Pride Toronto is proud to announce the first of many honoured positions for the Pride 2022 commemorations. Chosen by our community advisory panel; the Charity of Choice is The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) Canada’s largest organization dedicated to mitigating the impacts of HIV/AIDS on the Caribbean, African, and Black communities.
About Pride 2022 Charity of Choice, Black CAP
Since its founding in 1989, Black CAP has provided culturally relevant outreach, prevention, and support services to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS among Toronto’s Black population and enhance the quality of life for those already living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. As Black people continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS—making up 20% of Ontario cases despite being merely 5% of the province’s population—their experiences are made worse by the stigma, racism, homophobia, and poverty that create inequitable access to essential supports and services. Black CAP works specifically to confront these barriers.
With an approach rooted in anti-oppression and equity, and under the motto “All Black People’s Lives are Important,” Black CAP offers a range of services and programs catered to the identities, experiences and needs of Toronto’s richly diverse Black population. From awareness campaigns and harm reduction programs to newcomer settlement services and peer support groups, Black CAP’s programming is a holistic and expansive response to the Black community’s needs. Over the past 33 years, Black CAP has been able to extend the reach of its mission and mandate thanks to local, provincial, national, and international campaigns and initiatives; purposeful partnerships and collaborations with like-minded organizations; the meaningful involvement of people living with HIV/AIDS; and the tireless commitment of their staff and volunteers who recognize the urgent need for this work. The progress Black CAP has made is remarkable, but the work is far from done.
To learn more about Black CAP’s mission and how you can contribute, visit http://www.blackcap.ca/
My Pride Story
“See my humanity, see me as a person”: BlackCAP’s Gareth Henry on supporting queer, Black, HIV+ communities
“Black people are not dropping dead of HIV and AIDS-related illnesses today. But the racism, homophobia, transphobia and biphobia that exist in our community continue to intensify.”Gareth Henry, BlackCAP
Guided by the motto, Because All Black People’s Lives Are Important, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (BlackCAP) was founded in 1989 to serve HIV+ members of the African, Caribbean, Black (ACB) community in Toronto. Over 30 years later, BlackCAP is this year’s Charity of Choice.
Some feel that HIV/AIDS advocacy and support are no longer needed. According to BlackCAP, that couldn’t be further from the truth. ACB people make up only 1 in 20 of Ontario’s population yet represent 1 in 5 people living with HIV in Ontario. We sat down with BlackCAP Executive Director Gareth Henry, to discuss the ongoing stigma of HIV+ people, employment and housing issues, how that intersects with anti-Black racism, and the need for long-term funding for racialized organizations.
“The struggles are real”: on why BlackCAP’s work is more important than ever
When BlackCAP came onto the scene in 1989, Henry hadn’t yet come to Canada from Jamaica. But he has no doubt as to why the organization was formed at that time. “I can only imagine how horrible it would have been for gay men back in the early 90s. Black people were dying of HIV,” says Henry. “BlackCAP was formed to deal with the stigma of homophobia, being HIV+ and being Black. A diverse group of community members came together to respond to a need and support their brothers and sisters in a time of crisis.”
33 years later, the organization is still standing tall. And although the issues facing queer, HIV+ Black people today are similar to when BlackCAP was founded, Henry points to one vital difference. “Black people are not dropping dead of HIV and AIDS-related illnesses today. That’s the only startling difference,” explains Henry. “But the struggles are real. The racism, homophobia, transphobia and biphobia that exist in our community continue to intensify.”
But why have HIV issues have taken a backseat, even within the queer community? “Even though there is a decrease in the national number of new infections in Canada, there is an increase among racialized communities,” explains Henry. These days, the focus is on U = U (Undetectable = Untransmittable), PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and other medical technologies designed to minimize the spread of HIV, and prolong the lives of HIV+ people. But none of these matter when queer, ACB folks face serious health equity and access issues.
“Many Black people are dealing with internalized stigma. People feel guilty, because the social determinants of health are not being factored in. When I tell someone to pop a pill to avoid infecting someone else, it’s next to impossible for them. We work with a large immigrant population. They’ve been on the outs, they can’t afford medications,” explains Henry. “For a lot of folks who live outside of the safer downtown core, it’s a different reality for them dealing with HIV.”
“The price is trading our dignity, self-respect and honour”: on health equity issues faced by queer, HIV+, ACB people
When queer, ACB folks encounter the health care system, Henry points to several troubling issues. “When they first walk in, they are often misgendered. And it doesn’t set the tone for the services that you’re going to receive. They treat you as a man, because your ID says that you’re a man. There is no graciousness in that engagement. There is a lack of understanding and appreciation of the person who is standing in front of them,” explains Henry. “They’re stigmatized and treated differently. They’re ashamed to go to hospitals to access services.”
Health care workers often take a condescending tone, lecturing queer ACB people for the choices they have made. Between such scoldings, and the fact that many community members don’t have extended health benefits, many people simply give up. For Henry, this speaks to the myth of free health care in Canada.
“There’s a huge price that many ACB people pay. And that’s the price of trading in our dignity, self-respect and honour. A lot of people experience significant trauma when dealing with the health care system, which can lead to severe mental health issues,” says Henry. “Older ACB folks in particular struggle with mental health. Healthcare workers may think, ‘What is this old man doing with HIV?’ The list goes on and on.”
And queer, ACB youth don’t have it any better. “Black folks in Canada have to face a system that is based on white culture, and caters primarily to white people. Some ACB youth recently did a project exploring the fact that they don’t access health care systems, because they don’t feel safe or comfortable.”
Henry recalls his own fears about the health care system when he first came to Canada in 2008. His HIV medication had run out, and he had to find a doctor. “I was afraid to engage because I didn’t how I would be received here in Canada. I had already gone through that process in Jamaica, of coming out as a gay man and experiencing trauma and stigma. I didn’t know whether the doctors would be friendly, it was difficult to navigate.”
Henry spent years advocating for queer rights in Jamaica before coming to Canada, and he arrived here with more privilege than some. “If I felt that way, what about my brothers and sisters who don’t have those kinds of connections? Navigating that process is terrifying for so many people,” says Henry. “That’s why we exist. And that’s why we’re working to change and respond to the needs of our community. After 30 plus years, BlackCAP is still a necessity for Black people in Toronto.”
Ultimately, many community members see the health care system as an active threat to their health and well-being. Unless its urgent, they will avoid the system at all costs. When you add substance use to the mix, the stigma deepens. “People turn to substances because there’s a sense of hopelessness, feeling alone and social isolation. And the health care system treats them like nobodies.”
“The system is rigged against us from the onset”: on the struggle of getting funding
For BlackCAP, decreasing interest in queer, Black, HIV issues isn’t just a community awareness problem. It also makes it harder to get funding. “There is an ongoing lack of funding for Black organizations like us, that do the work that we do. With COVID, we saw different crisis overlays that disproportionately affected Black bodies. And that’s telling,” notes Henry. “The system is rigged against us from the onset. The support that we get is geared towards keeping us just right where we are, with our heads barely above water so we don’t drown.”
Henry looked on, as the Canadian government spent millions on anti-Black racism and COVID initiatives over the last two and a half years. “What do we get as a racialized organization that works with a diverse population, which heavily speaks to LGBTQS communities? About $250,000.”
To get those funds, organizations have jump through hoop after hoop, making it difficult for small organizations like BlackCAP to access these resources. With waning interest in supporting HIV+ people and frequently changing government priorities, Henry fears that their funding will suffer.
Unfortunately, many funders are unaware of the many issues that combine to make queer, Black people with HIV particularly vulnerable. “What about Toronto housing prices that disproportionately affect LGBTQ youths? They come out and they want to be their authentic selves. But their families turn against them, and you find them on the streets of Toronto,” says Henry. “There are issues with substance use and harm reduction. Trans people have such a hard time finding employment, and many in our community are food insecure.”
Although practical supports are badly needed, it is these nuances that are often overlooked by funders and policymakers. “We have some funding, but it is often short-term. It always worries us when the funding cycle ends.” Even when their programs are clearly meeting a need and making a big impact in the community, shifting funding priorities are out of their hands. “As a racialized organization, it’s believed that we can build our own stability. But when we rely on funding, there’s very little that we can do.”
“Is it really all Black lives that matter?”: on the lived experience of being queer, ACB and HIV+
For non-Black members of the queer community who are not HIV+, it’s difficult to appreciate how the layers of discrimination pile up. And with so many queer community members feeling that their identity is the most oppressed, Henry calls for a more humane approach. “The piece that we’ve missed is seeing our humanity. Seeing people for people and stripping away all the labels that have been assigned to us. We talk a lot about racism and colonialism, and that’s often how we deal with each other. Remember what the white master did,” Henry notes. “The brown slaves were housekeepers, the black slaves were in the fields. They created that. We still struggle to navigate through these pieces. I wish that we could just honor each other as we pass each other by, as we engage with each other.”
These systems of oppression and colonization are still with us today. And as Henry observes, the systems are designed for us to behave in exactly this way. “There is a lot of baggage, and so many labels that we have inherited, and that have been imposed on us by the system. If we dwell there, and if we function from that place, we will be more harmful to each other. We have to choose to do the right thing – treating each other with respect and dignity.”
BlackCAP has engaged with many Black organizations who do not serve queer folks. Unfortunately, they are not always well-respected. Henry recalls when he and his Board sat down with a group of such Black organizations about a year and a half ago. “We were the only organization at that table that deals with ‘those people’. It was so sad that at that Black table, BlackCAP was referred to as the ‘the AIDS people’. My Board directors were called ‘the AIDS people’, by Black leaders in Toronto who are actually leading black organizations.”
For Henry, these experiences put a different spin on Black advocacy campaigns. “They say, Black lives matter. But is it really all Black lives that matter? We’re all Black people. But for people who are queer, trans, HIV+ or who use substances, they’re not open to that.”
As the BlackCAP motto notes, all Black people’s lives are important. And this is an important distinction. “We know better than to say, ‘Black lives matter’. Because we want to be more inclusive. These nuances, even within our own community, can be problematic. We can see the gaps and divides that have been established. LGBTQS Black bodies continue to fight to say that our lives also matter. And we shouldn’t have to.”
“Providing practical, tangible support to Black people at a time when we need it the most”: on current BlackCAP priorities
These days, BlackCAP programming is focused on supporting trans people and youth to find safe and meaningful employment. Although they just lost funding to hire trans staff, they are actively building relationships with trans communities and creating safe spaces. “We want to create capacity-building programs for trans folks at BlackCAP, where they learn some skills to get real work done.” They have recently brought on youth to work full-time work at BlackCAP, in areas including harm reduction and youth engagement.
To address the significant mental health issues in the community, they are building a team of psychotherapists who can provide respectful support. “Getting mental health services tends to be challenging, and there’s a very long wait list for counseling. We want to expand the project so that the community can access safe, non-judgmental sessions that are paid for.”
BlackCAP also has an Emergency Support Program where ACB folks can call, engage, and get support to address food insecurity. “These are the programs that excite me the most right now, because they provide practical, tangible support to Black people at a time when we need it the most.”
“We see the need on a daily basis, and we are overwhelmed”: on what keeps BlackCAP fighting and advocating
33 years after BlackCAP came into existence, the work is not done. What keeps their hard-working staff fighting and advocating for the rights of queer, ACB individuals? “We have a lot of rights on paper. But these things are done by the stroke of a pen, and can be undone by the stroke of a pen. The most important piece that needs to happen consistently, is to work on people’s social consciousness, awareness, attitudes and behavior towards the LGBTQ community, and more so towards Black people and Black bodies.”
“I’m not seeing the horizon – and that keeps us going,” Henry adds. “Black bodies continue to be disproportionately affected. When that is further unpacked, we realize that trans, LGBTQ folks and HIV+ people continue to be more impacted within our community. It tells us that there’s a lot to do. We see the need on a daily basis, and we are overwhelmed.”
BlackCAP continues to educate the community on why HIV issues are more important than ever. “People sometimes say, ‘Its 30 years on, people aren’t dying anymore.’ We consistently have to say to our funders and to society, people are living longer with HIV and they need to be well. We have to respond to the other social issues that our communities are confronting on a daily basis. The monster of anti-Black racism just isn’t going away.”
Henry reminds us that such issues are really what Pride is all about. “Marching is a form of protest. It’s an opportunity to talk about the systems that need to change, and how to better respond to the needs of Black and racialized LGBTQS folks. It’s a chance for us to bond and stand tall with each other,” says Henry. “Yonge Street will be filled with thousands of people. I wish that I had a magic wand, to make everyone understand that the Pride parade is not only about a show. It’s about a stance that we’re taking. We are taking up space, and space that we have a right to take up.”
When Henry came to Canada in 2008, he was the International Grand Marshall at Pride. The entire front of the parade was Black that year – and he hasn’t seen that since. In the six subsequent Pride parades that Henry has attended, he has noticed that Black and racialized people are often at the back. When he walks through the Street Fair, he sees AIDS organizations put off to the side. “We’re reached a point where people don’t want to talk about it. But we have to talk about it because it’s real. For racialized people, it is an issue. For white folks, it isn’t. We need to give the issue of HIV center stage within our own community.”
Henry feels that we need to take a step back, and ask ourselves what we’re really marching for. “I’ve seen how commercialized Pride has become. But we have to intentionally center the work. What is our core? Why are we here? Make that the center of Pride, so that when you walk on Church St, it is clear why this is happening.”
Henry is looking forward to Global Black Pride in Toronto this July, and the opportunity to openly discuss systemic issues affecting queer, Black folks. But at Pride itself, BlackCAP will be celebrating the theme proudly different, beautifully diverse. “We need to be very proud about being different. It’s a beautiful thing to honor and lift each other up in best way possible, and look beyond being HIV+, an immigrant and a Black man. See my humanity, see me as a person. Honour this body, so that we can then support each other.”
As for Henry, he is committed to using his platform to talk about his own struggles as a Black, HIV+, gay man. “Yes, I have some privilege because of my work and social status. But I’m in service to community because my community needs me. I challenge my fellow activists – let’s be out there. Let’s be bold, firm, strong, agents of change. But first, we have to centre the cause. And if we don’t do that, the work will happen, but only on the sidelines.”
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My Pride Story written by: Anna-Liza Badaloo (she/her) is a writer and consultant working at the intersection of health, environment and social justice.