Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast is a Boston black queer tradition

The AIDS Action Committee’s Annual Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast has become an African American LGBTQ tradition for Greater Boston. And none of the other New England states have anything remotely similar.

The Breakfast was created by the AIDS Action Committee (AAC) to recognize the role that lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities of color play in ending the AIDS epidemic.

African-Americans and Latinos make up 12 percent of the population in Massachusetts, but account for 50 percent of people living with AIDS in the state. Research from the Centers for Disease Control has found that nearly one-third of young, gay black men in the United States are HIV-positive.

But were it not for this year’s Bayard Rustin Award Winner — our beloved Gary Bailey, an African American gay social worker, educator, and indefatigable mover and shaker in our community — along with a host of others, this Breakfast would not be in existence.

“Our first meeting was held at Club Cafe, which was fairly new then. We were all sitting on chairs lined around the room,” Bailey said. “I remember it very, very well. It was a rainy day and we were all working to make this event happen and it’s just amazing how big it’s become and that it’s over 20 years old.”

Going on its 22nd anniversary, the annual Breakfast is the time of the year the African American LGBTQ communities of Greater Boston come out of its New England winter of hibernation. The event brings together huge gatherings of our allies and community members in corporate worship and fellowship with one another.

Rebecca Haag, President and CEO of AIDS Action Committee stated, “As always, the Bayard Rustin Breakfast is one of my favorite events and provides me with the inspiration I need to make it through the next month and the incredible challenge of the AIDS Walk.”

The Breakfast affords many of us in our black LGBTQ communities a sweet moment — as unabashed people of faith and as unapologetic queers living with HIV/AIDS — in corporate worship and celebration of who we are in an inclusive and welcoming public space.

This year the Breakfast changed venue from the spacious John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston’s Columbia Point to the top floor in Hibernian Hall in Roxbury. Hibernian Hall was once the hub of social activity for Boston’s Irish community that now serves its African American community. Many worried the change of venue to a smaller space with limited seating might alter the usual tone and tenor of the event. But it didn’t. Rather, the change in venue squeezed us emotionally and physically closer to each other in our fight against HIV/AIDS.

And it was symbolically significant and brave that the Breakfast was held in one of Boston’s renowned black enclaves, perhaps signifying more acceptance of its LGBTQ community.

This year’s theme was “Beyond the Numbers: Our People, Our Challenge, Our Journey.” And for many in our community that are HIV-positive, their lives, stories, and voices are spiritual inspirations to us all.

“It has been 30 years since I was diagnosed with HIV and I’m still here. As I look back over these years I see all the good things God has done and feel blessed to have such a thriving life…full of hope that one day we will find a cure for the disease and a vaccine that can prevent new infections,” Joseth Minor-Hill, chair of the Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast Committee wrote as his opening statement.

The Breakfast’s keynote speaker and recipient of the Belynda A. Dunn Award of Recognition was Pernessa Seele, and she gave a rousing homily. Seele is CEO and founder of Balm in Gilead, Inc., a religious-based organization that provides support to people with AIDS and their families, in addition to working for prevention of HIV and AIDS.

Through Balm in Gilead, Seele helped engage nearly 10 million churchgoers on the issue of HIV and AIDS by starting the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which brought together 50 leaders from Harlem’s Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and traditional faith communities to begin addressing AIDS in the Black community. Seele’s Harlem Week of Prayer inspired the creation of the Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which eventually became the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, now celebrated globally.

Bailey’s work, like Seele’s, is both national and global. As the new president of the International Federation of Social Workers, a 750,000-member organization with representatives from more than 80 countries, Bailey help create a policy paper on HIV/AIDS to establish global standards on how social workers can help those impacted with and by the virus.

Bayard Rustin was a gay African American leader of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. He was one of the chief architects of the 1963 March on Washington and, from 1964 until his death in 1987, he headed the A. Phillip Randolph Institute for Racial Change. His belief in the inherent dignity of oppressed people and his vision of social change and social justice continues to inspire contemporary activists.

I think Rustin would be proud of Greater Boston’s black LGBTQ communities’ and our allies’ indefatigable work to stem the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We have a tradition of 22 years, in his name, of doing so.

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