David Malebranche, MD, MPH, on Changing the Narrative of Black Same-Gender Loving Men
On February 7, we mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day by speaking with David Malebranche, MD, MPH, a physician who has dedicated his life’s work to improving the lives of Black same-gender loving (SGL) men.
Malebranche is a passionate advocate for the Black SGL community who has published numerous research articles on the sexual risk and behaviors of Black men who have sex with men and has pressed for better conversations about Black same gender loving men online and in personal writings. He has worked with Black men in clinical settings at Grady Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania Student Health Center, and at a detention facility in Georgia.
Dr. Malebranche shared his thoughts with BETA about HIV, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how Black SGL men can begin to shape their own empowering, affirming narratives.
Throughout your career, you have worked with Black SGL men in a few different capacities—from your service as an HIV clinician, to doing research about sexual orientation and sexual behavior, to working as a physician at a detention center. How has your understanding about Black SGL men and HIV evolved over time as you’ve taken on different roles?
I got to a point in my life when I realized that there seemed to be this overemphasis on HIV when it came to black SGL men. People would immediately think, “If you’re a Black SGL man, you’re at risk of HIV.” They’d ask, “Are you thinking about HIV testing if you’re negative? If you’re positive, are you in care and on treatment?” We don’t have to ignore HIV and I don’t think we should. But it doesn’t have to be the first part of every conversation we’re having about Black SGL men.
We have to build a narrative about Black same-gender loving men that builds context apart from HIV. One of the things I’ve realized is that there are so many other things in our lives that add depth and understanding—issues around masculinity, racial identity, father-son relationships, creativity, and education, just to name a few. I think we should consciously make a change from a deficits model—that focuses on, “What’s wrong with Black SGL men?”—to one that’s more affirming. We can ask the question, “What’s good about us and our communities?” and then we can celebrate the wonderful parts of us.
How is the Black Lives Matter movement making a positive change in this narrative?
I think one thing the Black Lives Matter movement is helping us do is reach a middle ground. Of course it’s main focus has been on civil rights and police oppression, but I think it’s also helping us define our identity in a way where we don’t have to choose between one aspect of our identity over another—because it also embraces diversity and transgender rights and is queer affirming.
In the Civil Rights era, there was this big emphasis on racial identity. And then in the 80s and 90s—coincidentally with the HIV activism that was happening at the time—there was a gay pride movement and a focus on being comfortable “coming out” with your sexual identity. But those two movements were separate. And now, there is this disconnect from racial and cultural diversity within the LGBT community. And there can be homophobia or intolerance within the Black community. So you’ll see this dilemma that Black same-gender loving men face—where they feel like they have to lean toward one identity or the other depending on who they’re with or what space they’re in.
What’s great about the Black Lives Matter movement is that I think it’s helping people realize that they don’t have to choose one part of your identity or another, but that you might have to speak out as an activist for racial equality. Or to advocate for your rights as a gender non-conforming trans person, or a same-gender loving man. But none of these things are mutually exclusive.
What do you see as a priority way to improve the health and wellbeing of Black SGL men by adding or improving something positive—instead of aiming to eliminate negative influences like discrimination and racism?
I think it’s important for us to be able to take control of our own stories more. If we don’t like the structures that exist in our society that we’re dependent on and that shape our narratives for us, how can we change them? An example I can give of that is a program created by NASEM (National AIDS Education and Services for Minorities) here in Atlanta called Creating Responsible Intelligent Black Brothers (CRIBB). The first cohort of this group ended up founding an organization on their own called the Young Black Gay Leadership Initiative (YBGLI) that holds a conference every year to educate attendees about things like financial responsibility, independence, resume writing and navigating social media. And the program has been widely successful and is always in high demand.
Those kinds of initiatives—created by people in our community for us—can do so much. I think we also need to be able to shape our own stories and how we are portrayed by society. Traditional media sources can have a very myopic focus on Black SGL men—they tend to focus on racial disparities and barriers and “what’s wrong with us.” But when you hear stories from Black SGL men ourselves, they’re more affirming and they tell a more nuanced story. Stories of resilience, redemption and affirmation are what we need to hear.
I recently wrote and published a book about my relationship with my father in part because affirming stories about Black father and son relationships didn’t exist. All I saw were stories about absentee fathers, baby daddies and single mothers. I didn’t write about our relationship being perfect, but I wanted to celebrate my father and how he influenced me in so many profound and positive ways.
What can other people do who want to change the narrative, so to speak, about Black same-gender loving men?
I hope that people can be empowered, and have the agency, to speak up when they need to. What do we do when we hear something discriminatory or homophobic? We talked earlier about how people with many aspects to their identity may only feel comfortable revealing one part of their identity in some spaces. Here’s an example of this from my own life:
A few weeks ago, I was at a barber shop—which are kind of a social country club for Black men. We were talking about some of the stuff that’s going on in Cleveland with Black Lives Matter. And all of a sudden we’re talking about how crazy it is that cops are killing young Black boys. And on guy chimed in, “Yeah, the world is crazy. Will Smith’s son is the representative for Louis Vuitton women’s clothing line.” And then another dude chimed in, and says, “Yeah, like Bruce Jenner is becoming a woman. That shit’s crazy!” All of a sudden, we went from racial unification to talking about masculinity and then transgender issues. In two sentences! It was all lumped into the category of, “This shit is crazy.”
I ended up speaking up. It kind of felt like giving a Transgender 101 lecture—explaining, “This is what transgender is.” They’re not crazy—think about it this way. We talked about straight privilege. So, it’s worth thinking about what we do in those situations. Do you speak up? Fall back? Encourage someone to think? Share what you know? After I shared my story, I heard back from so many people. People who said, “That’s why I don’t go to barbershops,” and, “I can’t believe you had the courage to say something.” But the best things I heard were along the lines of, “Now that I’ve read your story, maybe I will speak up the next time I hear something, too.”