Karamo Gets Real
From The Real World to Queer Eye, Karamo Brown Uses His Platform to Advocate for Nurturing the Self-Esteem and Mental Health of Young Gay Black Men, and Creating Opportunities for Mentorship
by George M. Johnson
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
It was September 7, 2004, when the hit MTV show The Real World returned for its fifteenth season in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. Little did we know at the time, history would take place on that day when the world would be introduced to a charismatic young Black man from Houston, Texas. He became one of the first openly gay Black men on reality television (Marcellas Reynolds broke ground before Brown on Big Brother, Season 3). Almost fourteen years later the moment continues to be a point of reference for the importance of awareness and representation for a Black LGBTQ community continuing to find its place in society.
In speaking with Karamo, he isn’t shy about how important that moment was, and what it means for so many Black gay men looking for something in media that reflects their own image.
“That’s paramount. If you don’t see yourself, you don’t know what you can do. That’s just the unfortunate truth with many people in our community. We have been told that we are not good enough, that we are less than.”
He correlated these feelings by comparing them to the culture of Black Greek fraternities and sororities, which from time to time have had a rough track record when dealing with homosexuality and controlling of what one should deem as a respectable image in the Black community. “I often think about the frat culture. I am in a frat and I remember so many times when I was going to college how so many people told me ‘you can’t join a Black frat, you’re openly gay, that’s not allowed’ and I was like ‘F*** You,’ that is allowed. And I am going to do this and be openly gay.”
That “never take no for an answer” attitude has boded very well for Karamo, who has been able to take a one season break into reality television and create a viable media brand for himself and several others. However, as a Black gay man, Karamo knows the importance of using all that he has attained to help in the fight against HIV, a virus that thirty-plus years later continues to infect Black and brown men who have sex with men at epidemic levels. “I’ve always been involved in HIV and AIDS advocacy work, just as a Black gay male I’ve always thought that it was important because it affects us the most.” According to Karamo, it would be an interview gone awry that would kick his HIV activism into full gear, utilizing his education and training to give back to his community in an area so desperately needing attention.
“I never had a desire to start an organization. I was doing an interview with a national platform, I’m not gonna say which one right now, but the whole interview was talking about HIV and AIDS in the Black community. This white guy canceled the interview before because he didn’t think that his audience would be interested. Which I took deep offense to, because exactly which part don’t you or your audience care about? Is it the Black part, the gay part, or the HIV part, ’cause whichever way we talked about, it affected me.”
Suffice it to say Karamo contacted the producer and interviewer to share his feelings, using some “not so nice” language as he put it. Although he felt good being able to address the problematic view of the issue in his own words he was still not “fulfilled” and knew that he “needed to do more.”
“My background is in psychotherapy and I’m a licensed social worker so I thought why not start something where we can address the mental health of Black gay and bisexual men who are being infected or affected by HIV. That was a big thing for me because I’m negative but dated many men who were positive. But when I come across some men who are negative, for some reason they don’t think it is our issue. That always blows my mind because if it affects one then it affects all of us.”
This is what birthed the 6in10 Organization, co-founded with friend and longtime HIV activist Dontá Morrison [A&U, September 2015]. According to the website, “6in10.org is a HIV awareness organization [501(c)(3)] with a dedicated mission to eradicate the 6 in 10 HIV statistic plaguing gay and bisexual Black men; by providing tailored mental health support though viral campaigns and community engagement.” This fact is evidenced by the March 2016 CDC report which stated that “one in six men who have sex with men (MSM) will contract HIV in their lifetimes, with half of Black MSM likely to contract.”
Karamo and Dontá began charting what arenas don’t address mental health within the Black community and decided they would start their work in those areas. “The Black Church, Black family and in schools. We thought that if we could address those areas where Black men are spending a lot of their time and hearing a lot of things that affect their self-esteem, we could create some changes with the view of HIV and mental health in our community.” As founders, they are dedicated to giving “sound information in an innovative social campaign relating to factors that contribute to HIV infections” while also providing the tools necessary to achieve those goals.
It was evident throughout the conversation that Karamo is very focused on improving the self-esteem and mental health of young Black gay men; realizing that despite the work being done to create access and provide education, our community is still being infected. “Too many of my boys are still being diagnosed. Don’t get me wrong, I went to school at FAMU, I was reckless as hell. Every boy that walked by I was right there. I also didn’t have the education. I feel that times have changed and we have so much education and so much knowledge, sometimes being rammed down our throats. So why are things not changing?”
The first thing I always address is mental health. When I say mental health in interviews I am often talking about self-esteem. That for me is the issue.
Self-esteem is what it comes down to, for Karamo, and not in a surface level way. He talks about how intersected self-esteem and mental health are and how that lack of self-worth can lead to poor decisions, making one not only high risk but more vulnerable to acquire HIV. “The first thing I always address is mental health. When I say mental health in interviews I am often talking about self-esteem. That for me is the issue. Our self-esteem affects the way that we walk through this world and the way that we feel we deserve certain things. So, when you talk about the Trump administration, several communities are under attack. Black people, gay people, people living with chronic conditions are under attack. The way that we address that or don’t is based on our self-esteem.”
He ensures that the work he does is centered in creating a more positive outlook for Black gay men, helping them by teaching tools of self-reflection and introspection in effort to create a generation of young men who truly value their own worth. “Until you start to check how you feel and how you see yourself, you are not going to be able to fight for your rights against people like Trump because you’re going to be like, what can I do? I don’t deserve to have these rights. I don’t feel like I have the power. What you realize once you get your self-esteem in check is that you do have the power and that there is a wealth of resources that are available to you.”
Some of what keeps Karamo grounded in HIV work are the years of mentorship he has received from Phill Wilson [A&U, February 2014], President and CEO of Black AIDS Institute. “Phill Wilson has been a mentor of mine. One of my best friends Jussie Smollett, before we were on TV, Phill had taken us under his wing and sort of just got us involved. Since I’ve started my organization Phill has been encouraging and guiding me and I appreciate it.” Outside of his own organization, Karamo has done campaigns throughout the country including being the ambassador of the 2016 “Positively Fearless” campaign with fellow Texas activist Deondre Moore, celebrating being Black, gay and positive.
Although not positive himself, it was during the 10th Annual Black Pride celebration in Atlanta where Karamo shared more thoughts on the discrimination positive people deal with within the community. “I’m negative, but I have friends from both the gay and heterosexual communities who are HIV-positive. One thing that has always upset me is the fact that people in our community tend to ‘shade’ men who are open about their positive status. In my opinion, we can’t stop HIV from disproportionately affecting Black gay and bisexual men until we stop judging and start supporting those in our community living with the virus.”
The big piece of the mental health I do with my organization is that I believe mentorship is important. I believe in reaching back and making sure that someone younger than you has the information that you may not have had, but require now. Phill [Wilson] has been that way for myself and so many other people.
He fervently believes the path to ending the virus is through mental health work, inclusive of more mentorship within our community, something he notes has helped him immensely throughout his career.
“The big piece of the mental health I do with my organization is that I believe mentorship is important. I believe in reaching back and making sure that someone younger than you has the information that you may not have had, but require now. Phill has been that way for myself and so many other people.”
Karamo notes how fortunate he was and is to have mentorship in his life, and how mentoring can create a generation of youth who are stable and confident in their mental health when dealing with adversity. It was at this moment where we began to discuss another issue that not only affects those in the HIV community, but a problem that Black people, generation after generation, have failed to address within our families.
Black and brown people in America have faced health discrimination and disparities for several hundred years. Their bodies have been used as science experiments like in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, or been victimized and uncompensated for their contributions to science as in the case of Henrietta Lacks’ “Hela cells.” This discrimination has led to a lack of trust between African Americans and the medical community that continues to be a generational issue.
In 2017, Black AIDS Institute released a major report discussing the state of Black healthcare in America, where it addressed the issues of not only having access in urban communities, but the work that needs be done in increasing the utilization of those services, an issue Karamo attributes to work needing be done around mental health. “A big part of that is sometimes people are scared. Going back to the mental health aspect, you might have access to the medication or the healthcare services you need but you are nervous about how you will be judged when you walk into a certain place. I equate it to African American majority of the times being private people, we don’t want anyone in our business.”
Sometimes all it takes is for somebody to just walk with you so that you feel encouraged and know that it’s okay for you to go and take care of yourself.
Karamo discusses how he has been to numerous appointments with friends and associates, and how he doesn’t let the barriers of discrimination, stigma, and shaming play a part in his life, being a good friend to the ones that he loves. “I always try to walk through the process with them. Sometimes all it takes is for somebody to just walk with you so that you feel encouraged and know that it’s okay for you to go and take care of yourself.” He fully understands how these barriers tie into a person’s self-esteem and help prevent one from accessing the care and utilizing the services that they need to survive. “When we talk about access to healthcare, if I know I can access it but I don’t know how I will be treated or judged or if someone is gonna see me there. It’s a high anxiety to get over especially when your self-esteem is low.”
A high self-esteem is something Karamo has seemingly continued to carry throughout his thirteen-plus year career in the media eye. In addition to the work he is doing with his non-profit organization, Karamo currently hosts two shows, one on the History Channel called The Unexplained, where he investigates conspiracy theories, and another on MTV called Are You the One: Second Chances. Karamo will also be starring in a reboot of the iconic Queer Eye for Netflix as a Culture Expert, debuting in February 2018.
Even in his work, he continues to maintain the belief in helping his own community first, with a stipulation in his contract ensuring that more Black gay men have the opportunities in the industry that he has himself. “If the person coming behind you doesn’t have access to open the door, and you don’t prop the door open to let them come in behind you, then you are doing them a disservice. I’m all about being representation and living my dreams. I make sure that in my contract they must hire two to three gay African Americans to be on crew. I’ve done that now on the past three shows that I’ve been on and that’s important for me.”
Overall, Karamo is the living embodiment of what it means to follow your dreams while ensuring that others have the opportunity to do the same as you, doing all of this while remembering how fortunate he is as an HIV-negative person, and using his platform to continue the necessary work needing be done to end the virus one day. We ended the discussion with some powerful words around what it means for him to truly be there for his community and friends.
“I’ve had so many friends that have been diagnosed in the past year that I walk with to go get their medication, and go sit with them when they meet their doctors. I say that not that I’m not happy to support my friends, but to say that just because I’m there, people are going to think or assume I’m positive and I’m like ‘I don’t care,’ they can think what they want to think, I’m still gonna be there.”
I look forward to seeing Karamo be here for many more years to come.
For more information about 6in10, log on to: www.6in10.org.
George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.