The African-American AIDS Project gets stripped of its funds.

A Nasty Rumor 

The African-American AIDS Project gets stripped of its funds.

Torean Walker glanced around at the crowd of women in bikinis and men in beach shorts and thongs, bumping and grinding on the dance floor at Gay Black Pride 2002's "Paradise Beach Party" at the Best Western on Southwest Boulevard last August. Under flashing lights, a DJ spun hip-hop and house music. Punch flowed freely.

Walker was exhausted from planning a four-day series of AIDS-education workshops, safer-sex speakers, a health fair and parties. Black Gay Pride events like the one in Kansas City started in response to the fact that black gays and lesbians felt unwelcome in the larger gay community, says Earl Fowlkes Jr., who organizes Washington, D.C.'s Black Gay Pride and serves as president of the International Federation of Black Gay Prides. "Black Gay Pride is a vehicle to help folks ... accept being gay and black, which is a dual identity a lot of people have to wrestle with."

That night, Walker slipped past the fake palm trees and tables stocked with bowls of condoms in all sizes and lubrication in many fruity flavors and went up to his room to rest. He figured everything would be OK -- one of his employees remained at the party, and two armed security guards stood at the ready.

Meanwhile, the party heated up. Walker had hired four strippers (two male, two female), who shimmied out onto the floor and began peeling off their clothes. Some gave lap dances. They earned their money in tips -- plus a $450 fee from donations the 21-and-over partygoers had made at the door.

When Walker came back downstairs at the end of the party, nothing seemed amiss. The next day, he attended the final event of the weekend, a barbecue at Liberty Memorial for gay and lesbian teens and their families. It seemed that the fourth annual Gay Black Pride had been a success.

As executive director of the small, nonprofit African-American AIDS Project, Walker runs support groups for minority men with HIV or AIDS and provides referrals for counseling and HIV testing. He also does outreach work to nongay African-Americans, setting up informational booths at festivals and working with black-owned businesses and youth organizations. His group has been on the forefront in providing AIDS education to African Americans in the metro area, says Kimberley Hinton, the executive director of the AIDS Council of Greater Kansas City. "This need was identified several years ago, because the mainstream organizations were not serving the needs of the African-American community," she says. The mainstream groups have since stepped up their efforts, she says.

More than 50 percent of new HIV infections are among African-Americans, even though they make up only about 12 percent of the country's population, Hinton says. The larger AIDS organizations -- the Good Samaritan Project and the KC Free Health Clinic -- receive the bulk of about $400,000 in AIDS-prevention money that Kansas City gets each year from the State of Missouri.

With much of that money, the GSP targets minorities through health bazaars at African-American churches; street outreaches at bars, grocery stores and bus stations; safer-sex parties for women that offer educational games and prizes; tables set up at festivals; and education programs in prisons, says Effie Leonard, director of prevention for GSP's Kansas Office.

And for several years, the GSP administered Walker's $38,000-a-year contract to run the Brothers and Sisters of All Colors Against AIDS Project, a prevention and counseling program at the Kansas Multicultural Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center Inc. Walker says he is a fixture among the populations who are at the highest risk for AIDS. Many nights, he frequents the gay bars where black and Latino men hang out. There, he passes out free safer-sex kits -- a baggie containing two condoms, an informational brochure with a list of local AIDS resources and a packet of lubrication.

The Monday after the Black Gay Pride weekend, Walker's phone rang. It was an administrator from the GSP. That's how Walker heard the rumor that there had been wild, unprotected sex at Saturday night's party.

Walker was sure that if something like that had happened, he would have heard about it from his own staff or the security guards. He called around, but he says that none of Saturday's attendees reported seeing any wanton sex at the event. "There wasn't anything obscene going on," says Dakota Matthes, a drag king who was at the party all night. "It was just a really fun time."

But later, Walker received an e-mail that had been forwarded to nearly every gay and lesbian group and AIDS organization in the city as well as to officials at the city health department, which funnels federal and state AIDS-prevention money to local groups.

It had been sent from the e-mail address of James Nile, who had gained some notoriety in Kansas City in 1995 when Mother's House, a gay bath house he operated -- the last one in the city -- burned down under suspicious circumstances.

In the August 16 e-mail, Nile had forwarded a weirdly worded anonymous letter. "This letter ... is neither racist nor hypocritical. As One is certainly not racist or an angel," it read. "Reportedly, on 8/10/02, at the Black gay Pride 'Erotic Dancers on Main Stage Party,' it turned into an all out orgy.... Perhaps in the future gay orgies could be better planned. Have a giant safer-sex party."

Walker doesn't regret his choice of hired entertainers for the evening. The strippers, he says, helped lure a crowd.

Still, Walker says he's still dealing with the fallout -- which, he says, includes the loss of his city funding.

At the end of August, Gregory Smith, a regional official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked Walker for a full accounting of the Saturday events and expenditures. After reviewing the information Walker sent, Smith concluded that no federal funds had been spent on the event. "Thank your for your time and cooperation," he wrote to Walker.

Then in early September, Walker says, he heard that the rumor had also infected a Kansas agency he worked with. Walker heard from Vernon Pierce, the president of the Kansas Multicultural Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center, that the Good Samaritan Project was planning to cancel his contract for the Brothers and Sisters of All Colors Against AIDS Project. Pierce told him he'd received a call from Kathleen Cooper of the GSP, who told him that her organization had heard from a Kansas Department of Health and Environment official who was upset by Nile's e-mail.

Cooper followed up with a letter to Pierce. "I hope that you will look into events that occurred on August 10 at the Best Western Inn," she wrote. "We are disappointed that we are unable to continue our partnership."

Cooper declines to discuss her cancellation of the Brothers and Sisters of All Colors Against AIDS Project or any matter related to Walker but says that the GSP does a fine job of serving minorities. "We've always served anyone who needs our help, and 40 percent of the people we serve are people of color," she tells the Pitch.

Pierce appealed to Cooper on Walker's behalf. "It is unfair to judge an organization without proof of the allegations," he wrote, adding that Walker "has proven himself to be a consummate professional." He asked the GSP to reinstate Walker's contract with his organization, but GSP was unswayed.

Walker was running into trouble with the Kansas City Health Department, too. Last year, he had a $34,400 city contract that paid for rent, utilities and office supplies, provided funding for support groups and bought the thousands of condoms that went into safer-sex kits. The health department would provide him with cash advances to operate, and he would turn in an accounting of how he had spent the money. On November 19, Walker presented the department with a "statement of cash need" -- as he had done whenever he needed a cash advance in the past. And as he did at the end of each year, he asked for the money remaining on the contract. He requested $8,498, but he never received the money.

Walker says he spoke to several officials but got no help. He dropped off request forms at the office of Hilda Fuentes, who oversees HIV care and prevention for the city. Fuentes e-mailed him on December 24, promising to resolve the matter within a few days. (Fuentes did not return the Pitch's phone calls.)

Walker says he then got an anonymous phone call from the health department, telling him that managers there had discussed the Gay Black Pride e-mail and did not want his group to receive "another dime" from the city.

In early January, he received a letter informing him that the contract had ended in November and that the city would no longer provide cash advances. It offered no further explanation.

Even so, Walker submitted his proposal for 2003. As he had feared, the city health department last month decided not to fund the AAAP. Walker believes it all goes back to the e-mail.

"This was all based on gossip," he says. "Meanwhile, my people are getting infected. And my people are dying. That really pisses me off."

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