Project I Am, which recently ended, was a local effort that engaged and empowered young black/Latino MSM (men who have sex with men). It waså funded by a five-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Now a new entity called BlaqOut (pronounced black out) is taking its place.
BlaqOut organizers plan to address holistically the psychosocial and environmental challenges faced by young black MSM (YBMSM) in greater Kansas City, building an organization that connects and supports these men while providing access to safe spaces and resources. BlaqOut will soon apply for 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
“When young black LGBTQ folks aren’t visible in the community, they have little reason to expect community acceptance,” said D. Rashaan Gilmore, BlaqOut’s project director and lead researcher.
A never-before-attempted community needs assessment will be a major part of BlaqOut’s 2017 agenda. Individual advocates, community activists and health-care professionals that make up the group’s leadership want a better-engaged, healthier and thriving target population.
The findings from the community needs assessment, Gilmore said, “can be used to develop a series of culturally tailored, multilevel health-promotion interventions.”
Demographic under siege
Young black gay men are a demographic under siege. If current HIV diagnosis rates persist, about one in two black MSM will test positive in their lifetimes (based on 2016 CDC data).
YBMSM communities of origin are fighting the legacy of Jim Crow laws, the effects of historical redlining and poorly funded schools, the economic challenges of single-parent homes, the lack of affordable housing and health care, inequities in criminal justice and pervasive institutional racism. These social determinants of health go a long way toward creating disparities between these men and other demographic groups.
BlaqOut leaders pledge to make conscious efforts not to focus solely on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. Instead, they want to develop solutions and realistic strategies to combat myriad health issues.
When asked about his motivation for involvement in the project, Gilmore said, “I care and I am invested. Not only have I been actively organizing for the past three-plus years in this community, but I am from it and a part of it.” He also sees developing future leaders as his duty.
When the end of Project I Am funding was near but the future political climate was still uncertain, the CDC extended the project for six months. During that time, Gilmore and his partners put together the proposal for BlaqOut. After securing local funding for the project, it was publicly debuted at last year’s Calvary Community Outreach Network World AIDS Day breakfast, sponsored by Gilead Pharmaceuticals.
The BlaqOut research proposal addressed the need for the project: “Black MSM are in need of culturally competent, fully comprehensive, and out-of-the-box (innovative) screening, prevention, and care programming that can increase engagement and retention of positives in HIV care and lead to better overall health outcomes for black MSM.”
After developing his proposal, Gilmore was approached by a community leader who tried to dissuade him from doing a black-specific needs assessment, asking him instead to join a larger study. In that study, YBMSM needs would probably have been obscured.
“BlaqOut provides young black LGBTQ folks a chance to empower themselves to improve their lives, feel safe being who they are, feel affirmed in their identities, and grow to become happy, healthy, and productive adults. But that’s not to say everybody is happy about it or supportive of our efforts. Some view us as a threat to their legacies and funding,” Gilmore said.
The name “BlaqOut” was used previously during the Project I Am period. BlaqOut Balls, based on ballroom culture, were held as community outreach events. The “Blaq” portion of the name derives from the professional name of local songwriter and music producer Jo Blaq.
Community advisory board
On a Saturday in early March, BlaqOut volunteers convened in a Midtown board room, devoting the afternoon to improving their community. The community advisory board had a training retreat, with Gilmore handing over facilitating duties to Jermine D. Alberty, M.Div., and Tusday Dudley, M.Ed. This was the first of many meetings where ideas for the survey instrument will be debated and crystallized.
The board is made up of young black queer-identified men from the Kansas City area.
Two board members who show emerging leadership skills will be named as Bayard Rustin Leadership Academy fellows. The fellows will receive stipends and take part in a structured educational curriculum, an individual development plan, executive coaching, facilitated mentoring and peer learning.
Tentatively titled the YBMSM 20/20 Vision Survey, the community needs assessment is the main information-gathering piece of the BlaqOut project. The survey data will be folded together with individual interviews, focus groups and observations for analysis.
Some readers may remember The Pulse and Check the Pulse surveys that were conducted in the mid-2000s. The Pulse established a baseline of selected health and social factors relevant to the LGBT community of greater Kansas City. The Pulse and its follow-up study were undertaken through a groundbreaking partnership between the Kansas City, Mo., Health Department and the Lesbian & Gay Community Center of Greater Kansas City.
The BlaqOut survey will question a population more specific than the one covered by the Pulse surveys — and more severely affected by many of the negative social and physical health variables than the larger LGBTQ community. Since Pulse surveys were completed, the diversity of identity within the community has grown.
Gilmore said, “There is a growing movement of young black gay, bisexual and trans* persons who are stepping forward to assert their right to have a seat at the table in Kansas City’s LGBTQ community. So far, dozens have signed on, and each week, more members are being added. For the first time in a very long time, there is genuine momentum toward organizing Kansas City’s black LGBTQ community.”
The survey design, implementation and analysis will be subject to the academic scrutiny of the Core Research Team, whose members include principal investigator Jannette Berkley-Patton, Ph.D.; project director and lead researcher D. Rashaan Gilmore; and team members Marcie Berman, Ph.D., Natasha Aduloju-Ajijola, Ph.D., and Rakeem Golden.
The study will assess the overall health and wellness needs of about 200 YBMSM ages 18-34 who live in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The survey will take an average of about 45 minutes to take, and it will be administered from June through August 2017, with analysis following through December.
Identifying prospective survey-takers can be a challenge in itself. Web presence, flyers, print ads, referrals, clinic drop-ins, tabling opportunities, hookup apps and various social media are all part of the toolkit.
Beyond recruiting survey participants, other outreach tools and events will help to spread awareness, including a block party + BlaqOut Ball, testing fair/condom distribution, an empowerment summit and an HIV+ support group.
Progress and utility
The uniqueness of this study and the larger community-building effort should keep it on our radar for some time to come.
“Upon completion, the results of a study of this magnitude could have multiple significant applications,” Gilmore said, “among them: It will help to inform regional and statewide policymaking, provide data resource allocation, improving community understanding of health disparities and dismantling racial barriers within the LGBTQ community.
“A vibrant, healthy and mobilized black LGBT community benefits everybody. Understanding and addressing these issues makes for a stronger and more cohesive community for us all.”
Collaborative partners in the project are the Black Health Care Coalition, Calvary Community Outreach Network, Truman Medical Centers and the UMKC School of Medicine. Funding came from the Health Care Foundation and Truman Medical Centers.
D. Rashaan Gilmore can be reached at [email protected] or 816-866-0355.