Pride 2017: Turner works to open dialogue through games
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During these dark days of the imploding Trump administration, advocates say it has become imperative for groups with similar progressive goals to dialogue with each other, to deal with differences so they can better appreciate and work together to foster similarities.
For LGBTQs, these conversations often begin within the community so that people can better communicate with outside groups of common purpose. And because politically, the present seems so bleak to so many, looking to future leadership that can return to a vision realizing the full equality of all LGBTQ people is essential.
One of those young leaders is Traye Turner, the program assistant of Black Brothers Esteem and DREAAM, which stands for Determined to Respect and Encourage African-American Men. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation runs both programs.
At the end of March, Turner had organized the first black-oriented Gaymer night held at Strut, which included cards, board games, and video games. Strut, SFAF's men's health center in the Castro, seemed the perfect place to meet Turner for an interview.
Turner, 25, talked about what inspired him to organize the event.
"I feel there are not a lot of Afro-American-centric events here in San Francisco, so I wanted to give something back, draw in new people and excite them, letting them know that we have programs for them through BBE and DREAAM, but most importantly that there is a space for them here in the Castro," he said.
Turner, an avid gamer himself, thought that games would be a way for people to feel comfortable.
"I love games and am attending school, the American Academy of Arts, for game design," he said. "I've been to other gay games groups so I felt this was something I could contribute. This wasn't easy to put together since people weren't sure if a gamer night, especially one focused on black gamers, could even be successful. While we tried to find out where black gamers might be located in the city and designed posters to promote it, we wanted to welcome everyone, especially allies. But because we felt there aren't enough events in the Castro that celebrate blackness, we wanted to bring these two worlds together."
BBE has been around for 20 years, geared toward gay African-Americans, promoting wellness, spirituality, and empowerment with drop-in groups, social events, book readings, and outings. DREAAM has similar programs but is focused on the 18-to-30 demographic. They meet at Strut and encourage screening for sexually transmitted infections as well as other sexual health services.
The groups have sponsored PrEP rallies so that people of color can be aware of the treatment. A 2016 study from the California HIV/AIDS Research Programs found that many black and Latino men don't know about it or have access to it.
"Many African-Americans don't feel comfortable coming to the Castro and we want to let people know there is space here for them," Turner said. "The great thing about gaming is that it can bring people together, build community. When you are gaming, barriers come down more easily and it encourages conversation. It involves everyone, there's no right and wrong so people laugh more and have a great time."
Both BBE and DREAAM reach out to the HIV-positive population but also make sure that all attendees are aware of the wellness services at Strut.
"I have read about alarming statistics, I think from the CDC, that if the current rate of seroconversion continues, one out of every two African-American men will be HIV-positive. If San Francisco is trying to get to zero, to meet these goals we need to keep institutions accountable about this very vulnerable population."
He was referring to the Getting to Zero initiative, which aims to make San Francisco the first city to achieve the UNAIDS goals of eliminating new HIV infections, deaths due to HIV/AIDS, and stigma against people living with HIV by 2020. It relies on a three-prong strategy of expanded access to PrEP; rapid initiation of antiretroviral therapy, or ART; and engaging and retaining HIV-positive people in care. It also aims to reduce stigma around HIV.
Travis Wise, program coordinator at BBE, admires Turner's passion for innovation and drive to challenge creatively how the group looks at its own work.
"He provides a 2017 model for BBE increasing our outreach and getting us on all the major forms of social media, all of which has been instrumental in getting us back into the larger LGBTQ community," Wise said. "The Black Gaymer night is just one of many ideas he has suggested and implemented. Where some people play checkers, he plays chess ... he's very tactical. That night showed folks at the SFAF, which sponsors both BBE and DREAAM, that programming can be targeted to black men but can also be available to other populations. It builds community by having black and brown men talk to each other. If we had 70 at the first night, with Traye's determination and sweet, warm-hearted nature, the next night will only get bigger."
Tony Bradfod, associate director of community engagement programs for SFAF, said, "Traye has demonstrated his ability to work hard and be creative, and he will be an asset to our African-American community. We look to mentor, encourage, and inform the next generation who will continue to make a difference in the fight against AIDS, and Traye is on his way to becoming a great leader."
Turner revealed that he has always felt like an outsider, which was the reason he sought out BBE.
"I felt alone so I wanted to create a space for others so they wouldn't feel the way I felt," he said. "Racism manifests itself differently here in SF. When people think of racism they think it is something you do maliciously to someone. Yet it is often something inadvertent, by not including or overlooking groups, rather than deliberately excluding them.
"Gay people may be less racist than the larger population, but they don't realize how much they are still affected by the ideas of the larger society and how many things they subconsciously subscribe to, which can be manifested in how they interact with other people. It is difficult to address racism with white gay men because they think, 'since I'm gay, I can't be racist or misogynistic because that is what bad people do,' despite microaggressions, which everyone does and I experience all the time."
Taylor said that he has encountered racism in the Castro.
"I've also encountered overt racism, such as when a black friend and I went to a bar in the Castro and one of the staff made an off-putting remark," he said. "First, you have to process is this really happening. You have to second-guess yourself. It's easy to excuse it, diminish it, or maybe you didn't hear it correctly, almost like blaming the victim. You want to believe as gay men, since we've all experienced discrimination, we would avoid it ourselves. So that incident was disheartening and it took me awhile to feel comfortable coming back to the Castro, then talking to the manager of the bar and telling him what happened. I said I hope this doesn't occur to anyone else in the future and since I'm in leadership roles I want to feel comfortable recommending this space to other people. It's very painful because, since we are all gay and have felt excluded in the past, we want to feel we can fit in our community, but that is not always the case."
Remarks on dating have also affected Turner.
"I've had guys say to me, 'I never thought about dating a black guy. I just wanted something normal.' Not only don't they realize how such a remark impacts me, but they don't recognize how deeply ingrained such thoughts are, unless it is brought to their attention," Turner said.
But he said that negotiating life often means picking one's battles.
"It's case-by-case deciding if anything I say will make a difference," Turner said. "At a party, do I want to be the guy who stops conversation? I can't do it all the time, as it gets exhausting. Do I really want to spend my whole life fighting? I've been told everyone is equal and everything is cool in our 'post-racial' society. Yet as I get older I see that disparity between what is taught or believed and what actually happens, living in a society that wants to celebrate this myth. If you challenge it, you are the bad guy. It's a mind-fuck in that you are being misrepresented but people don't really want to talk about it."
When asked how his generation differs from previous ones, he thinks most older men have accepted that they live in a racist society and that's the way it is. For example, for some there was little surprise at Donald Trump's victory last November, and to think it could have been different is foolish.
"I reject that mindset because there is still the hope that my generation can still change things," Turner said. "And the older generation has said, now it's up to you. Rather than being complacent and accepting the way things are or going at it full force and challenge everything, I'm looking for a middle ground so I can be effective in certain situations. For example, we define terrorism as people who use fear to dictate or control behavior, describing Muslims and Middle Easterners as terrorists. But this could also be the definition of racism or as justification to incite violence.
"So I don't think the KKK should exist in any capacity. It's not freedom of speech; it's a hate group," he added, referring to the Ku Klux Klan. "Many see the Black Lives Matter movement, one meant to promote equality, as a societal threat yet somehow the KKK is not. It's so fucked up. The dilemma for people of color is not only do they have to deal with inequality but they have to make sure conversations about race are comfortable and don't hurt anyone's feelings."
"Whenever I want to celebrate blackness, I'm seen as white-hating. I'm not anti-white but I am anti-white establishment in that it puts the interest of white people and their security above everyone else," Turner said. "I've only recently gotten to a more racially aggressive mindset because of my leadership roles. White friends questioned when I sought out BBE because I was looking for a group that would understand my experience but they wondered why couldn't I participate in a group open to everyone. But in such a group I have to justify why I'm feeling after what happened to me and explain why that is the case. If what happened to me becomes a teaching experience for everyone else, where is my healing in that situation? Why do I have to let others know why I feel the way I do is justified?"
He said that's how he got the inspiration for the gamer night.
"Ultimately, that is why I set up Black Gaymer night, so other people don't have to justify who they are or why they feel the way they do, and won't be the outsider, especially in the Castro," Turner said. "As gay black men we also get criticism from hetero black society, as if being gay and black is the lowest of the low. They, and especially religious black folk, feel being gay is a choice. When my white gay friends ask what is harder, being gay or black, I say definitely being black because, for me, gayness is something I can turn off or be incognito, so if I want, no one knows I'm gay. But with being black, someone can see you a block away and already have a preconceived idea about you. You wear blackness everywhere you go.
"Anyhow, I want the black gamers to be celebrated and seen," he added. "Visibility is crucial and to let white people know that blackness is not one idea, but a whole array or spectrum. There are many ways to be black."
Turner is trying to juggle his career in game design with all the community work he does.
"Rather than taking one priority I'm trying to balance the two things together as they both build community," he explained. "I have plans for future game nights, like having a professional panel like at conventions, with blacks in the gaming industry talking about their experiences. It would be nice if we could reach the point where it is only about the career and not just being black in that industry, but we're not there yet."