“We are who we’ve been waiting for,” proclaims Khafre Kujichagulia Abif, a Southern author and activist, about the black gay and bisexual activists working to help stop the HIV epidemic that continues to ravage African-American communities in the American South.
Stopping HIV all comes down to courage and action, Abif says.
“People are still dying of HIV from stigma, from not having enough courage to access care, from not having enough courage to seek treatment, not having enough courage to get tested, not having enough courage to take their medication, not having enough courage to share who they are and their status — all those things play into that. [We must] be bold enough to say, ‘It’s me who has to save my own life.’”
Authenticity rules the activist and author’s life. Since 1991, Abif has had to be bold in order to fight stigma on multiple fronts as a bisexual black man who is also HIV-positive. The activist has made it his life’s mission to reach young people, and those newly diagnosed, to help end stigma in their communities and learn to become healthier individuals.
“Holding on to things makes you sick,” Abif says. “If you want to have a better health outcome, it would be better for you to stand in your truth, share who you are, be unapologetic about it, and instead of holding onto the what-if’s, you can get past that to the real meaning. You have to go ahead and take that leap so you know who your family is, you know the people that are going to support you and be by your side.”
Abif learned that lesson firsthand. After hearing his diagnosis, he waited five years before telling his mom, who hugged him, prayed, and cooked a large meal for him afterwards.
“She wanted to fatten me up, I guess,” the married father of two joked to Plus magazine, when he was named one of the publication’s Most Amazing HIV-Positive People of 2016.
The meal his mother made later inspired the title of an anthology he edited, Cornbread, Fish, and Collard Greens: Prayers, Poems & Affirmations for People Living With HIV/AIDS. After that work came out, Abif founded Ubuntu Press and released another anthology, Sistah’s Speak. He has several more in the works, nearly all about people living with HIV.
He’s also become a contributing editor to the magazine that honored him (Plus) as well as Chill, a new men’s magazine for urban millennials produced by the same company.
Abif is also a community organizer with the Southern AIDS Coalition, an organization dedicated to ending the HIV epidemic in the South through federal policy advocacy. The organization is one of three coordinating centers (along with Emory University and the University of Houston) chosen for Gilead’s $100 million, 10-year commitment to help stop the virus.
This year, Abif is traveling across the South as part of the Coalition’s Leadership Education and Advocacy Development training, which helps educate men of color on the stigmas they face and how to overcome them. For him, it’s a call of duty.
As a bisexual black man who is married to a woman, Abif is well aware of the black community’s misperception that sex with bisexual men (or so-called down-low guys) is the primary way that black women acquire HIV. In fact, Abif admits, back in the 1990s, before significant research had been done into HIV transmission routes, he’d bought in to that now-debunked theory himself.
He knows first-hand how those misconceptions continue to feed stigma, and he hopes to help eradicate them. But he is happy to see how much American culture has shifted, especially when it comes to the younger generation’s acceptance of bisexuality.
“Young people don’t even want to use those kinds of words actually to describe how they feel because they’re so fluid in their sexuality,” he explains.
Unlike when he came of age sexually, there are far more “sub groups” today, he says, like “butch queens, fem queens, top, bottom, power bottom, all these kinds of things. I said to myself, ‘I’m 51. And when I was coming along, we didn’t know what was going to go on until we got our clothes off.”
Abif laughs, but is enamored of this generation’s sophistication. He just wants to make sure that whatever goes on when young folks get their clothes off it doesn’t lead to HIV. That’s one reason he’s so passionate about the Southern AIDS Coalition’s effort to increase the number of PrEP users. A significant element of that campaign is finding the right way to communicate to people across the South how and where to access the HIV-prevention protocol.
But in the Deep South — where even doctors don’t seem to understand why someone should be on PrEP — that’s easier said than done.
Abif shares the story of a young man in Alabama who was refused PrEP coverage by his provider because he wasn’t in a monogamous relationship. Considering that those who aren’t in monogamous relationships have higher risks of becoming HIV-positive, PrEP should have been seen as more appropriate for him, not less.
After being contacted by the man, Southern AIDS Coalition wrote a letter to the provider to intervene. “Our position is that if he wants PrEP… he doesn’t need to be in a monogamous relationship,” Abif says. “He just needs to be provided with the opportunity.”
In the South, activists also must contend with the moral values of physicians withholding access to prevention strategies. He’s heard of numerous doctors suggesting that abstinence is the only way to better health. It’s examples like these, Abif says, that keep PrEP from those who need it the most.
If he can arm young people with accurate information about HIV and PrEP, Abif hopes they can demand the health care they deserve. But he admits that there’s resistance on the other side of the aisle as well. Quite often Abif says, he starts his work by bluntly asking black bisexual men one question: “What will it take for you to create a coalition to save your own life?”
“It’s a question that puts people on their heels because it’s centered around what the HIV epidemic looks like for black bisexual men in the South. Nine of the cities of the highest prevalence [of HIV] over the last several years are in the Deep South,” he says. (In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses are in the South, and the region has the highest number of deaths from AIDS complications, something of a rarity in more affluent areas.)
Still, the change has to in part come from within, Abif says. “There are many forms of advocacy. Everyone can find their own lane in advocacy. Mine is being out front, being vocal, being seen. Other people’s advocacy might be making a phone call, writing a letter, or sending information to their local legislator.”
The most important thing, he says, people need to “educate themselves so that they can debunk myths and speak the truth about the epidemic and what the epidemic looks like.… and be comfortable enough in themselves to be able to stand in their own shoes.”
Standing in your own truth, Abif insists, means people must “be willing to be bold enough to speak [out] about HIV in our communities, in our social networks, in our churches, and the institutions we’re in and around.”