OpEd: National HIV Testing Day Sparks Debate On What ‘Pride’ Means For Black LGBTQ People

How Gay Pride & National HIV Testing Day are reminders that we cannot criminalize our way into achieving health-seeking behaviors - especially for Black LGBTQ.

National HIV Testing Day is June 27th - an annual occasion to encourage people to test for HIV at least once a year as part of routine care. This year, National HIV Testing Day falls squarely within the same week as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots where trans women of color resisted violence enacted by the New York Police Department. Coincidentally or not, both moments serve as reminders of how there is no “Pride” for Black queer individuals who must always fight against erasure and plight. 

The Stonewall Riots, or uprising, set the stage for what many of us consider the modern-day LGBT rights movement, and by extension, “LGBT Pride” during the month of June. The rightful indignation that caused Stonewall forces me to remember that the uprising in 1969 did not exist in a vacuum. In 1965, for example, protesters led the Dewey Lunch Counter Sit-In to protest LGBTQ targeted discrimination, and in 1966 a trans woman resisted arrest at Compton’s Cafeteria by throwing coffee at a police officer in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. 

Contrary to popular mainstream depictions of Pride month, June has never been about celebration-especially for Black queer folks. Instead, the origination has centered on resistance and decriminalizing LGBTQ individuals from corporations, law enforcement, and violence - violence perpetuated by both police officers and heterosexual civilians who have caused repeated harm against LGBTQ and non-binary people. 

Yet, every year, LGBTQ people of color are often told to just sit back and enjoy Pride because it’s “fun.” 

So, I ask: What, exactly, are LGBTQ people of color celebrating during a rainbow capitalism corporate-dominated Pride? Our “progress” where Black trans women continue to experience violence from the community and the state? Our ability to marry despite the fact we can be legally fired, not hired, or demoted for identifying as LGBTQ? Our increasing LGBTQ youth homelessness and death by suicide rates? The “fun” I want to have is honoring a queer legacy that keeps Marsha P. Johnson, Miss Major, and Sylvia Rivera front-and-center while decentering the cis white gay lens through which Pride has been sold. 

Despite what white-led LGBTQ organizations are just now discovering, the Stonewall riots — like most protests in the fight for queer and trans liberation — was spearheaded by the most marginalized in the Black and Latinx community. 

It was radical. It was transformative. It was unapologetic. 

As I reflect on how monetized and corporatized and commercialized Pride has become, in spite of its history against criminalization, capitalism, and violence, I honor the work of organizations that continue the work started on that hot night in June of 1969. Orgs like BYP100, Black Lives Matter, and No Justice, No Pride among others, who take power out of the hands of corporations and place them into the hands of people by investing in education, housing, restorative justice, and also into clinically competent clinics to fight to incessantly high rates of HIV incidence. 

Many of our heterosexual and white LGBTQ+ counterparts would rather help push for “equality” by normalizing us as “just like straight people” instead of raising awareness to the very real differences that separate us. 

These issues require immediate attention, especially during Pride month. Differences such as the rise of LGBTQ youth homelessness, sex work criminalization laws, condoms as evidence of prostitution, harsh school disciplinary policies, violence against Black trans women, lack of queer and trans-inclusive sexuality education, and rising application of HIV criminalization laws. 

Criminalization is a barrier that necessitates urgent action.  No community understands this more than people who live at the intersection of Black and Latinx queer, trans, and non-binary identities. From HIV to sex work, LGBTQ and non-binary people are largely being criminalized for two reasons. 

First, for being audacious enough to understand their own bodily autonomy. Second, for challenging the state’s conservative view that sex is only for purposes of reproduction and not pleasure. It’s the second reason that leads to damning consequences. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2018, 26 states had laws that criminalize HIV exposure, many where there is no chance of actual transmission. HIV-criminalization laws largely refer to the overbroad use of criminal laws to penalize perceived or potential HIV exposure; alleged nondisclosure of a person who is knowingly living with HIV prior to sexual contact; or unintentional HIV transmission. These outdated laws disproportionately affect already marginalized people — many who we want to get tested on days like today.

Data shows HIV criminalization increases discrimination and stigma, deters HIV testing, and does not serve as an effective method of HIV treatment and reduction. Simply put, HIV-criminalization laws are ineffective.

Why does this matter on National HIV Testing Day and during Pride month? Because if we are ever going to achieve an AIDS-free generation (as the global health community claims is one of our goals), we must not continue with laws that possibly deter testing and are counterproductive to prevention. And, regardless of what any prosecutor says, we cannot criminalize our way into achieving health-seeking behaviors. 

To be clear, LGBTQ people of color should be given the space to celebrate this month - a month that wouldn’t exist without us. We must define what self-care looks like for us and we should be able to do what’s necessary to make us feel heard, seen and supported. And yes, even I will be in NYC this weekend celebrating World Pride. There is no shame in fun. 

However, it’s important to be mindful of at whose expense? Are we redefining history for the sake of having fun? Are we forgetting the real history of Stonewall because pretending it wasn’t about police violence makes it bearable? Are we ignoring trans women of color because it interrupts our thinking about beaded jewelry and pride parades? 

We can no longer write away history for fun. We must hold that in tension and provide space for celebration and resistance. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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