Black and Latino LGBT Organizations: Members, Leaders, Drama and Poverty, Part 1 by Kyle Phoenix

            In the course of my work, I get asked to do a lot of things: appearances, interviews, workshops and recently for the third time I was asked by a small organization to do something that I focus more in my business educational work, strategic assessment and planning for an organization.  In particular this was a Black and Latino LGBT organization.  My experience is over ten years working, volunteering, teaching and administrating at such agencies but my wider business focus includes another life spent with an MBA, being a financial analyst, a business consultant and a securities litigation paralegal.  Bringing all of that skill and knowledge to bear I’ll finally break my silence and discuss the demise of the Black and Latino LGBT agencies and more importantly what can be done in an organization to avert that.

            First off, for definitions sake, I’ll admit that I’ve worked or  I’ve dealt with a range of organizations  that would fall within the following categories:
·        Grassroots: less than $250,000 as an annual budget.
·        Micro: less than $2 million as an annual budget.
·        Small: less than $5 million as an annual budget.
·        Medium: less than $50 million as an annual budget
·        Large: less than $125 million as an annual budget.

            As an opening caveat I will say that in the interest of professionalism, I can’t divulge complete information but I will use pseudonyms and combine multiple sized and similar agencies where necessary to protect the innocent, not give spotlight to the woefully guilty and not harass the dumb.  As an opening salvo I will say that one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever heard about Black and Latino LGBT organizations is that they are “…often run by hairdressers who become Executive Directors”.  This comment was made by an Executive Director, his hubris and managerial incompetence somewhere between legendary and shameful.   Though I do honestly believe that at one point he did care---then them checks started rolling in with his name on it and that credit card arrived that allowed him to charge flights to and fro and rub shoulders with a few celebrated people and have autographed pictures on his desk. You’d be surprised how many Executive Directors name drop their own acquaintanceships.  I think it comes from the nature of being the leader of a non-profit, you’re always trumpeting your agency to others---there is often a point though where the cause, the organization and the individual become unhealthily interchangeable.

            This comment was made by a leader of one that ironically suffers from massive internal problems.  But it’s stuck with me as an accurate assessment and so in spite of its internalized homophobia; I like this statement though because it will accurately answer a lot of the systemic issues and the possible course for re-invigoration.
            The first problem all categories of the agencies suffer from is twofold: the CDC and society.
            In the past decade, the CDC has consistently lowered the monies it disperses out for funding for HIV related programming from an initial large increment of $5 billion annually to be distributed in grants to organizations, to now less than $3 billion.  While the resource has decreased in size the need has increased because of societal forces.  The particular societal forces that I would offer to Black/Latino LGBT organizations that their clients/membership deal with are poverty, homelessness, unemployment, lack of appropriate education, lack of mental health treatment, lack of social support for sexuality, lack of relationship skills and lack of financial management skills.  Statistically, using the demographic of African American and Latino males, regardless of sexuality in the United States, the current numbers are that 40% of AA and 55% of Latinos are in permanent, generational poverty.  What is meant by this is that they earn less than $20,000 a year; have a  high school education or less; and therefore have greater health risks (HIV, AIDS, heart disease, diabetes, syphilis, Hepatitis C) than the other 60% to 45%.
            I can testify that this is pretty accurate, if not higher in the overall estimation of the effected populace numbers.  Many men of color come from poverty and carry with them habituated behaviors that reflect and reverberate those of their kith in poverty.  Unfortunately in the 21st century, a non-heterosexual identity for men of color seems to be make or break for them, I’ve observed.  The compounded pressures, ostracism and stigmatization of racism and homophobia from their own internal communities and the larger external (other and White) communities, takes out at least half of the MSM population, knocking them into a varying forms of social, emotion, educational, economic and health poverty.  For the purposes here I’m using a broader definition of poverty than simply financial---I’m using it as a lack of mental, emotional, social, mentoring, support systems, educational systems plus perhaps financial, health, etc..  When I say a client is in poverty---I’m directly saying that they have severe lacks in several of those areas and need intervention or are beyond intervention.  I would easily argue though that since Emancipation this has been the state of men of color and that immigration doesn’t shield other Latinos brothers from these ramifications either, it simply gestates for them in their own way.
            Therefore to the CDC the challenges just inherent in the funding stream and the client base are pretty big for any organization dedicated to helping LGBT men of color.   Ironically, because until one graduates to a Medium or Large Organization, the organizations are often run by those from the pool of potential clients who suffer from the poverty ills of their racial, cultural and ethnic group, they are consigning themselves to a form of intentional suicide.  And this is important; many impoverished clients become staff in these organizations---which is tremendously good and tremendously bad.  It’s good because who else could understand and sympathize with the client base better than a compatriot?  It’s bad because following our percentage paradigm, if 40% to 75% of the populations of men to pick from are infused in some forms of poverty, then immediately an organization is infected with the very ills it seeks to redress.  The CDC’s monies put into the organizations hands to cure ills unfortunately has a chance of falling into the hands of the most ill to administrate.
            It might seem judgmental to see organizations that are ostensibly committed to helping men of color through such a critical light but over the years I’ve discovered that HIV has eroded the basis for an organization being a real help to a community.  Since most of the funding comes from the CDC or private grantors to do HIV testing and HIV programming very little outside of that paradigm occurs.  All of the monies are geared towards HIV testing, HIV programming, HIV interventions, HIV care and HIV preventative programming.  However the communities whose numbers are increasing in HIV infection are still historically plagues with issue around racism, financial disparity, employment shortages, educational lacks, social skill impediments, relational skill impediments.  It’s as if  the CDC is constantly and consistently buying blankets and chicken soup for all of the flu infected residents of a house where the windows are never closed, rain and snow come through the holes in the rooftops and the administrators of the home, rush to the front door---tell the CDC that everything is fine, snatch the check and slam the door.  All that is required are audits financially and programmatically to the CDC of how their money was spent and what the outcomes of testing and programming were.  The CDC’s defense is of course that numbers have dropped, can’t drop any further, won’t drop any further and they too are under the pressure of a government that is constantly undermining their funding (and they have other health issues to manage.)  A perfect storm of moral midgetry is set up.

            While one can argue that this level of management is necessary it also has two negative effects upon the community.  It passively creates an environment where unless you’re HIV+, you don’t receive premium services because the bulk and quality of funding is not to HIV- men.  If all of the available programming then focuses on HIV prevention, all of the food, all of the cash, all of the transportation cards go to servicing the HIV+ programming first, you lose the physically one, and perhaps in other ways, healthy men of color as a base.  If one kind of group is a larger percentage than another, whatever norms, even if their norms are abnormal, become the norm of the group.  HIV- men having no use for constant repetitious programming about HIV infection leave, and return less and less because the group no longer speaks to them.  If however they need support systems in their struggle with poverty, their only option is to return HIV+.  Several of my clients over the years have gone out and become HIV+ on purpose because of the benefits to being so.  

Logically I know that if I can point to handful or a dozen men over the years, that group can be multiplied hundreds of times over.  Is then the explosion of HIV infections among men of color more to do with their need for services than a misunderstanding or irresponsibility around HIV infection prevention?  Is the failure of LGBT organizations of color not only their self-management but their attention to what byproduct they’re creating in their zealous pursuit of HIV funding?   
            Then wouldn’t the first point become an organization recognizing the needs of men of color as a community, alongside their sexuality?  To my experience, it’s understood and ignored for the goal of the organization: CDC funding.  (And the reasoning behind the CDC funding hunger is because it was historically easy to obtain.  No longer.  But we’ll get to that irony later.)  The CDC money becomes tantamount to manna from Heaven with little regard from the outcome of the addiction to manna and the problems singular source funding incurs.

Part II
            First I’ll share my experiences as a client, an employee and the leadership demands both demanded.
            I discovered several agencies pretty much within the same year.  I’d returned to New York City after working in another state directly after college.  I’d thrown myself into my career and for several years, went out occasionally to private parties, nightclubs and professional gatherings but had never engaged an LGBT organization of color specifically.  (I’d maintained a light membership in a couple prior to school and in school but found that I was always the racial demographic and therefore found it uncomfortable.)  A close friend moved out of town and I realized that I wanted to maintain having a close male friend of color so I started looking for an LGBT group of color to join.  I found a handful and adjusting my schedule, I soon began attend meetings of several.  Immediately in one group I was approached by an older man (I was in my twenties) and he started to explain the group and its purpose to me.  Since it was a cool summer night we left the meeting place, took a leisurely stroll---and it soon became apparent that one, he was hitting on me…excessively and two, he had allowed me to believe he was in a leadership position in the organization but wasn't.  I rebuffed him but returned for more meetings.

            I share the above because later as an employee for an LGBT organization that was the main complaint of my youth (under 25) male charges as to why they avoided that organization: the older men immediately pounced on fresh meat so they as a mass had passed the word informally to avoid the organization except in crisis level need.  I found that this was the thought around two other organizations as well---that men were unfettered socially so that even if one went there hoping to meet a nice guy to perchance date, you were pounced on so fast that you didn’t even get a chance to breathe or ascertain who you were interested in.  Going deeper into the social aspect of the problem, myself and others were able to discuss the issue and expand it in some ways into a level of programming into workshops. My colleagues and I  realized from the persistently resistant to boundaries and decorum, that the LGBT males of color “community” had no concept of limitations and therefore acted inappropriately.  What this meant was that one the community itself wasn’t learning and growing and policing itself.  It was existing yes, throwing parties, discussing its issues but it wasn’t maturing.  However you couldn’t throw a stick twenty feet without being invited to the propagated CDC HIV programming like Many Men, Many Voices.  (I’ve attended 3 as a client and run countless ones as a facilitator.)

            Normally in a community when values and mores are challenged the community enforces or deliberates and answers what the standards are, whether that’s as a mass or as a small group of less than a hundred.  Unfortunately one of the most grievous errors of all LGBT organizations is that in a form a pity-allowance, unhealthy mentalities are allowed to flourish in an attempt to create a “safe space” for men who have been marginalized.  When one tries to placate someone like a victim by abdicating rules or guidelines for behavior, then those offended or emotionally assaulted, flee.  Flight had become my decision when I was invited to take on a more leadership role, to facilitate, to be part of the change that a few were trying to institute.  Had I not been perhaps bored, not deeply focused on anything else, lived so nearby and genuinely had made friends in the groups, I might’ve simply walked away.

            However years later I can tell you that men of color are now fleeing based on the programming being repetitive to one specific thought and if they stay the values and mores of the community are dicey at best.  I’d personally found that there had been a culminating program around HIV, taught by a great facilitator and looking around at the weekly meetings, the clientele (many HIV+ or in a state or poverty) I didn’t see a future for myself there.  I expressed this to one of the coordinators and he agreed and came up with a unique solution: what if we tried to change that?  If I was willing, he was and we would focus on seeking out materials, creating a true democratic safe space and minimizing excessive repetitive programming that was done just for CDC dollars.  We did for awhile, a year and then so inspired by the workshops we’d created and their message and self-empowerment and actualization, he quit his job to follow his passion.  I stayed on for several years there as well as floating through other organizations, trying to find a community “home”.

            I found in many organizations that not being HIV+ was a detriment to my own advancement professionally and socially, to my becoming one of the inner circle; that coupled with racial colorism, where I, medium toned to my eyes, too light to others and extensive education, was minimized, ostracized because I just wasn’t…impoverished enough.  When the problem becomes that you’ve volunteered to serve within an organization (or been hired) and the staff nor clientele can’t find, other than superficial, a crack in your foundation, you begin to think you’re insane.  

I lived on my own, dated (neither from the client base nor from the staff and their peripheral friends) and lastly, had an extensive education that only the folly of idealism could explain my willful choice to be involved with them, I was branded untrustworthy, perhaps even an elitist, a dilettante.  The untrustworthiness stemmed from the fact that I often disagreed with the practices of immorality and lack of integrity on staff and client’s parts.  I’ve noticed looking back on that decade, which inspired me to jot down this article and others, that there was a distinctive lack of morality in the places I was at.  Each agency I would work for or volunteer at to some degree expressed a racial self hatred through a lack of integrity around finances, programming, sexuality, etc..  Even when the purported to being racially consciousness, they weren’t---that organization crumbled under a bonfire of the vanities, in two leaders who both wanted to be center stage and in the spotlight.  And the Diana Ross and Mary Wells on stage battle commenced.

What kind of leaders are then needed to manage, direct and steward organizations that are filled with such diverse human egos, race, sexuality, fragmented identities and financial challenges?  I'll cover that in Part II!

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Kyle Phoenix, 2014
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