In response to a variety of developing issues, a coalition of individuals from various backgrounds has formed the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus. Identity spoke with the Chicago Department of Public Health's Lora Branch, a member of the nascent organization.
Identity: When did this caucus form?
Lora Branch: Our first meeting was in June and we officially started calling ourselves a caucus around the end of August. However, there had been several conversations regarding several things that were occurring simultaneously in the Black gay community. Among these things were the closure of or the diminution of funds to several programs, such as the disappearance of MOIP ( Minority Outreach Intervention Project ) . Every year, there seem to be [ fewer ] services.
On top of that, we also have numbers that indicate that infection rates are higher than they were a few years ago. There's that startling statistic that one of every two sexually active Black gay men may be positive. So things are not getting better in terms of the landscape of services provided and how we're combating this disease. This coalition is the natural outcome of the intersection of all of these things happening. These people should be involved—and wanted to be involved. We're really excited about who's come to the table; we've gone from three to 53 people sitting around the table.
I: How concerned are you all about crystal meth infiltrating the Black gay community?
LB: We are very concerned. Crystal meth has the potential to impact any community; we've witnessed that. Look at what it's done to southern Illinois. We're concerned about it and we've been having a lot of conversations in the community. Right now, we're in the process of putting up window and mirror clings all over the city. [ The clings are connected with the Crystal Breaks program. See www.crystalbreaks.org . ]
I: Obviously since you're in the caucus, you don't have to be male to join.
LB: No. We have trans people who participate. Simone Koehlinger [ of the CDPH ] is providing a lot of leadership. We also have several lesbians who participate, including a promoter. However, it's about what it's about—and that's addressing the population and decreasing STDs as well as combating homophobia and sexism.
I: Does the group have a Web site?
LB: Yes. The address is www.lovethybrotha.com . We put it up briefly to advertise the Love Fest that took place in Jackson Park in October. It was a kick-off event that was a combination show/health event. We actually brought our event to Jackson Park—one of the most cruised areas in the city—on a Sunday night. A couple hundred people showed up and we got about 60 of them tested. We plan on doing a lot more of that type of event. However, our goal is to generate interest and renewed energy in bringing down the numbers [ of infected people ] among Black gay and bisexual men. We also plan on working closely with youth groups.
The whole health department is behind the caucus. There are three strategic [ initiatives ] with the STD/HIV division and supporting the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus is one of them. We're going to be raising money and starting a huge social marketing campaign.
I: You mentioned working with youth groups. On the other end of the spectrum, have people tried reaching out to the elderly, who are also seeing rising infection rates?
LB: Well, we have. Our health department funded a research project for three-to-four years in a row that involved looking at and providing LGBT senior activities. [ The elderly ] are always discussed and they're certainly a priority.
I: What does someone do if he or she wants to join the caucus?
LB: They can call Simone [ at ( 312 ) 747-9632 ] , Michael Hunter [ at ( 312 ) 747-9191 ] or myself [ at ( 312 ) 747-0128 ] . Things are in motion; we're forming a planning committee. We're going to have monthly meetings, so anyone who is interested in the issues is welcome.
I: Is there anything you want to add about the caucus?
LB: You know, there's so much. There's a ton of enthusiasm and optimism that I haven't seen in a long time. I think that people are really hungry for something different. Working with the private sector ( like with the Crystal Breaks program ) has really proven to be the wave of the future. We can't do this alone. To have a successful effort, you have to have a diverse group of people that represents all of our communities.
See www.lovethybrotha.com for more info.