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Love stories | Landmark program uses personal stories to combat stigma fueling HIV epidemic among black youth

Kingston Lenard has always loved and accepted his gay uncle, but the idea of becoming a spokesmodel for LGBT equality never crossed his mind.

Recently, however, Lenard became part of a project known as Acceptance Journeys. Soon the straight 21-year-old will have his face appearing next to that of his uncle Ronnie Grace on posters and billboards throughout Milwaukee. Accompanying the image will be the story of their loving and mutually supportive relationship – a story designed to inspire LGBT acceptance.

“A lot of people were surprised when I told them about this,” Lenard says. “But when I tell them who it’s for and why I’m doing it, then I get their support.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett rolled-out Acceptance Journeys at Milwaukee City Hall on Oct. 12, 2011 – National Coming Out Day. In the ensuing months, images of LGBT people with their friends, co-workers, family members, neighbors, pastors, etc., have appeared all over the city. Hundreds of packets of palm cards that include the images on one side and the stories behind the pictures on the other side have been passed out at churches, schools and events throughout the city.

United Way and the YWCA are among the local agencies that have trained staff and volunteers in how to present the project’s materials to large groups. Presentations have been made at Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, Riverside High School, Safe Schools Safe Communities, Black Health Coalition, Boys & Girls Clubs and Lindsey Heights Resource Fair.

The project, created and managed by Diverse & Resilient, is being closely watched by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as public health officials in other cities for possible expansion, says D&R executive director Gary Hollander.

In March, a radio component of the project was launched, ratcheting up the messaging a notch. Initially, the campaign asked members of the public to consider whose lives they could change with love. But in a radio message featuring Kingston Lenard’s cousin Miracal Lenard, she says that she loves her gay uncle just as he is. The spot is currently airing on V100.7 (WKKV-FM) and 1290 (WMCS-AM) radio stations.

In coming months, the project will continue to sharpen the message of LGBT acceptance. The project’s first phase was designed to spark public interest, but the billboards and posters didn’t specifically mention the LGBT component.

“We’ve been showing lots and lots of gay people to the world, only people don’t realize that they’re gay,” Hollander says. But in the project’s next            phase, “it’s going to get sprung on them that the people they’ve been seeing are gay,” Hollander adds.

“The mass media is just getting you happy and comfortable with the imagery,” Hollander says. “This is not an event, it’s a process. It’s a journey.”

Acceptance Journeys began as an HIV intervention program, and it’s based on information gleaned from research that the CDC conducted in Milwaukee in 2009. Alarmed by a local spike in new HIV infections among gay and bisexual African-American males ages 19 to 24, CDC researchers investigated not only patterns of transmission and risk behavior, but also what Hollander calls the “community ecology” underlying the problem. That term refers to the matrix of self-reinforcing social conditions – such as racial discrimination and homophobia – that continue to stoke the epidemic among young black males who have sex with other males, even as new infections in other demographic groups have leveled off or decreased.

Typical HIV-prevention programs focus on testing for the virus, disseminating condoms and transmission information and counseling high-risk individuals about harm reduction. But unlike other prevention programs for gay and bisexual men, this one focuses on society at large. For instance, the program shows how the marginalization of gay and bisexual men leads to lower self-esteem; in turn, lower self-esteem contributes to problems such as alcohol and substance abuse, which can result in risky behavior.

“We’re asking straight people to look at themselves and how their behavior is affecting other people. We are challenging them to step up,” says Kofi Short, the program’s coordinator.

“We’re trying to change the context,” Hollander explains. “We’re not asking gay people to change their behavior, we’re expecting straight people to change.”

The project’s architects ultimately decided to frame its messaging within personal stories of acceptance and love, because those stories resonate universally in a way that statistics never could. Campaign participants say the experience of sharing their bonds of family and friendship have made those bonds even deeper.

“We’ve always been close as a family, but, if anything, we got even closer” by participating in Acceptance Journeys, says Kingston Lenard.

“It took us to another level of support,” Grace says. “It really sparked some sweet conversations. Not only were family members saying they support us, they showed it by being a part of this project, which is really, really special.”

Working on the project has also deepened Kingston Lenard’s commitment to equality. “I’m feeling a lot better about the movement and getting this out to everybody,” he            says. “At the end of the day, everyone is human. I think people will get that message. If it can affect one person, that will be good enough.”

Despite the emotional nature of the campaign, it is based in solid science. CDC researchers plan to evaluate its effectiveness by surveying populations exposed to the Milwaukee campaign concerning their attitudes toward LGBT people. The results will be compared to those of similar surveys conducted in Cleveland and St. Louis, where people will not be exposed to the campaign, Hollander says.

So far, Acceptance Journeys has had an overwhelmingly positive reception in Milwaukee, say its organizers. Presentations are given by pairs, with one LGBT person and a straight ally presenting together. “What we’re doing is modeling that relationship for people,” Short says.

“Most of the places where we present, people ask for more packets,” Grace says.

Can sharing personal stories of loving relationships reduce the stigma – both internalized and societal – that fuels HIV transmission? Can it lead communities to not merely tolerate their LGBT residents but accept them?

Those are audacious goals, but Acceptance Journeys is counting on the universality of love to achieve them.

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