Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Interview with a Man Who Tells The Damn Truth: Kenyon Farrow

In 2006, I received a phone call from my best friend RJ. He told me that he had a friend in NYC that was touring the country promoting a new anthology: Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out. The man was Kenyon Farrow. A few weeks later he walked into my my studio and my life. The friendship and the association has been one where I have found myself constantly and urgently challenged through the honest way in which Kenyon lives, works, writes, and struggles. Kenyon has enough manic energy that there are times I want to stick a plug in his ass and power my apartment. ConEdison better watch out. He is brilliant and passionate; anyone that had a chance to hear his speech at Creating Change in Denver last February on the realities of HIV/AIDS and the black community, will know that when Kenyon tells the damn truth people jump up and say amen. This Midwestern brother from another mother of mine is someone that I honor, that honors my community, and that lives the shit he talks about.

Months ago, Kenyon was featured in Out Magazine as one of 2008's Out 100. At that time, I asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed for my blog. He said yes. Now, 3/4 of a year later, I finally got him the interview questions. Know Kenyon. Listen to Kenyon. You will be a better human being for it.

1.) In 2008, Out Magazine named you one of the Out 100. You were one of a very few people of color on that list. What did that "honor" mean to you? What does it mean that there were so few people that looked like you on that list?

KF: Well I was honored by the Out 100 nomination precisely because it was people of color who told the editors at Out that I should be nominated, so it was definitely nice to be recognized by other people of color who think highly of my work. I guess in terms of the lack of representation of Black people or other people of color on the list, is simply reflective of gay magazines in general, so I guess I had low expectations in that department to begin with. Sometimes I do those kinds of publications or engage more mainstream outlets because I think about those black gay boys like me, in places like Ohio, who may only have access to these mainstream publications, or who may not have black gay activists or spaces that have a certain political vision I have. So for me, it is important to me to reach them, the same way I found Barbara Smith's work in a cheesy gay bookstore in Columbus, OH. I would not have had access to that kind of political work in Ohio otherwise. I sometimes worry about people critiquing me for making that choice, or calling me a media whore or something, but the reality is not everyone who has an interest in certain kinds of political discussions or ideas reads some underground zine or even a progressive magazine. My family is super-politically engaged and some of the most politically astute people I know, but they do not, and never have read The Nation, let alone something even smaller. So I sometimes engage mainstream stuff to get my work out to people that are not "The Left".

2.) You have been a tireless advocate, researcher, and speaker on issues relating to HIV and queer people of color, specifically youth and African-Americans. I was at the speech you gave at Creating Change this year. Whooo child. In an America that believes itself post-AIDS, how is your work different than HIV/AIDS Advocacy, say, in the early 90s?

KF: Thanks for the compliment on that speech. I am really humbled by the impression it (and the rest of my co-panelists) left on the attendees (Editor's Note: Bishop Yvette Flunder also let us all have it). In any case, I think that my work on HIV/AIDS in some respects looks more like some of the work in the 1980's and early 1990's, that really understood the AIDS epidemic in the US as a manifestation of other kinds of injustice, as opposed to a manifestation of problematic behaviors that we need to teach "certain" people to curb. Other than that, I think that my work is not only about drawing together the issues that are driving the epidemic among black gay/bi men and black trans women, but also to just actually remind people that the epidemic didn't go anywhere. I am beginning to hear a lot of gay organizations saying that they "don't do AIDS" anymore, and I think we need to call them out on that shit too.

3.) You are HIV-, what does it mean to do significant work in the black queer positive community while both being a part of and being distinct from that community? How do you integrate and organize around economic justice issues as a negative person while supporting the positive community?


You are HIV+, how does your HIV status inform your work both as an advocate but also an organizer for social and economic justice?

KF: I am actually glad you asked my HIV status to some extent. I think it is something I struggle with how to talk about as an AIDS activist. I am HIV negative, but I don't know how to talk about that in a way that doesn't seem like I am trying to let everybody know, I don't have it. Kinda like when straight allies to queers always have to remind people that they're straight. How dreadful. The fact remains, that though I do not have HIV, I am personally impacted by the epidemic in that several family members have died of AIDS, and probably half of my black gay/bi men and transwomen friends are positive. Not having HIV does not mean that it doesn't impact my life in some very dramatic ways on a daily basis. As consistent as I am with practicing safe sex and whatnot, I am beginning to feel the need to begin to talk and write more publicly about feeling like condoms as the only real strategy I have is not something I don't know that I can maintain for the rest of my natural born life. I am almost 35, and have been having sex with men for about 15 years. And if I am lucky I have another 50+ years, and I plan to have sex for as much of that time, as often as I can. LOL!!! Am I supposed to wear condoms all the time for the next 50 years? It makes no fucking sense, but that's all we got right now. And I am tired. And given the HIV rates among gay men in general, and certainly among Black men, the idea that I can sero-sort my way through it for the next 50 years is just fucking ridiculous. And I am almost afraid to say that, but fuck it. It's the truth and people need to hear it. As much stigma as there is for HIV+ black gay men, there is no space for negative men to say any of this. We're treated like we ought to be fucking glad to not have it. But the odds are so against us and we're so traumatized by the spectre of contracting HIV, or having witnessed the death of friends and family and nobody being able to talk about it, or people being ostracized, negative men are carrying the weight of this too. And if that's the case, being negative doesn't seem like much to fucking celebrate--the impact of the virus and what it means is kicking your natural ass anyway. And that's the truth that is so scary to say out loud. But as you can tell, I am tired of holding this. And I think it is this kind of frank discussions about sex and sexuality for Black gay men as it pertains to HIV is where I want to go with my work--ground my political writing about AIDS in my own sex life. We can sometimes cloak ourselves in "the issues" and not be brave enough to tell our own truths for fear of being judged often in our professional spaces, and by people we can't fucking stand anyway.. Well, I am about to throw caution to the goddam wind.

4. In addition to being a tireless advocate for health issues, you are also known (and worshipped) as a leader in the economic justice movement and its intersection within and throughout queer communities...talk about how you frame issues of HIV/AIDS in the context of economic justice?

KF: Well there was a study that recently came out, where they interviewed 1,115 Black and Latino men who have sex with men in Philly and NYC about how they identify-gay, bi, down-low or some other term. 35% of them made less than $5,000 a year. Now they used money incentives to recruit people, so that skewed the number of poor men who participated in the study very high, and also the number of HIV+ men who already knew they're status high. But that should tell you something about where the epidemic is--among poor black and Latino gay men. Or the impact of getting and HIV diagnosis actually increases one's likelihood of becoming poor if you weren't already. If that diagnosis means you are socially isolated from family or communities of origin, who do you rely on to get needs met in times of hardship? What if you can't afford treatment if you have no health insurance? If you're working in a low-wage job with little benefits or with no sick days or vacation, how do you take time off for doctor's appointments without raising the suspicion of co-workers or your boss? Medicaid is the largest insurer of people with HIV. If you're transgender woman or just a gay man who like to press your hair or wear nails, where do they even get work in the overground economy anyway--performing drag, or maybe working the MAC counter at the local mall, or maybe in a beauty salon. Those are your options and not everybody can or wants to to that kind of work. To me, there are some very clear reasons that HIV is an economic justice issue, and yet, no economic justice organizations that I know of even mention it. But QEJ is going to be at least putting this kind of analysis out in the world soon.

5.)You are also a brilliant writer...if folks want to read more about you, your work, and what you are doing, how can they find out more about you?

KF: Well, the tension I have now is that the activism, and the demands of working at QEJ which is a full plate on top of the other work I do, is taking me more and more away from my writing, and is keeping me from actually working on my own book project, which I am really desperately trying to do. But folks should check my blog, www.kenyonfarrow.com and I am also writing for this new site called TheGrio.com pretty regularly, so check me out there as well. Lastly, I am co-editing a book that should be out next year called A New Queer Agenda on NYU Press. It's a project of QEJ--a collection of writing critiquing the mainstream LGBT movement, as well as pieces about how other racial and economic justice issues impact the lives of queers. I co-authored a piece in the book about the "War on Drugs" and queer communities with gabriel o. sayegh, who works with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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