The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center (BCC) and Vanderbilt’s Office of LGBTQI Life have collaborated on numerous events in the past two years, but they’ve recently found new educational tools that draw parallels between the struggles for equality centered on racial identities and those of the LGBTQI community.

In January the two groups co-hosted a free showing of the documentary, Deepsouth, which follows three activists whose work in the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana seeks to penetrate “layers of history, poverty and now soaring HIV infections,” in order to “redefine traditional Southern values to create their own solutions to survive.”

“We wanted to host a film that sort of tells both stories, and we found that this was a film that does that,” says LGBTQI Life Director Chris Purcell.

The stirring documentary explores the structural issues of conquering HIV in the south, focusing on Mississippi. One person in particular, a black gay man living with HIV, shows us what resilience means in the face of government structures and policies that make it difficult to educate the public.

Ironically Mississippi, which has one of the highest rates for teenage pregnancy and STD’s, is only allowed to teach abstinence in the classroom, posing quite a difficulty for teachers in the state. “Stigma is an issue everywhere, but in the South there aren’t enough awareness campaigns or funding to support people living with HIV in rural areas,” says Purcell. “Highest rates of poverty, highest rates of STD’s, lack of funding from the government, religious groups—there are a number of sources that contribute to the stigma someone living in the south with HIV faces.”

Years and years of campaigns in raising awareness about gay rights issues show that public opinion about the gay lifestyle has dramatically shifted, whereas many ungrounded beliefs held about people living with HIV/AIDS still exist.

“Deepsouth is a film that people can’t afford NOT to see,” says Dr. Frank Dobson, Director of the BCC. “So many people, when they think of the disease, think of a gay white male. No. This film shows that there are so many different types of people living with this disease, black, straight, that are rendered invisible by our society.”

Dr. Dobson says poverty is a large contributor to the spread of the disease in the south, and the way to combat it is by expanding our communities to more than just one group of people. “We need more people who say ‘this is my family, this is my community.’ We need to challenge our institutions,” says Dr. Dobson. “We have to have a redefinition of what family and community is and welcome everyone to the table.”

Both Purcell and Dr. Dobson agree: Education is needed to bring the groups even closer together. That is why they combined resources to promote films, part of Vanderbilt’s International Lens Film, that focus on the intersection of African American and LGBTQI life.

The next film the two centers co-sponsored, The New Black, is a documentary on activists, families and clergy on both sides of the marriage equality debate. The film is a critical examination of homophobia in the black church, and the Christian right’s utilization of this phenomenon to forward its anti-gay agenda.

While the showing of The New Black was canceled due to the February ice storm in Nashville, this second installment was a courageous choice for the two groups, as it brings them face-to-face with a phenomenon which has often put the LGBTQI and African American communities at odds with one another. This demonstrates the commitment the two organizations have in building bridges through the hard work of actual dialogue, and speaks to a bright future of engagement between them.

Vanderbilt’s Office of LGBTQI Life and the BCC plan to continue to work together, expanding the opportunities for their respective communities to come together. For more information and a list of upcoming free events, visit and




Photo of The New Black director Yoruba Richen courtesy Luke Rattray

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