Living out loud!
by JOEL BARRETT
“I believe in living out loud,” D. Rashaan Gilmore states emphatically. It only takes a few minutes in his presence to see how fully he embodies these words. The room is filled with his infectious energy and loud laughter wherever he goes. He never meets a stranger and seems to know nearly everyone in Kansas City.
Recently he appeared at OUTwords:LGBTQ Storytelling at the Outburst Performance Gallery to share an intimate and compelling story about his first sexual encounter with a man. It was his storytelling debut, but definitely not his first time on stage. He is completely at home and very engaging in front of an audience.
“That stage, both literal and metaphorical, is how I want to live my life,” Gilmore said. “I’m not interested in being in the shadows of who I am. I’m all about the alignment of my own personal authenticity. There’s nothing more important in life. That impacts so many areas including who I am and how I show up in this world. I could not do that leaving my sexuality and orientation out.”
It is hard to imagine Gilmore not being out but it was only six years ago when, as he describes it, he gave himself permission to be who he was.
“My friends say I am a late bloomer,” he laughs. He was out to himself and few others, but his family was unaware of the romantic nature of the long-term relationship he was in at that time. It was a casual conversation with his mother that pushed him toward greater authenticity.
“For me, it was about not denying a love that I had,” Gilmore said. “My mother made an innocent comment about him (his partner) doing something nice for me and I thought, but that’s what lovers, partners and spouses do. So I realized there was nothing to hide. ”
Within two years he was taking on a high-profile leadership role in the gay community, running a significantly sized grant for the KC Cares Clinic. Much of his career has been spent in the spotlight, working with two Kansas City mayors, managing major grants, advocating for HIV education, treatment and prevention, and being a vocal advocate for black gay men in Kansas City.
Gilmore does not shy away from leading in the spotlight, although he recognizes that it comes with scrutiny. He freely admits to his flaws.
“I’m not interested in trying to put forth an image of perfection,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to share the holes from your own crucifixion of whatever you have to deal with in life. I don’t want to hide that. What I can share to advance others I will share.”
He states unapologetically, “I don’t believe in practice what you preach. To me, that is too high a standard. I believe in preaching what you practice. I can tell you and show you what has worked for me and that alone. Everything else I’m aspiring to and we can work on that together.”
Working together is what Gilmore does best. He’s a community connector, organizer and collaborator. He is particularly passionate about making a difference in the LGBTQ community of color. His current project is BlaqOut, a newly formed organization which seeks to organize and mobilize the black, gay community in Kansas City and develop a leadership core.
Under Gilmore’s direction, BlaqOut has received funding for a major community needs assessment of Kansas City’s black, 18- to 34-year-old MSM community. MSM is a term used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that means men who have sex with men.
He explains, “The most recent, similar study is now 12 years old. This new study will look at more than just health needs, but will also examine the social determinants like housing, education, racism, stigma, homophobia and mental health that impact health outcomes for this group.”
Gilmore explains that these factors all go into whether or not someone is able to put their health as a primary concern.
“It’s not as simple as ‘well this is HIV, they should be alarmed and afraid, they should put their health first’,” he said. “But if you’re trying to figure out where you’re sleeping tonight and what you have to do to have a roof over your head, or a couch to lay on, and are you going to have to perform survival sex or you’re worried about how to stay connected to your family if they don’t want to stay connected to you, or how you’re going to eat, then no, your health is not your primary concern. So looking at these social determinants is what this new study is all about.”
When asked why this study focuses solely on black men, Gilmore explains this is one of the most at-risk groups.
“If nothing changes, the CDC’s current projections reveal that 50 percent of all black, gay men of any age and any social economic background will contract HIV in their lifetime,” Gilmore said. “There are not population centers anywhere in the world with a 50 percent infection rate. This is a population being ravaged by HIV. If we don’t do something now to understand why that’s happening and to come up with some new, innovative and out-of-the-box ideas for how we beat that back, we’re going to be in a world of trouble.”
He notes that medications like PrEP, which stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, are marketed almost exclusively to white gay men with health insurance.
“There’s an expectation for black, gay men of ‘you should just be on PrEP. Why aren’t you on PrEP?’ Yet the education and marketing is all toward white men,” he said. When taken daily, PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent.
BlaqOut will be responsible for conducting the 20/20 Vision Survey. The findings from this study will be used to develop interventions and programs that will be used for future funding, policy making and decision making around other programs that are impacted by it.
Gilmore emphasizes the value of the long-term benefit of cultural competency.
“We can go back to hospitals, healthcare systems, clinics and physicians and say ‘these things are part of what should be required training for you and your staff so you can bring in these clients and be able to understand these patient’s needs.’ It has implications for a wide range of issues that have to do with how this population improves its healthcare outcomes,” he said.
Gilmore’s vision for BlaqOut extends well beyond this study. The BlaqOut community advisory board is working to implement a wide range of programming targeted to the black, gay community, including social events, legal clinics, finance and entrepreneurship assistance, health clinics, a leadership academy and an empowerment symposium.
There is no question that Gilmore, who claims to be perpetually 30 years old, is passionate about forging paths of access to opportunity for young black gay men in Kansas City. As a lifelong resident of the city, he recognizes the racial and social challenges that are still all-too-common for gay men of color, but he refuses to see the glass as half full.
“I feel like I’m in a position to help others and I take that responsibility seriously, however, I can’t talk about what impact I have had in Kansas City without talking about the impact Kansas City has had on me,” Gilmore said. “This city, and my ability, especially as a young person, to learn how to maneuver in it and through it has certainly prepared me for all the other interactions I have had around the country, whether around HIV, race or many other things.”
When asked what message he has for this emerging generation, without hesitation he replies, “I’m not going to tell you it gets better, because it might get a whole lot worse before it gets better. But I will tell you it’s worth it. It’s worth it to find and understand who you are and your purpose for being here. Whatever that special thing may be. It is absolutely worth it because that is the only way to ever achieve true freedom.”
How does Gilmore feel about 2017 in Kansas City? “It couldn’t be a better time. It’s a community that’s ripe for myself and others who want to have a place, make a mark and see us all excel. I’m going to live a full and robust life and I feel like I can do that here!”