body that carries you,” she said. He spent the latter half of his teenage years traveling with the renowned speaker Les Brown. When he was in his early 20s, Bridgeforth met poet Maya Angelou. He spent an afternoon at her estate. On the plane ride there, he had written her a poem. “Tell them they are better than they think they are,” she said to him. He got up the nerve to read his poem. She was incredulous at first, telling him that it usually takes her months to write a poem. But after hearing it, her “You’re a poet?” changed to “You’re a poet!”

Angelou told him that she saw a spark in him. She had seen through to his sexual identity. Having been too busy up to that time to realize his orientation himself, he came out of the closet after that visit and started publishing his magazine. Paraphrasing Ralph Waldo Emerson, “God does not do his work through cowards; be courageous.”

DBQ Magazine celebrates LGBTQ people of color, primarily gay men of color. Its feature called The Loud 100 is an annual celebration of out queer people of color. Last year, the list manifested as an event at Carnegie Hall. In the spring, Bridgeforth plans to launch his Coverboy brand in affirmation of Black queer sexuality, benefiting charitable causes.

Bridgeforth resides in both New York and Atlanta, working on his magazine and other entrepreneurial projects, volunteering, mentoring and speaking.

His encouraging words include: Turn up positivity, Your body loves you, and You are better than you think you are.

Q&A with Jerrell McCullough of the Community Action Board

A debt of gratitude is owed to all members of BlaqOut’s community action board. Its members have worked for many months to produce a unique, scrupulous, scientific document for the betterment of their community. And they helped build an organization in the process.

One member, Jerrell McCullough, took some time to answer a few questions. Here’s what he had to say.

What is your past experience in activism, LGBTQ or otherwise?

`None! BlaqOut is actually my first foray into activism and advocacy.

Why did you join BlaqOut?

`I joined BlaqOut because it’s an opportunity to make a difference in a community that I am a part of. I always wanted to do something like this, but I didn’t know how or where to start, and to be honest, I was too afraid to give myself permission to even try.

What were your expectations of BlaqOut?

`Initially, I had no expectations. As I mentioned previously, this work was completely new to me, so as a person just wanting to help and be of service, my mentality was more along the lines of “What do you need me to do?” and “How can I help?”

What are your plans for the future regarding queer Black men’s health or other areas that might interest you?

`My plans are BlaqOut’s plans, so we’re going to continue to interact and engage with our community based off of the feedback we received from them via the BlaqOut 2020 Vision Survey. That being said, we’re not just about HIV and wellness, so I want to see us continue to move down the path of creating our own spaces that allow us to have fun, decompress and be free.

What can the larger community (both LGBTQ and straight) do to help (without overtaking) young queer Black men, in this city especially?

`Shut up and listen! That’s the first part that many struggle with. Stop thinking that you know more about what we are talking about when we are the ones that are talking about our actual lived experiences. You can’t learn anything if you’re either listening to reply or not even listening at all because you’ve somehow made the issue(s) about you and how they make you feel when we talk about them.

Attendees at BlaqOut conference

Coming up

● World AIDS Day event.

● Leave it on the Floor – GSP and BlaqOut are pursuing funding to follow a group of straight Black males and queer Black males who are willing to come together to exemplify a companionship model. The work would culminate in a ball.

Web

Learn, partner, participate or donate at BlaqOut.org or look for BlaqOutKC across all social media.

Photo courtesy of Joe Eats World

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