Spotlight on Straight Up!

A safe haven for heterosexual men of color

Lisa Bowleg, PhD
Department of Community Health and Prevention, School of Public Health, Drexel University and Straight Up! Community Advisory Committee Member

Like many good ideas, this one started with a catchy, albeit tentative, title: “A Few Good Men.” Indeed, the Circle of Care (COC), an organization devoted to providing comprehensive care and services for women, infants, children, youth and families infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, was looking for a few good men (and a handful of good women) to debut a new men’s initiative — namely, a comprehensive response to reducing HIV among heterosexual Black men in Philadelphia.

On October 4, 2007, the COC convened its first meeting for the initiative, drawing more than 30 community leaders, activists and city government health and social services officials representing numerous organizations serving Black men throughout Philadelphia. After a stirring presentation on the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in the Black community, COC Deputy Director Rashidah Abdul-Khabeer led a discussion in which she criticized federal funding agencies for focusing virtually no programmatic attention on the HIV prevention needs of heterosexually defined Black men. She issued a rousing charge: “What are we going to do about it?” In response, meeting participants offered suggestions ranging from peer-led education programs to ideas for community engagement around the issue of safer sex. The meeting ended with a challenge for members to commit to doing something about HIV prevention in Black communities, such as hosting an HIV education or testing event or serving as a member of a community advisory committee for the heterosexual men’s HIV prevention initiative.

Roughly 10 men from the initial dinner meeting and one woman (that would be me) answered the latter call and joined the community advisory committee in what the COC termed a “brain trust of community knowledge, passion, and momentum” to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Black communities. The committee charted a course for the initiative focused on the following:

  • Increasing the awareness of heterosexually transmitted HIV throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area

  • Implementing multifaceted HIV prevention programs from a male-centered perspective

  • Increasing HIV testing and counseling for heterosexual men 

  • Ensuring the availability of gender-specific and culturally competent HIV medical and social services throughout Philadelphia

Of course, no discussion about HIV prevention for heterosexual men would be complete without a focus on the semantics of gender and sexual identity for men. In short: Were heterosexual men the focus, or were men who have sex with women? After a spirited discussion, the group concluded that although heterosexually identified men with male sex partners would be welcome, heterosexual men would be the focus of the new initiative.

Next up was what to call the new initiative, particularly after learning that the phrase “A Few Good Men” was copyright protected. After a fun and humorous brainstorming session, committee member Shannon Guy hit slogan gold with a catchy, hip-hop, and pardon the pun, straight-on slogan: Straight Up!: A Safe Haven for Heterosexual Men.

To learn more about the COC and Straight Up! check out the COC’s website.