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Thoughts & Ideas: Each one Reaches One in the Brothers United of Tennessee
by Max Smith

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Pictured: Anthony Hardaway.

Of the 50 states, which has the tightest organization of same-gender-loving Black men? NJ? OH? CA? After participating in two of its winter retreats, I'd say it's the Brothers United of Tennessee.

Starting in April 1996, Brothers United of Nashville formed a network with the statewide mission: To provide comprehensive health services and leadership skills to African American Same Gender Loving Men, their partners and friends in the State of Tennessee. This network will also supply an empowerment structure for personal growth, community building and positive self actualization through the efforts of individual Brothers United Chapters.

Since December 1997, founder and director Mr. Dwayne Jenkins and a Volunteer State planning committee has put on seven annual winter retreats. The retreats inspired creation of chapters in Chattanooga, Memphis, Knoxville and Brothers United of West Tennessee serving Milan, Humbolt, Jackson and several smaller towns.

The local chapters have volunteer meetings to plan, discuss and review workshops, HIV prevention outreach and cultural events.

While working at a theater in Clarksville, cultural arts activist Mr. Anthony Hardaway, also known as the First Lady of Memphis, was referred to Mr. Jenkins, known to have created Books Brothers Book Club, which meets monthly. Hardaway wanted a source for books on Black SGL subjects. In a series of phone calls, Jenkins got Hardaway to be a Memphis coordinator for Brothers United. Until then the only visible Black SGL presence in Memphis was a bar, The Club.

Cooperation between the two resulted in book signings at The Club in 1998 and at Club Allusions in recent years by James Earl Hardy, G. Winston James, Stanley Bennett Clay and other noted authors. This created strong demand in many people who would drive significant distances to cultural events Hardaway would put on in Memphis and in different states around Tennessee.

Hardaway says 'To thine own self be true. There is no way to do anything until you can look yourself in the eyes in a mirror and stand up to anybody and to the Divine!'

Hardaway recommends the book JUST ABOVE MY HEAD by James Baldwin as inspiration to defer personal wants, to volunteer time, and to overcome family, church and job ostracism.

Hardaway finished Jackson State University, Jackson, Miss., with the class of 1994. He breaks the southern social taboo against the educated, religious Black gay man by giving friends and family gifts of art, books and photos done by SGL artists. Despite rejection by his mother, who misunderstands his singer/artist lifestyle, Hardaway feels the energy of our SGL ancestors to speak for himself and on behalf of SGL youth 'to keep the kids safe from the HIV holocaust,' he said. He feels a part of himself is buried with each friend lost to AIDS, and thinks it is not normal that gay men his age, 34, should feel such hurt, pain, fear and numbness to death.

At the 7th annual Brothers United retreat, held Dec. 4-7, 2003 in Burns, Tenn., Hardaway gave a very stirring tribute to Anthony O'Neal Dilworth, 40, of Mississippi, who passed in April '03. He said it may take several activists to keep up with all the good works Dilworth was involved in. The theme of the retreat, 'Rebirth,' encouraged participants from several states to begin new lives as experienced, aware and involved community builders.

In addition to workshops and an evening dedicated to showcasing the works of artists, photographers and authors, three controversial films were shown: each of which generated passionate discussions.

DADDY AND PAPA explores the challenges gay men face in becoming fathers. Why are there so many Black children in foster care needing adoption? Why are there so few Black SGL couples willing to adopt? White gay dads with no understanding of Kwanzaa were shown in the film, about to shape their Black sons' cultural awareness.

A PEEK IN THE CLOSET, promoted by its producers as a pilot for a TV series, tried to examine the feelings and motivations of Black men who have sex with men, women, girlfriends and wives. Some who viewed it questioned the notion of men on the down low trying to tell the story of their female partners.

THE GIFT provoked the very strong reaction: that men who would deliberately have unprotected anal sex with multiple partners to intentionally become HIV-positive are crazy! Yet it was a revelation to many that 'bug chasers' are so desperate for attention that they would go that far to get it. At that point some men came out as being HIV positive. One man said those who seek 'the gift' of the HIV virus must not know of the difficulties he faces daily. He gave two examples: he said some pills he must take are so difficult to swallow they give him an upset stomach twice a day; he gets a total numbness in both his feet that can last for weeks. That makes him have to wear white running shoes every night so he can safely walk in poorly lit areas, especially up and down stairs. He cannot feel each step, so he has to look at his white shoes to be sure one foot is on a step before going to the next step.

Upon leaving the retreat site, I felt that I'd been at a down-home 'family reunion' and promised Mr. Jenkins and First Lady Hardaway that the story of the success of Brothers United Of Tennessee would be told across the country in hopes that it can be replicated in other states.

For more information visit the Web site e-mail or call (800) 845-4266.

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