Positively Committed: The Fight for HIV Education in Black L.A.

I've met and befriended many activists over the years, but none are more unusual than Tony Wafford.

It's not that Tony doesn't have the temperament for the job -- he does, and then some. He's motivated, passionate, determined, and well-versed in his cause. He's down-home approachable, with a quick wit and gift of glib that helps him convey dense and difficult issues to lay people who aren't necessarily interested or looking for information. He bridges that gap between the ponderous statistics that frame most social problems and ordinary people who live those problems better than anybody I've seen.

Tony heads a nonprofit called I Choose Life Health and Wellness and is a full-time advocate for HIV awareness, education, and testing in black communities in Los Angeles and around the country. That's not unusual, though there are relatively few people doing it. What's unusual is the fact that Tony is a straight, married man who up until fifteen years ago didn't have the slightest interest himself in HIV-related issues. Like many black folks, he thought of the problem as being mainly white and homosexual, and he was neither. He was working as a publicist in the music industry, hobnobbing with the likes of Anita Baker, doing well. His unlikely conversion came when a black friend, a physician's assistant who was involved in a clinical trial -- a behavioral study focused on blacks and HIV -- asked him to come to a community meeting.

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It wasn't exactly a casual invitation. Certain black community figures were up in arms about an HIV trial of any kind being conducted in a black population -- some of them invoked the infamous Tuskegee experiment -- and the meeting promised to be contentious, to say the least. Wafford's friend confessed that these leaders were so irate, she feared for her safety. The meeting turned out to be peaceful, partly because Tony walked in and recognized most of the people there: though in the entertainment business, he had always been involved with black advocacy groups like the NAACP. That might have been the end of it, but for one stat he learned about HIV that stopped him cold: the rate of infections was growing fastest among young black women. At the time, Tony had three young daughters who were heading into that demographic. "I said, 'Why didn't I know this?'" he recalled.

It was the beginning of a new career in HIV education, a career that has educated Tony as well. Among the many things he's had to learn is how to negotiate a cultural resistance blacks have to talking about their sexual habits, how to break through widespread reluctance to get tested even though blacks are disproportionately affected by HIV (he once mounted a national campaign in which he gave away R&B concert tickets -- Destiny's Child, Patti LaBelle -- to those who agreed to a test. It was hugely successful). He also learned that the HIV advocacy community -- and the funding that goes with it -- is overwhelmingly white, even though the greatest need is among blacks and especially among black women.

That galls Tony, but what galls him more is that black leadership, from elected officials to ministers, has remained more or less silent about one of the biggest health crises of the last generation. Nor is the picture improving much. One of the many discouraging statistics Wafford reeled off is that in 2013, black men in Washington D.C. have an HIV infection rate thirteen times higher than that of South Africa. "What hurts me most is that all of us could do more, but we don't," he said. "Leadership could help me, but they won't."

Another thing that worries him is that he's essentially a solo act. The black HIV crisis needs more activists like him, but they aren't exactly in the pipeline, partly because blacks have never really framed HIV as a compelling or relevant cause. The paucity of black women speaking out on their own behalf is also worrying. But he isn't discouraged; he hardly seems to know the meaning of the word. "Fannie Lou Hamer once said, 'me and God make a majority,'" he said.

By the way, Wafford is a man of faith -- he doesn't name it, but calls himself a "believer" -- who doesn't approve of gay marriage. But he said he is not homophobic, and he believes the majority of blacks aren't either, despite media portrayals to the contrary. "We've got too many other things to think about," he said. In any event, those kinds of culture wars only distract from the real problem. "Bottom line, this is a health issue," he said. That's one thing everybody can agree on.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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