Epic Black Voices
HIV advocates Daniel Driffin and Ken Williams discuss tailoring care and prevention for Black men
by Larry Buhl

In the amfAR Epic Voices online video series, influential members of the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS community share personal insights on living with HIV and what they’re doing to fight the epidemic. A&U spoke with two Epic Voices contributors, Daniel Driffin and Ken Williams, both young Black men who speak directly and fiercely about the challenges facing gay, bi, MSM and trans people of color.

Daniel Driffin. Photo courtesy D. Driffin

Daniel Driffin: The lives of black men are priceless
The oldest of five kids, Driffin was raised in Rochester, New York. After he was graduated from Morris College with a degree in biology in 2008, he began working at a community health center in Florence, South Carolina, where he provided pre- and post-test HIV counseling to MSMs. After two years he moved to Atlanta, where he offered testing and evidence-based interventions to Black gay men. While in Atlanta, he took an opportunity to manage a five-year research study with University of Connecticut. When the study ended in 2015, he headed back to school full-time to complete his Master of Public Health at Morehouse. At that time he also co-founded Transforming HIV Resentment into Victories Everlasting (THRIVE) Support Services, an online support network for Black gay and bisexual men living with HIV.

In 2016, Driffin was chosen to speak at the Democratic National Convention, the first out HIV-positive speaker at the DNC in sixteen years. He is on track to complete his MPH in the spring of 2018.

In his Epic Voices video, Driffin says non-traditional approaches to the HIV/AIDS crisis are needed. In an email interview with A&U, he expanded on that, saying that messages should be crafted to meet people where they’re at. “I think our systems of care have to be more sensitive in realizing that what you say to middle-aged men will be different to someone who is eighteen, unstably housed, and just learned they are living with HIV. We have to use languages centered on people and not our disease in our written and verbal communication.”

He added that communicating with young people of color must include social media platforms. “We started a group in 2015 after meeting face-to-face with thirty-four people. We have expanded to more than 750 supported through an online community and in-person events. Our largest face-to-face events see more than 150 people coming together around our lives and that may not always be HIV specific.”

Driffin also gave a simple prescription for health services providers: Stay open longer.

“I am in disbelief on how many agencies do not offer hours after 4:30 p.m. and wonder why ‘We can’t get people to our consumer caucus….’ If I am an hourly working from 9 a.m.–7 p.m., certainly I will miss your meeting and I will miss my medical appointment. We have to really embrace common sense much more.”

Driffin said one of his favorite quotes is by African-American writer and activist Essex Hemphill, taken from “For My Own Protection,” which opens with, “I want to start an organization to save my life. If whales, snails, dogs, cats, Chrysler and Nixon can be saved, the lives of Black men are priceless and can be saved.” Driffin said that quote led him to an epiphany a few years back, that Black LGBTQ people need to tap into their reservoirs of skill to save their community.

“I remember being newly diagnosed in South Carolina and sitting in the provider office and seeing white men, Black women, and white women on the walls within pictures and even on magazines. I didn’t see me at all. I attend countless conferences in public health, HIV prevention, medication adherence and I see the same people on those walls and in those magazines representing and speaking on my behalf. After completing a social justice fellowship called Creating Responsible Intelligent Black Brothers Fellowship where mentors were provided to us who were Black, same-gender loving and educated, I said, ‘Oh, wow, I can do this for my community.’”

Driffin added that a renewed wave of involvement from legislators and community members must be supported through policy at all levels of community. “This includes test opportunities for men at their local health department or community-based organization. It includes the same men if they are testing negative to start PrEP immediately if they are interested, and those people living with HIV to start treatment immediately. It should be in a stigma-reducing or stigma free environment regardless of ability.”

Ken Williams: HIV doesn’t own me.

Ken Williams. Photo courtesy K. Williams

A self-described “video-hobbyist” and storyteller, Ken Williams grew up in Chicago and Beverly Hills with his two sisters and has been video blogging since graduating from Columbia College in Chicago. After he was diagnosed with HIV in 2010, Williams began dedicating his online presence to issues affecting people living with HIV, especially among communities of color. Williams told A&U that he had been looking for a Black gay community online to help walk with him through his journey with HIV. When he couldn’t find one he decided to build one with his YouTube channel. His video blog, “Ken Like Barbie,” is a hub for self-expression and a sounding board.

“I talk about my HIV status because I need the world to know that I exist,” Williams says with passion in one video. “It became my civic obligation to lend my voices to the conversation….HIV isn’t in control of me. HIV doesn’t own me.”

“It took me about a year to open up and disclose my HIV status on YouTube but I knew early in my diagnosis that sharing my HIV status on social media was the next step for me,” he told A&U.

Williams has also worked in prevention/client services at Test Positive Aware Network in Chicago, and in 2016 he moved to Texas to work for the AIDS Foundation of Houston. He admitted that seven years of HIV advocacy began to wear him down. “Only having two hands, I slowed down tremendously and felt stressed that I couldn’t rescue everyone.”

At his lowest moment, Alicia Keys showed up. In 2017, Williams was hosting NMAC’s second annual Biomedical Prevention Summit in New Orleans, and the Grammy-award winner was a guest speaker. Keys advocated having uncomfortable conversations about social justice and sexual health, and Williams thought she was a champion to use her celebrity for that cause. “And then I thought, there’s too much need for me to slow down, not when he have warriors like Alicia Keys, not when I know that my visibility begets the permission for other gay Black men living with HIV to be visible. For me, that was a sign to continue the work even more because the world is listening and being angered into action.”

Williams said that efforts around HIV awareness/prevention in Black communities have been lead by people whose sensibilities, priorities and experiences have not been that of the Black experience, and that needs to change.

“I think it would be a radical shift in how we as a country and we as a community address HIV in the Black community to put more Black trans people into positions of leadership and by giving a stage to Black queer youth and Black women to affect systems of healthcare.”

Southern Exposure

Greg Millett. Photo by Sean Black

In the February issue of A&U, Gregorio Millett, vice president and director of public policy at amfAR, suggested that the U.S. doesn’t just have a Black HIV problem. It has a Southern Black HIV problem. “In 2016, fifty-four percent of new diagnoses in the South were among African Americans, where on the West Coast only nineteen percent were among African Americans,” Millett said. “The South is still the locus of the Black population in the U.S. and it is where we also see the fewest states with Medicaid expansion.”

Driffin said the South has a perfect storm of factors contributing to the Black HIV crisis. “When you factor in not having access to quality health insurance especially if these men are not working full-time, living in the South, where Medicaid was not expanded, an ever-present undertone of homophobia, stigma, mis-education and fear is the perfect concoction which takes our brothers out. Here in Georgia between 2011 and 2015 more than 600 Black same-gender loving men living with HIV died from some cause. Our data system isn’t sensitive enough to tease out the details, but this is a problem. We have to invest time and figure how do we need to save our people.”

Williams said that the priorities of elected leaders and public officials must shift. “Black men are still dying in the South with HIV because unfortunately there isn’t enough leadership, at the local or federal levels, in our country, to say that we need to focus our efforts and resources in the South to curb and/or rid the HIV burden in black communities.”

Both Driffin and Williams say that we shouldn’t accept that the South must continue to be the killing fields of Black LGBTQ Americans.

The amfAR Epic Voices series can be found online at: www.curecountdown.org/epicvoices.

Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.