Leaders of Today

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RECENTLY I HAD BEEN struggling with my career decision, doubting whether or not the work I am doing is affecting change. There are few young African American men who have sex with men (MSM) in Columbus who are in key positions in the field of HIV prevention, policy and advocacy or who have a desire to mobilize the African American MSM community. I often felt alone and without support in my struggle, but all that changed on April 2 when I became part of the Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative (YBGLI). I dedicate this column to them.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced an alarming 48 percent increase of new HIV cases among young African American MSM between the ages of 13 – 29. As a result, the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition assembled five dynamic young gay leaders to strategize to address the need for increased peer-based community mobilization and activism in combatting the HIV epidemic. In the spring of 2012 the five leaders created the YBGLI.

The initiative is led by an organizing committee of  young black men who have sex with men (YBMSM) under the age of 30 with professional backgrounds in research, community mobilization, policy and advocacy. Membership consists of young African American gay, bisexual, and/or same gender loving men from different areas of the country. The initiative’s mission is to address the issues disproportionately affecting their peers, particularly related to HIV prevention, care and treatment, through leadership mobilization and policy efforts.

In 2012 the YBGLI hosted its first Policy and Advocacy Summit in Washington, D.C. Fifty-three African American MSM came together to discuss the HIV/AIDS epidemic and different ways they could contribute to the fighting it and to address other disparities within the MSM of color community. Members also participated in discussions on research, policy, advocacy, leadership, health disparities and mobilization.

I applied to and was accepted to attend the recent 2014 YBGLI Policy and Advocacy Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. The summit was one of the most inspiring, motivating and educational experiences in my life. I was surrounded by like-minded men who shared the same passion I have for mobilizing YBMSM to become mentally, physically and emotionally empowered. It was so refreshing since it was so different from what I have experienced in Columbus or in Ohio.

This year’s summit also included 58 of the most passionate and determined YBMSM. We were chosen to be a part of the summit based on the work they were doing and the potential we had to become better leaders within their communities. We gathered to discuss HIV/AIDS, policy, advocacy, Obamacare, the African American church and homosexuality, stigma and ways we can mobilize our communities. To be able to be in a room with so many diverse and inspiring men was simply amazing.

From the moment I stepped onto the plane to Atlanta, I knew my life would change. Prior to attending the summit, I was struggling with the fact that there are very few African American MSM who are open about their sexuality to look up to as leaders in Columbus, and I was continuously looking for others like myself who I can look up to for advice, affirmation and lean on for support. I now know that I am not alone. It is empowering to have a group of supporters throughout the nation who I can call on and look up to. I no longer struggle; instead, I am stepping up to be one of the few YBMSM leaders in my community. My passion for the work I do was reignited by the summit and I left knowing that the work I am doing is needed and supported. No matter what challenges that I have or will face, I will never give up.

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