When it comes to combating AIDS, Craig Covey says that education is not enough. That’s why the director of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project (MAPP) founded La Comunidad, a new support group for gay Latino men.
La Comunidad is Spanish for “community.” Covey says that everyone needs to feel a sense of community, but that it is especially critical for marginalized groups.
“People who are alone and solitary and in the closet have higher-risk behavior than people who are part of a community,” explains Covey.
Gay Latino men often must hide their sexuality for fear that their families and community — in which religion and machismo play a strong role — will reject them, he says. Consequently, they are more likely to have anonymous sexual encounters and more likely to contract HIV.
Young Latino men have one of the highest rates of infection in the United States — about 14 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many in the Latino community in Michigan also do not return for HIV-test results. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, last year about 48 percent of Latinos did not return for test results, compared to 46 percent of African-Americans and 23 percent of whites and Asian-Americans.
Covey hopes that La Comunidad will help reduce HIV infection rates among young gay Latin men — and encourage the community as a whole to address this problem.
“There are a million support groups, whether it’s Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or people who want to quit smoking,” says Covey. “People do better when they are part of a group. People alone are not as strong as people together.”
Covey got La Comunidad off the ground after lobbying the state for money; he finally received a grant of $15,000 last summer. He and other MAPP staff then met with about a dozen young gay Latino men.
“We asked them where they party, what radio stations they listen to, are they out of the closet, do they have boyfriends. But basically we listened to what they needed,” he says.
“I may think I know what a community needs, but I’m not a gay Latino man. So our task is to design a program based on what they tell us.”
The first event that resulted from this meeting was at a local dance club last November, which MAPP publicized on the radio and in newspapers. About 100 people from the Hispanic community attended. That same month, Covey hired Mike Flores as the Latino outreach coordinator for La Comunidad. Before Flores was hired, he was a member of the organization. He says he found out about La Comunidad from a friend and attended his first meeting last January.
“I was definitely scared,” says Flores, unsure of what to expect. “Everyone was very welcoming. I felt liberated.”
The group has since held two more events at local clubs with between 100-200 people — Latin men and women — attending.
HIV-prevention literature, condoms and a sign-up sheet are at each event. Flores, who is 20 years old and is earning a bachelor of arts in international business, says that he hopes to establish a steady membership base. Then the group will begin outreach. But it won’t be easy in a community that views homosexuality as a sin, says Flores.
This is not the first time MAPP has faced such challenges.
Religion also has a strong presence in the African-American community — and the nationwide HIV infection rate in that community is about 30 percent among young men. Reaching out to them has also been difficult, says Leon Golson, MAPP program director.
“It goes back to the barriers that have been around a long time, says Golson, who does outreach in the black community. “Religion, homophobia, stigma, discrimination, drugs, alcoholism, self-esteem, all these things people have to deal with, particularly African-American men.”
But Golson says that one of the biggest barriers is the church, which has been slow to admit that there is a problem in the African-American community, much less confront it.
“Until we start getting churches to stop condemning and start embracing and be proactive and help, their gay members will continue to die and they will continue to see a problem with this infection rate,” says Golson.
Bishop Danny Brown of the Shrine of the Black Madonna agrees. His church held a monthlong HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program in March. Brown’s church asked other black churches in Detroit to participate but only three agreed — and then only for a one-day prayer vigil.
“There was a real poor response,” he says.
But none of this discourages Covey from continuing his work. In fact, he plans to take on an even tougher group.
“My next project is to start working with the Arabic community this summer or the following year,” says Covey.
For more information about La Comunidad and other HIV/AIDS support groups call 248-545-1435.Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]