When Johnnie Mercer was growing up in the tough neighborhood of Blackwell in South Richmond, his local church said he was going to hell for being gay.
In high school, when he wanted to study art at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School in Petersburg, the same God-fearing folks said he’d go to hell even faster if he followed a career into the arts. “Why not go into business?” he recalls them suggesting.
“It was really bad,” says Mercer, 23, a recent dance graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. “They made me feel terrible.”
So as Mercer began to know people diagnosed with HIV, he knew the answer that would’ve come from his faith community.
“I had an identity crisis,” he says. “If it wasn’t for being able to create, I would’ve been in trouble.”
And he no longer attends that church.
In person, Mercer is confident and energetic, in his words, “an extrovert.” His eyes seem to brighten when he talks about expressing the stigma of HIV through his art, which includes writing and theater, but mostly dance.
Three of his original choreographed works will be performed this weekend, exploring themes of identity in “Undoing the Silence: an Evening of Dance Inspired by HIV Positive Stories/Experiences” at Dogtown Dance Theatre. The three-day event is a benefit for the Fan Free Clinic and Minority Health Consortium.
The three dances are about HIV-infected people Mercer has known. They include “Love,” about an older friend who died recently after protecting his career at the expense of his health; “Red Patient,” about the moment of diagnosis; and “The Love Revue,” a dark comedy based around musical theater structures, drag shows and vaudeville.
There also will be a panel of speakers Saturday at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, including Kevin Jones of dance collective Claves Unidos, and Rodney Lofton, executive director of the Renewal Projects, a nonprofit service organization. They’ll be focusing on the issues of living with HIV in Richmond.
Richmond has a problem. Last year, the city ranked 17th nationally in HIV rates per 100,000 people. Petersburg was 12th. Mercer’s story fits a disturbing national trend: The highest rates of infection are concentrated in the black community. That goes for Richmond as well, which as of September had 2,575 reported cases.
Elaine Martin, director of HIV prevention services for the Virginia Department of Health, says that what research fails to show is that blacks are having more sex, or more unprotected sex. “What we’re seeing is that HIV is closely associated with poverty and lack of education,” she says. “Much in the same way that African-Americans have higher rates of heart disease and stroke.”
There also have been recent social studies showing that when black men and women choose sexual partners, they tend to date within their own group as compared with whites, which can spread HIV more rampantly. That’s why opening the dialogue, as Mercer hopes to accomplish, remains critically important — even with HIV no longer meaning the same death sentence because of advances in medicine.
Today the biggest treatment push is prevention through testing, especially among young, black males. There are struggles with insurance and costly medicine. Prevention pills such as Truvada cost $1,200 a month, and each state has income-eligibility requirements for federal support through AIDS Drug Assistance Program.
“With the stigmas of homophobia and poverty they face, it’s tougher to get [black males] into our services,” Martin says. “We’d like to see people tested three to four times a year.”
Mercer watched a close female friend at VCU test positive. “I saw her change mentally,” he says. Eventually she left school. “You start to what I call ‘micro-realize’ every moment.”
Mercer cites the HBO series “True Blood,” created by a gay man, with its season based around characters quarantined by blood.
“My generation is a media-based generation, very quick to judge,” he says. “Especially in the black community, you’re branded as sick. It feels like you can’t love anymore. You pull back. What I’m trying to do is create empathy with people who are positive, to open up the conversation.”
For the event, Mercer is getting help from the Gay Community Center of Richmond, Godfrey’s Restaurant and Nightclub, and Mama J’s, which is providing food.
“This weekend, I want that moment when you are able to have people be human and vulnerable,” Mercer says. “I think that being weak and failing, throwing yourself against the ground and learning, is one of the most beautiful things about being human.”
The only thing saddening about talking to Mercer is the sense of inevitability with which he discusses the virus — almost as if it were becoming a rite of passage in his community. Rodney Lofton, executive director of the Renewal Projects — which is holding its annual United Voices: Raising Awareness through Song and Word on Feb. 7 at 31st Street Baptist Church — has watched the evolution of the disease to affecting primarily communities of color. He says he applauds Mercer for bringing awareness to younger generations who will never know the devastation of losing an entire community.
“The younger generation has become complacent because they believe all they have to do is take a pill,” Lofton says. “But HIV is still here, as much as we try to sweep it under the rug. There is no reason, with what we know, that people should still be testing positive, but they are.” S
“Undoing the Silence: an Evening of Dance Inspired by HIV Positive Stories/Experiences” will be held at Dogtown Dance Theatre on Jan. 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 18 at 2 p.m. The panel will be held at the Gay Community Center of Richmond on Jan. 17 at 1 p.m.