The History of the White Attire Affair
Soon after my arrival, I had a brief chance to interview Abdur-Rahim Briggs, founder of the Affair and Board Director of the Al Sura Foundation. Over the din of the mingling VIP reception crowd, we discussed the origins of the event, its recent hiatus in 2008 and its future trajectory.
After his twin-brother, Mark, tested positive for HIV in 1997, Briggs felt compelled to bring the African-American community together both to increase awareness of this mounting scourge among black gay and bisexual men and raise funds to support local organizations doing work in this area.
As such, the first White Attire Affair was held in Briggs' backyard in 1999 and designated Us Helping Us as the sole beneficiary. It continued as an annual barbeque event until 2001, at which time Briggs teamed up with producer, Alvin B. King, of KING & I Productions. Under the auspices of the UMMAH Endowment Fund and King's direction, from 2002 until 2007 the White Attire Affair enjoyed a period of exponential growth that elevated it to a level of national recognition. By the summer of its ninth year, the event was attended by thousands of mostly LGBT African Americans.
But by that time, the mission of the White Attire Affair had long strayed from what Briggs had originally intended. Somehow it had morphed into a glitzy, megawatt production that he felt paid lip service to the issues it supported and gave back far too little to the community it sought to strengthen in the face of such a terrible epidemic. He knew something had to change.
Ron Simmons, a friend of Briggs and Executive Director of Us Helping Us, also recognized that something was awry, confiding in him that a change in leadership was long past due. He offered some harsh criticism, in a 2007 Washington Blade article, of what he felt the event had become:
"I don't believe that it really helps us," Simmons [said] about the Affair's work for black men with HIV. "You put on an event that costs close to a quarter million dollars and when the smoke clears, the agency gets $10,000, and the people who are promoting it get the same. It sounds like a business partnership."
Saturday evening, Briggs recounted the fateful conversation he had with Simmons in 2007, in which he was advised that the Affair had lost its way by shifting its focus away from a grass-roots campaign that raised awareness around HIV/AIDS among local gay and bisexual black men towards a large scale social marketing event with a diluted message and purpose.
According to Simmons, the root of the problem among black men who have sex with men (MSM) was not solely their departure from safer sex practices; rather, it was the loss of affirmation that their lives were worth protecting. Otherwise, he argued, if black gay men don't care or have pride in who they are, it doesn't matter whether they know how to protect themselves or not. Taking heed of Simmons' advice and with his blessing, Briggs set out to relaunch the White Attire Affair under a new organization with a new mission, again enlisting the help of producer, Alvin B. King.
After a year hiatus in 2008, during which Briggs "cleaned house" in order to set the organization back on the right track, the White Attire Affair was reborn on Saturday under the aegis of the newly formed entity, Al Sura, literally meaning "new chapter" in Arabic.
Although the first era of the Affair was dedicated to Briggs' brother, Mark; this time it would be in honor of Briggs' close friend, Patrick Kahozi, who had recently passed away. Additionally, Al Sura Foundation's new web-based research forum for HIV/AIDS-urban related studies, the S. Patrick Kahozi Institute, was named in his honor.
Aptly, the phoenix, a symbol that adorns the Al Sura website and is synonymous with new beginnings and rebirth, was visible throughout the evening, as a reminder of the White Attire Affair's new chapter and mission to refocus and recommit its efforts to promote HIV/AIDS awareness within the African-American community. And if Saturday night's success is any indication, its new management team can rest assured that Al Sura will certainly be successful in this mission.
The 2009 Affair was a true celebration of black gay culture, bringing it out of the darkness and shining on it a bright white light of affirmation. It was a firm step in the direction of turning the tide on the skyrocketing incidence of HIV, reflecting Al Sura's four core values of integrity, trust, connection and cultural awareness, most critical to this effort.
Briggs certainly got it right this time around in his charge to "recommit [Al Sura's] journey to the cause of HIV." With great emotion and enthusiasm he quoted Barack Obama, saying that "If there's any doubt that God is with us in this House; well tonight, here's your answer."
And I'd have to agree. Although I haven't attended a recent White Attire Affair for comparison, I would imagine that whatever was lost in years past seemed quite palpable in that moment and set the stage for a fantastic evening ahead and hope for the future of black gay and bisexual men in DC.
The Affair began with a lavish VIP reception from 7-9pm, at which new and old friends, many from the HIV prevention community, were able to socialize before heading up to the main event, on the roof-top of the host building.
The VIP reception was held in an elegantly decorated private courtyard and included live music from two very talented up-and-coming performers - the eclectic and soothing sounds of Nhojj, followed by the vibrant and soulful melodies of Sylver Logan Sharpe.
After his set, I had a quick moment to interview Nhojj to find out his motivation for performing at the Affair.
Having grown up in Guyana, Nhojj moved to New York City to study economics at NYU, and felt drawn to stay there for fifteen years, in part, due to its embrace of cultural and sexual diversity - something he found lacking in his home country. Nhojj lost two close friends to HIV/AIDS, which inspired him to come down from New York to "donate his talents" to the Affair. On the heels of releasing his fourth studio album, Soul Comfort, this Out Music Award nominee, was happy to support this worthwhile cause that promotes acceptance within the gay and bisexual black community - what drew him to stay in this country in the first place.
Rounding off the list of special guests was the author, M.W. Moore, who recently completed a semi-autobiographical trilogy about his life as an NCAA track star, model, and college graduate who turned to a life of crime that landed him in prison for six years. His struggles with his HIV status and sexuality that drove down this path, make his powerful story particularly relevant to the theme of the Affair. He began writing his story in 1997, while incarcerated.
The three novels, For What I Hate I Do, Internal Chaos, and most recently, An About Face, "detail the conflicts, consequences of sexual addictions, drug binges and imprisonment suffered by Moore, who grew up in a respectable middle-class community." He was present to sign books and answer questions about his life, in effort to help young black men avoid the pitfalls he encountered.
Back up on the roof-top, the DJ spun some smooth beats while a warm breeze wafted in from the Potomac. The bright glow of the near-by stadium lights energized the night sky, as models donning the latest in avant-guard fashion from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and DC, sexily sauntered through the the crowd.
A Theme of Inclusiveness
In the words of Rahim Briggs, the White Attire Affair is far more than a fundraiser; it's a celebration of the past year's growth in the HIV prevention community and progress made in the fight against HIV/AIDS within DC and the African American community, in particular.
As part of this celebration, Al Sura presented four awards to two individuals and two organizations in recognition of their work on HIV/AIDS in the community.
The first award recipient of the night was Christopher Barnhill, a care advocate for MetroTEEN AIDS, which also received one of the organizational awards this year. Barnhill received the volunteer award for his courageous commitment to educating his community about how to live a healthy life with HIV. His mother died of AIDS when he was quite young. At 16 years old, he took a test to find he was also HIV positive, and soon after learned that he had been positive since birth. Raised by his step-mother and grandmother, Barnhill "feels rich" now having lived 22 years with the disease, and fulfilled in his life's work - his "purpose."
Earlier in the evening, I noticed an elderly woman sitting quietly in the corner. When asked why she had come, she replied with a beaming smile, "...because of my grandson. I'm so proud of him."
Not long after, Grandma Boyd presented her grandson, Barnhill, with the Al Sura volunteer award. Standing alongside Christopher's step-mother, she reminded the audience of the importance of including everyone in the fight against AIDS. Her simple but profound statement spoke volumes of the need for us to push each other to be open and honest with ourselves and not discount each other's willingness to show compassion to fight this disease. It was one of the highlights of the evening.
Ron Simmons presented the lifetime achievement award to Bishop Rainey Cheeks, founder of Us Helping Us and Inner Light Ministry Church - a safe haven for LGBT African Americans in DC. Bishop Cheeks, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1982, spoke eloquently about the effect HIV has had in his community and the state of the crisis today. "HIV isn't asking of the church anything that it shouldn't already be doing," he said. "My mission this year is to get the church to stop just talking about HIV and start doing something." He continued by challenging churches in DC to begin services each Sunday by reading HIV statistics and providing resources and information for people to get tested or seek treatment.
In line with the evening's theme of inclusiveness, Briggs presented the final award of the evening to Transgender Health Empowerment (T.H.E.) along with a $10,000 check of funds raised that evening. Briggs enthusiastically declared the importance of including their transgender brothers and sisters, saying "they are part of our family and will no longer be ignored."
Brian Watson received the award and check on behalf of the organization and spoke of the significance of choosing to include the transgender community, which has for too long been marginalized. He said the generous donation would go to support the Wanda Alston House of T.H.E., serving all LGBT youth in need.
At face value, the White Attire Affair might appear to be just another swanky fundraiser for a disproportionately afflicted niche population, in this case black gay and bisexual men. But after a short time, I realized how wrong that cursory assessment was. Young and old, black and white, positive and negative - a grandmother, a musician from Guyana, a drag queen, an NCAA track star-turned-criminal-turned-author - the rich lives and stories of those infected and affected by HIV in this diverse community was boundless. As one of a handful of white people attending the event, I could have felt awkward or out of place; but that was never the case, as I felt nothing but welcome and part of this community.
A Look Forward
As I left the Affair later in the evening, I was struck by the resilience of this community in the face of such a devastating epidemic. The community of gay and bisexual men has already been through so much over the past few decades; but black men, in particular, are swiftly becoming the most disproportionately affected among us.
A recent Washington Post artilce details the devastation the HIV is having on the nation's African-American community, especially among young black MSM.
Although only 12 percent of the US population is comprised of blacks, they account for 46 percent of those living with HIV/AIDS and 45 percent of the 56,300 estimated new infections that occur each year. In 2006, 10,445 or 18.55 percent of the estmated new incidence occurred among black MSM.
In particular, Kevin Fenton, of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC, said that young black MSM aged 13-29 account for more new HIV infections than any other age or racial group of MSM. With 6.5 of all black men testing HIV positive in the District, MSM make up the lion's share of the black community's cases, accoridng to the DC HIV/AIDS Epidemiology Update Report 2008.
By the end of this year, the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance (NHBS) report should be out, depending on when the mayor's office releases it to the public. The next NHBS report will focus on MSM; and it's my guess, it will be reveal some pretty sobering statistics, especially within the African American community. But I have faith that with Al Sura's rebirth as an organization committed to empowering black men of DC and the HIV/AIDS organizations that serve them to confront this epidemic head-on, black men will come to more fully embrace their lives and sexualities with a new-found fervor of integrity, trust, connectedness, and cultural awareness. And this will mark the beginning of the end for HIV.
Already, Al Sura has set its course to walk the walk. In its first year, it has charged its members to:
- Sponsor Leadership Trainings and Conferences: We seek to train a new generation of HIV/AIDS activists to become public advocates and change agents within their own communities.
- Research and Publish White Papers on HIV/AIDS: We seek to provide deeper insight into the multiple urban issues of health and social justice issues as the relate to Black communities and HIV/AIDS.
- Engage in Coalition Building: We seek to connect ethnic/racial minority groups together along with their yet to be discovered allies in a cohesive strategy to end HIV/AIDS.
- Expand HIV/AIDS Funding: We seek to discover new sources of energy and funds for HIV advocacy, research and direct services to men, women and youth in need.
I look forward to attending next year's White Attire Affair and seeing the positive impact it has on the local community of gay and bisexual black men. The 2009 Affair certainly gives me hope for the future.