Growing up, DaShawn Usher didn’t feel connected to anyone who, like him, was both black and gay.
“It was super hard growing up and not seeing images that reflected my identity,” Usher told NBC News.
He saw gay characters on popular TV series, like Showtime’s "Queer as Folk," he said, but the show lacked black characters. “It didn’t allow for me to actually connect to or identify with the gay community,” Usher added.
Now in his 30s, Usher is using his decade of experience as a community organizer to bring black gay and queer men together. He recently founded the Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI), an event series and social group for black gay males in New York City.
“I don’t think that often black gay men feel like they belong to the 'community,'” Usher said. “It’s just trying to actually showcase that there is a community that actually cares about you, that wants to support you, that wants to see you succeed in any area that you do.”
He said he created MOBI, because there is a lack of spaces for black gay men. There is only one gay bar in New York City, he said, that caters specifically to that community.
“It’s crazy, because most people come to New York … especially a lot of black gay men … they come and they expect this community to be so big and massive because of what they’ve seen on TV, and then they realize there are clubs that exist, but they’re not geared towards the black gay community,” he said.
Usher, who lives in the Bronx and works as a community engagement manager for the New York City Blood Drive, said the lack of spaces for the community is just as dismal online.
“It’s always porn or it’s always about HIV,” he said, lamenting the narrow representation there is online of black gay and bisexual men.
“When I think of black gay men, I know that they’re business owners, I know that they have large followings, that they’re trend setters, that they have different professions,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate to see that when you literally Google ‘black gay men,’ the first couple of things that come up — you have to sort through the porn, you have to sort through HIV.”
“For me, it was really important to definitely try to change that and increase visibility,” he said.
Usher understands the issues many black gay men experience first hand. After graduating college in 2007, he ran an HIV prevention program in Tennessee that focused on LGBTQ youth of color. The advocate grew close with his clients, he recalled, often driving them to the office to get tested. He even attended their graduation ceremonies. The experience opened his eyes to their reality.
“I started to see and understand the complexities of people’s lives, of people’s health,” he said. “And it didn’t matter — the education that people got around HIV prevention — it didn’t matter enough to change anything.” He said some clients fully understood the risks of HIV but contracted the virus anyway.
“It wasn’t like the ‘What happened?’ conversation,” Usher explained. “It was just, ‘I understand and I know what happened, because you entered a relationship and you wanted to feel loved, and you thought that removing the condom meant that you were loved.’”
Usher began to realize that the alienation these men experienced was a part of the problem. After relocating to New York City — and working as a public health and community organizer for 10 years — he came up with the idea to start MOBI. He applied for and received a grant from the New York City Department of Health to get funding for the group, which held its first event, called MOBItalks, on Saturday. The event was the first in a three-part personal and professional development series taking place in the city. Speakers from different professional backgrounds spoke about self care, personal development, personal identity, creative expression and sexuality, he said.
The 31-year-old wants to expand the series to other cities. It’s an opportunity, he said, for black gay and queer men to find peers, role models and inspiration they might not discover elsewhere.
“Being able to connect black gay men across many different social classes, different education levels, across different ages, is the biggest thing I know that I can offer to the community,” he said, expressing excitement that the Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative has come to fruition.
“It’s so crazy when you have a dream and everything comes together,” Usher said. “The response has been so positive and affirming, and it’s only the beginning.”
The next MOBItalks will take place on October 7 in the Bronx.
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people and allies who are making a difference in the community.